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Luigi Nono: on what would have been the composerís 80th birthday, John Warnaby reflects on his life and music.

Luigi Nono, who died in May 1990, would have reached his 80th birthday in January 2004. Paradoxically, his compositions have probably exerted more influence during the past decade than they did throughout his career.

Since his death, Luigi Nono's reputation has risen steadily, and not just among devotees of new music. In Germany, particularly, his achievement is regarded as central to compositional developments since 1945, and will be celebrated accordingly during 2004. There are still gaps preventing a full appreciation of all aspects of his career, notwithstanding some significant recent recordings, and it is hoped that at least some of these will soon be eliminated.

One area which deserves serious consideration is Nono's relationship to his elder colleagues, Goffredo Petrassi and especially Luigi Dallapiccola, both of whose centenaries fall in 2004. Nono did not study with either, but he was probably influenced by their use of serial techniques, and there is little doubt he sympathised with many of Dallapiccola's artistic concerns. Indeed, Nono dedicated one of his most important transitional works of the later 1970s to Dallapiccola's memory.

Other influences included the operas of Verdi, and a substantial knowledge of renaissance polyphony, obtained partly through Bruno Maderna; but a more intriguing, if coincidental comparison can be made with Beethoven. Both were idealists, with distinct political inclinations in the direction of universal brotherhood. Each was fascinated by the myth of Prometheus. In Beethoven's case, the myth contributed to the Eroica Symphony, while it formed the basis of Nono's magnum opus. Their respective careers can be divided into three phases, with both achieving a state of transcendence in their late works.

Nono studied law, as well as music, but by 1950, the latter had claimed his full attention. However, political engagement is rarely absent from his compositions, reflecting the influence of Maderna, and Hermann Scherchen. He first made an impact with two ensemble pieces: Polonifica-Monodia-Ritmica, and Canonic Variations. Significantly, he based the latter on a tone-row used by Schoenberg in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte. Briefly, Nono and Pierre Boulez were the chief protagonists at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, but the advent of Karlheinz Stockhausen reduced Nono's influence. Stockhausen helped to emphasise the 'abstract' nature of integral serialism, whereas Nono favoured concrete music, using serial procedures to create dramatic, or lyrical responses to poetic texts. A good example is the triptych, including the flute concerto, You su Sangre ya Viene Cantando, inspired by the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Despite the domination Stockhausen exerted over the avant-garde by the 1950s, Nono had several notable successes, especially Il Canto Sospeso, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which effectively brought the first phase of his career to a culmination, in 1956. On the one hand, the work's detailed construction was in accordance with the tenets of integral serialism. On the other, it fulfilled his ambition of creating a powerful indictment of fascism. The initial stimulus was almost certainly Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw. Nono's response involved setting texts written by inmates of Auschwitz in a style ranging from intense lyricism to powerful expressionism.

The poetry of Garcia Lorca, and other Spanish writers, had already inspired Nono's engagement with politics, but Il Canto Sospeso was followed by an extended period during which Nono concentrated almost exclusively on political issues. In his 1959 Darmstadt lecture, 'The presence of History in the Music of Today' he outlined his compositional philosophy. The main precepts were already evident in his opera, Intolleranza 1960, and the cantata, Canti di Vita every d'Amore, for soprano, tenor and orchestra - two of his more urgent statements from the early 1960s. Thereafter, he abandoned the traditional opera house and concert hall for a number of years as he sought new audiences for his compositions and political ideas.

The 1960s was a period of political turbulence in Italy, and this was reflected in many artistic productions. Several of Luciano Berio's finest works - frequently with political overtones - date from that time, and some of his contemporaries equated compositional radicalism with political radicalism. Thus Nono created an extended sequence of politically inspired scores directed primarily at industrial workers.

Apart from the short orchestral piece, Per Bastiana: The East is Red, he favoured performances in factory canteens, workers' clubs, schools, etc. Electronically generated sounds played a major role, involving frequent collaborations with the sound technician, Marino Zuccheri. Not only could tape compositions, either with, or without 'live' soloists, be presented in small venues but they could incorporate sound material drawn from different working environments.

For instance, the tape for La Fabrica Illuminata, for voice and electronics, was compiled from the sounds of a metal foundry, while Contrapunto Dialettico alla Mente, for vocal soloists, chorus and tape, included sounds recorded in a Venetian market, as well as references to the Venetian renaissance composer, Adriano Banchieri. At the same time, Ricorda Cosa ti Hanno Fatto in Auschwitz, for soprano, children's choir and tape, extended the concept of the 'campo sonore', or 'field of sound' Nono had developed in his previous choral writing.

Luigi Nono's political pieces have often been regarded as little more than propaganda, but besides pioneering new electronic techniques, they explored the phonetic basis of language. As such, they have never been more topical than today. Nono returned to the concert arena in 1972 with one of his finest achievements: Como una Ola de Fuerza you Luz, for solo soprano, small chorus, solo piano, orchestra and tape. It was dedicated to the memory of the Chilean revolutionary, Luciano Cruz, and demonstrated Nono's continuing political commitment, despite the failure of the 1968 uprisings.

