The South Bank series Luigi Nono : Fragments of Venice is an audacious act of artistic commitment and it takes real vision to promote innovative, non-mainstream music. This series raises the bar to a tantalisingly high standard, but the South Bank’s faith in their audiences is fully justified. The series is very intelligently put together, placing Nono’s music in the context of a great tradition and by expanding the virtuoso performances with workshops and student performance, its benefits will be very long term indeed: the better informed the audience, the deeper the appreciation. That’s how the Wigmore Hall built up its reputation and the South Bank is building up a core of good listeners (and performers) which will serve everyone well in years to come.
Much of this evening’s audience had come to hear Maurizio Pollini and for good reason, as he’s brilliant. Indeed, there were some very well known pianists present. Pollini's account of the Schoenberg Three Pieces for Piano op 11 was masterful, all the more powerful for being so understated. The Six Little Pieces op 19 came over like Webern miniatures, such was the haiku-like subtlety, the silences between notes intensifying the impact of what was being “actively” played. Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano op 5 seemed expansive in contrast. Alain Damiens executed the long lnes effectively, not a simple task as they’re jagged and angular at some turns. The passage where he has to tap the keys of the clarinet as if it were percussion, reflected in the piano where single notes tolled in succession. After an outburst from the clarinet and some dark, somnolent pedalling by Pollini, the crescendo rose and then suddenly deflated, the deceleration keenly judged.
I’d come to hear Nono’s …..sofferte onde serene…. written for Pollini as a token of the composer’s regard for him. This piece “is” Nono, in distilled essence, and the highlight of the entire series. It’s inspired by Venice, where waters lap against the land, and the horizon over the lagoon blends seamlessly into the skyline. It’s ambiguous and mysterious, the wave-like rhythms morphing into slow, tolling figures which perhaps evoke a distant bell half-heard across the water, its sound dampened by the mist. The dialogue here is between the pianist live and playing in real time and the sound of him playing, recorded in the past. It’s amazingly conceptual, expanding the whole idea of what music can express. If only time had stood still, so the music would not end ! But that too is part of the poignancy of this piece, for time changes, and everything we know is ephemeral, as the music’s tantalising half completed phrases and shifting balances seem to express. Please read Nono’s words about the piece in the footnote below.
Pollini must have known how important this South Bank tribute was to the enduring memory of Nono, his friend and mentor, for this was a superlative performance, even by his standards. André Richard played the sound projection as if it were an instrument, sensitively responding to what Pollini was doing and showing that there’s much more to this than simply playing a tape. This performance meant a lot to me, because I spent ages coming to terms with this elusive piece. I’ve heard it live with Hodges and Lortie, but this magnificent performance by Pollini, its greatest exponent, will remain shining in my memory for years to come.
Djamila Boupacha : Songs of life and love starts “May the fog of the past lift from my eyes. I want to see things as a child does”. This again is emblematic of Nono’s values, for he passionately believed in thinking beyond preconceptions and received ideas about what art “should” and “shouldn’t” be. Like Henze, Berio and most of the liberal thinkers of his time, Nono was a social idealist, who had faith that ordinary people could create and appreciate art outside the Establishment. Whether their engagements with socialist artistic experiments worked or not, that grain of faith is pretty fundamental. My first experience of Nono was in the 1960’s when, as if in a bizarre dream, his early La Fabbrica Illuminata emerged, disembodied, from a BBC broadcast. It changed my life. In those days I listened to everything, like a blackbird, absorbing everything from Amelita Galli-Curci to Cathy Berberian, without prejudgment. Hearing Nono was like a revelation, opening up infinite new horizons about what music can express.
Nono’s setting for unaccompanied voice to Boupacha’s text is pure and unadorned. The strange cadences reflect Arabic chant, but there’s a much darker side to the piece, which is brought out in performances like Barbara Hannigan’s where the intensity of her timbre showed just how disturbing the piece really is. Boupacha was horrifically tortured for standing up to the brutal colonial regime in Algeria. At once, Hannigan captured the child-like innocence of Boupacha’s words of hope and faith, yet activated the undercurrents of intense, but otherwise suppressed pain. It’s a haunting piece, all the more disturbing because it seems so simple on the surface.
Pieces like A foresta è jovem e cheja de vida grew out of the political turbulence of the 1960’s, but they remain universal. Indeed, I deliberately avoided reading the texts before listening, because the overall impact is what matters, not the specifics. Nono structures the piece quite skillfully so it moves between four-groups, the percussion quartet, the three voices, the clarinet/soprano combination and the recorded sound projection. The ensemble creates a huge panorama. One moment the voices are chanting texts from Frantz Fanon, the next an American voice floats from magnetic tape. The percussionists rattle chains around metal plates to create “anti music” sounds which express distressing images whose very hollowness reflects the mood of despair. Then the metal sheets are beaten, literally with the sort of hammers you find in DIY stores and in torturers' armouries, in itself a distressing comment on society. Nono never knew about Abu Ghraib, but he wouldn’t have been surprised.
Much of the time the voices are buried in a fog of withering noise, but this is as it should be, for the voices are those of the disempowered and oppressed : they rise out of the mass to sink back in again. Bel canto this most definitely is not: it is music expressing anguish and war. The words themselves are only snippets, elusively fleeting across and against the mechanical percussion and recorded sound. Nonetheless, this isn’t easy music to sing. It’s more like using voice as one of the many layers in the densely woven textures in the piece. It isn’t easy music to play or conduct either, so Beat Furrer, a very good composer himself, does an excellent job in combining and separating the divergent elements. The piece works because the interactions are so carefully judged. It’s a struggle between different sections, the voices often snatching half-finished phrases before being subsumed in the metallic fog of percussion and recorded sound - like guerilla warfare in aural terms.
Nono wants listeners to feel trapped and tense, so that we are receptive to ideas. One of the more distinct phrases, carefully and clearly modulated, says “Is ….this….all…we….can…do ?”. And the clarinet and soprano’s livelier moments seem to indicate resistance to the machinery. Yet, towards the end, we hear sounds vaguely like the hum of aircraft engines taking off. Is this the sound of a bombing raid - the piece refers constantly to the Vietnam War? Or is the circular drone yet another sound image of frustration and defeat ?
It doesn’t matter as long as we notice and think about what we hear. This may be music inspired by events of Nono’s time, but in this day and age, when composers don’t seem to want to challenge the wars and oppression in modern life, Nono’s music is even more important.
Footnote: Nono on ….sofferte onde serene…..
“Sounds of different bells reach my home in the Guidecca in Venice, Venice, variously repeating, with various meanings, during the day and the night, through the fog and the sun. They are signals of life on the Laguna, on the sea. ….and life continues in the suffered and serene necessity of the ‘equilibrium of the profound interior’ as Kafka said.”……. “The formation of sound was explored including the use of the vibrations of pedal strokes, perhaps particular resonances in the ‘profound interior’. Not episodes that distinguish themselves in their succession, but memories and presences superimposing on each other ….merging with the ‘serene waves’ (onde serene)”
And here is a link to Mark Berry's review