Monday, 13 September 2021

A Venetian Traveller: Luigi Nono, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura

Luigi Nono was many things: composer, human being, quite often both. Nono was an artist of burning political commitment, never more so than in his agitprop opera Intolleranza 1960, also to be heard at this year’s Salzburg Festival. He was a modernist, an avant gardist, a serialist. At least as important as those qualities, however, he was Venetian and a traveller, both personally and in his music: to, from, and around the city of his birth (1924), death (1990), and much of his life in between. Take the ravishingly beautiful yet equally instructive late documentary from 1988, Archipel Luigi Nono, made when Nono was at work on La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. Olivier Mille interviews the composer about his work while the pair walk around the city. No one could doubt that Nono was both utterly at home yet capable of the considered distance of an inquisitive visitor, ever alert to the intersection of Venice’s and, specifically, the island of Giudecca’s geographical, historical and social boundaries.

Nono’s studies at the Venice Conservatory with Gian Francesco Malipiero, crucial in the rediscovery of Monteverdi, encompassed the golden ages of polyphony and the madrigal. He loved the idea of the Venetian workshop, in which art, craft and community came together as indissoluble artistic and political whole. Moreover, delight in vocal writing would inform Nono’s composition from beginning to close; that certainly includes his instrumental music, both with and without electronics. Many composers, even of the most exalted rank, have found themselves, rightly or wrongly, accused of ‘instrumental’ writing for voices. Nono’s deep grounding in Renaissance music helped ensure he would be of Monteverdi’s party as well as Mozart’s, Palestrina’s – and Schoenberg’s. Nono, like Chopin, avowed what is perhaps a surprising interest in the operas of Bellini, fascinated by the Sicilian composer’s combination of vocal writing and receptivity to a wider Mediterranean culture. As Claudio Abbado attested in a tribute to his friend and frequent collaborator:

[Nono] never lost the deep-rooted ties to the long tradition of Venetian music, as demonstrated by his unerring feeling for the relation of sound and space, recalling the music [Giovanni] Gabrieli wrote for the church of San Marco. Gigi’s sense of an espressivo or cantabile line also stems from this tradition. 

In that respect, Nono differed from fellow post-war Webern enthusiasts, such as Boulez and Stockhausen, though not from his fellow Malipiero pupil, Bruno Maderna. That, as much as more overt ‘political’ concerns (or lack of them) may help explain why Boulez and Stockhausen seem to have misunderstood Nono’s aesthetics and, indeed, his music. To quote Jonathan Impett’s recent study of Nono, polyphony stands ‘at the core of Nono’s musical thought, entailing simultaneity of directions, perspectives, times and possibilities’. To those and to the crucial spatial element highlighted by Abbado, we should never forget the spatial drama of Venice itself. This is music whose mists, bells, rising waves, café and street chatter are specific and yet, in that specificity, reach out toward the universal. The relationship between performer(s) and composer, score, the distorting sonic mirror of electronics, and listener is the very material of Nono’s musical dramas, whatever the space – another crucial, considered relationship – in which they unfold. Heir to the great tradition of Venetian opera dating back to Monteverdi, Nono always conceives music as azione scenica, often in more than one fashion simultaneously.

Artistically expressed political commitment likewise took different forms. There is, however, no truth whatsoever to the claim sometimes heard that, following his second opera, Al gran sole carico d’amore, a grand 1970s traversal of modern European, often female, revolutionary experience, his work withdrew in some allegedly typical ‘late’ form from the political sphere. It simply – or not so simply – addressed it differently, as we shall find in La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. For Nono, there was no absolute distinction to be drawn between the individually and the socially transformative in music – so long, that is, as such transformation were well directed.


No Roads, Only Travelling


‘Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar’ (travellers, there are no roads, there is just travelling): Nono derived inspiration for several late works, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura included, from an inscription on a Toledo monastery wall. Written during a period of intensive collaboration with Gidon Kremer – an heir to earlier partnerships with Abbado and Maurizio Pollini – whose initial suggestion had been a contemporary response to Vivaldi’s (Venetian) Le quattro stagioni, the work acquired its definitive title – adding both ‘utopica’ and ‘madrigale per più “caminantes” con Gidon Kremer’ – and its form several months after the September 1988 Berlin Festival premiere. Salvatore Sciarrino, the work’s dedicatee as an ‘exemplary traveller’, elucidated the title’s dramatic and political space: ‘the past reflected in the present (nostalgica) brings about a creative utopia (utopica), the desire for what is known becomes a vehicle for what will be possible (futura) through the medium of distance (lontananza)’.