The same was true of Nono's second opera, Also Gran Sole, Carico D'Amore, reflecting the history of the Paris Commune, in 1871. This proved to be a work of transition at a time of considerable cultural and political change. The post-war avant-garde had largely dissipated, and Marxism had been discredited. Several aspects of the opera already pointed to the final phase of Nono's career, but the decisive change began with .. Sofferte onde Serene .. for piano and electronics.

Sofferte onde Serene was the first work in which Nono used electronics to analyse the sounds of a single instrument, thereby prefiguring his activities at the Freiburg Experimentalstudio. Equally important was the Hoelderlin-inspired String Quartet, Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima. Besides the political appeal of Hoelderlin's late verse for many left-wing intellectuals, his poetry provided Nono with a key to an understanding of the German-speaking cultural tradition. However, the unique achievements of Nono's final years in Freiburg were ultimately made possible by two further collaborations.

Luigi Nono was remarkably adept at choosing the most appropriate collaborators for each compositional project, and by 1981, he had established the colleagues with whom he would create his magnum opus: Prometeo, a Tragedy of Listening. The Italian writer and philosopher, Massimo Cacciari began compiling collages of various texts on which Nono could draw as required. The composer was also introduced to the Experimentalstudio, and its Director, Hans-Peter Haller.

The Freiburg Experimentalstudio of the Heinrich Strobel Foundation of South-West German Radio quickly acquired a formidable reputation for its work with many composers, but, during the 1980s, its relationship with Luigi Nono was unique. Nono recognised that the ideas he had adumbrated in Fragmente-Stille, especially the interplay between sound and silence, could be extended by means of the new electroacoustic technology. The transformation of even the most delicate sounds and their spatial distribution in real time introduced a new compositional dimension.

All the works Nono completed during the first half of the 1980s, beginning with Io, Frammento da Prometeo, for bass flute, contrabass clarinet, small chorus and 'live' electronics, were essentially satellites of Promoteo itself. They not only presented a new sound-world, but contributed to the originality of Nono's new concept of music-theatre.

Prometeo was first performed in 1984. Its texts were based on various interpretations of the ancient myth of the eternal wanderer, but the intelligibility of the words was less significant, since in music it was the sound of words that was of prime importance. Similarly, Nono conceived music-theatre as a sonic landscape; accordingly Prometeo was subdivided into 'islands' of slowly changing performing and listening activity.

Nono regarded Prometheus' wanderings as symbolising an essential aspect of the human condition, not least his own wanderings and searchings in the world of sound. Hence, the metaphor of wandering, or travelling, remained central to his output, and was reinforced by an inscription he encountered in Toledo: 'Pilgrim: there is no pathway, there is only travelling itself'.

During the second half of the 1980s, Nono undertook many projects, some of which were left unfinished. Yet the Toledo inscription gave rise to several completed scores which testified to the fact that he retained his creative powers despite failing health. No Hay Caminos, Hay Que Caminar, for orchestra; Caminantes ... Ayacucho, for orchestra, chorus and electronics; Hay Que Caminar Sonando, for two violins continued his quest for a new way of listening, in which timbres were combined at the threshold of audibility.

However, the supreme achievement of Nono's last years was La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura, for solo violin, 'live' electronics, eight-channel tape and eight to ten music-stands. Described as a Madrigal for several 'travellers' with Gidon Kremer, it alludes to the polyphony of late renaissance Italy. In keeping with its title, it also attempts to encapsulate elements of the past, present and even future into a single entity, particularly as regards the re-application of fragments, or concepts from his earlier output. It has already received three commercial recordings.

As usual, the work grew from a project: this time involving a collaboration between Nono and the violinist, Gidon Kremer. At the same time, it was the culmination of Nono's quest for a music of pure sound, which would dispense with conventional notions of time and space. He assembled a tape lasting 61 minutes, the basis of which was Kremer playing anything that came to mind. The violin sounds were then combined with fragments which had been transformed, electronically, plus extraneous material produced in the studio.

In performance, the six sections of the solo part are distributed on music-stands positioned at random around the acoustic space, leaving the violinist to devise the path he or she will traverse. Similarly, the sound director chooses the material that emanates from the loudspeakers. The two performers can react to each other's material, and their interaction determines the form and character of each interpretation.

La Lontananza was conceived as a work of music-theatre, based on the Toledo inscription, and not simply as a piece of 'absolute' music. This undoubtedly helps to explain its communicative power. Its title also confirms that it encapsulates many of the compositional objectives Nono pursued for decades, ultimately proposing an essentially metaphysical response to the intellectual challenge posed by the collapse of Marxist ideology. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that Nono's approach had nothing in common with the quasi-liturgical rituals frequently, but misguidedly endowed with the epithet 'metaphysical'.

Indeed, the consistency and integrity of Nono's oeuvre has enhanced his reputation as possibly the most significant composer of the post-war generation. This is likely to be reinforced by the various events planned to mark what would have been his 80th birthday, especially in Germany, where several pupils and close associates have upheld his legacy. Apart from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, British audiences have had few chances to experience Nono's music in 'live' performances. 2004 would seem to be an appropriate year for British concert planners and music broadcasters to accord Nono's scores the recognition they enjoy in the rest of Europe.

John Warnaby

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