There was a good deal of backstreet Venetian messiness involved, however, in reaching this madrigal of many travellers. Nono and Kremer recorded the tape part – now heard digitally, performed by André Richard, who assisted at the premiere – in February 1988 at SWR’s Experimentalstudio in Freiburg. Its richness was both intentional and accidental, incorporating not only Kremer’s violin improvisations, but sounds of tuning, ambient studio noise, discussion between Nono and Kremer, and so on, Nono having his soundworld expanded by sounds he had never heard before, Kremer compelled to summon them, wittingly and sometimes otherwise. Impett’s account of the unedited tapes makes for fascinating reading: 

With quiet concentration, [Nono] asks Kremer to play high and as quietly as possible. These high sounds, sustained to focus on their inner life, are followed by the fifths and microtonal variations of Nono’s initial plan. Kremer continues with high phrases – mostly extracted from the core solo repertoire, but recorded closely to reveal subtones, additional partials, bow noise and instability – and the percussion of attack. […] While phrases from Beethoven, Bach and Bartók begin to emerge, the obsessive repetition of practising draws attention away from figure or reference to the particular sonic qualities of each sound, to the nature of individual connections. […] As the artists relax into their project, Kremer plays longer passages – entire movements of Bach, of Schumann – stopping to focus on sounds that fascinate or trouble him. […] As Kremer searches for sounds and gestures, and then rehearses his own actions, these tapes explore an entire strand of Western music as embodied in one musician.

Having edited the tapes with Freiburg’s Hans Peter Haller, relentlessly organizing and reorganizing sounds until something composed emerged, Nono struggled to complete the violin part in time. According to Kremer’s account, he eventually, ‘nervously, apologetically’ proffered ‘some bits of manuscript paper: here a line, there four bars, there three lines, and said with almost fatherly calm: “No problem, no worry, I’ve got it all. Tonight I’ll write it.” There were still 36 hours to the premiere.’ Dissatisfied with that premiere or at least sensing that he could travel further, in January 1989 Nono revised the violin and tape parts, as well as, crucially, the relationship between them. 1989 was, of course, a year whose strange, largely unanticipated political events would throw questions of roads, travelling, nostalgia and utopia further into confusion. It is not difficult to imagine, however, what the communist composer, who died the following year, would have made of the neoliberal triumphalism that ensued and of any claims concerning the end of history or of travelling.

Six violin parts are split between six music stands positioned around the performing space. Additional stands will remain empty, heightening dramatic unpredictability for the audience. The violinist makes her way between them, instructed to search for the next stand rather as she is to search for sounds themselves, so as to be ready to perform the next part of a score replete with performing instructions so detailed that they require more printed space than the notes. Extremes of pitch and dynamics take performer, listener and musical collaborator further to the edge of possibility – even when rehearsal time has proved less limited. Harmonics, microtones, all manner of musical mirroring both carefully conceived and apparently spontaneous: the soundworld of Kremer’s virtuosity finds itself both retained and transformed. Eight loudspeakers stand at the disposal of the sound director, who will choose which of eight tracks, for Nono ‘a multipolarity of elements’, to play when, at what varying (fading up to full and down to zero) volume, so long as they are not all played at once, and in what space. It is thus in the specific, human confrontation and collaboration between violinist and sound director that the work will come to life.

This, then, is chamber music, poised somewhere between creation and re-creation. For a host of reasons, some structural, some contingent, no single walk around a neighbourhood we ‘know’ will ever be the same; nor should it be. Yet it is surely worthy of note that, from Berlin to final revision, the piece’s opening gesture remained the same. In that, it is perhaps the musical counterpart to the political ‘provocation’ Nono noted each of his artworks required, when reflecting almost 30 years earlier on Intolleranza: ‘an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness’.

Remembrance and Misremembrance


US poet Wayne Koestenbaum recalled a sabbatical month he spent in Venice in 2004. He would pass what had been Nono’s house every day.

I didn’t travel to Venice solely to pay homage, but I brought with me a CD of his music – La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura – and listened to it on my rented apartment’s boombox while shelling peas and broiling branzino and writing poems and taking naps; the sound of Nono’s music mingled with ambient sounds outside my window (church bells, footsteps on quarried granite, shutters opening and closing, cutlery clattering, adolescents laughing and shouting). Often I’d not be able to differentiate what was Nono coming from the boombox and what was Venice coming through the window. Listening, I’d drift into daydream, and then snap back to consciousness, and wonder, “for how long have I not been paying strict attention to the music?” but then I’d once again closely listen; Nono seemed to countenance my inattentiveness.

Should you fall into a similar trap, you may well discover that Nono the humanist composer has already written in that lapse. If not, you will assuredly find other aural Venetian lagoons and alleyways to haunt and be haunted by, to explore and be explored by, and ultimately both to remember and misremember.


(This essay was first published by the 2021 Salzburg Festival, to accompany a performance by Patricia Kopatchinskaja.)