Nono’s “La lontananza”

I hope everyone had a very good summer! I’m back in New York now and busy with various concerts and pieces. Very soon, on Saturday, September 17, I’m playing Luigi Nono’s great work “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” for violin and 8-track tape! This is part of the New Spectrum foundation’s whimsically-titled “Nono, Muchmore Warped festival”, an evening of music by “composers with amusing names”: Pat Muchmore, Richard Warp and Luigi Nono. Info is here:

Following sets of exciting new works by Pat and Richard (with great players including Taka Kigawa and Ken Thomson), I will perform the Nono with sound artist Christopher Burns.  The piece has drawn some illustrious interpreters of the tape part in past: Sofia Gubaidulina with Gidon Kremer, Salvatore Sciarrino with Melise Mellinger and Helmut Lachenmann with Mark Menzies. Chris, who teaches composition and music technology at the U of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, has performed the work multiple times around the US, and presents a younger generation’s technologically-fluent approach to this ground-breaking music.

In addition to the usual matter of our trying to give a really fantastic performance, this presentation of the piece will be a very exciting event for a few reasons. We are performing in a remarkable space (the James chapel at Union Theological Seminary) which – particularly given the theatrical, spatialized nature of the roughly hour-long piece and its philosophical and textual underpinnings – is wonderfully suitable to the performance and will enhance its impact. This rendition is also a great opportunity for you to hear the piece in a way that, I think, has never been heard or experienced before: I was surprised to see that Nono indicated in the score for the violinist to sing (at the unison, 5th or octave) in parts of the piece. I had never heard of this facet of the piece and I do not think it has ever been done. However, having now worked on it, I find it brings a whole other, wonderfully meaningful and beautiful dimension to the piece, emphasizing the humanity of the violinist-figure and the introspective, “serene vision” that lies at the heart of this tumultuous work. More on the singing aspect below. I hope you’ll come and experience this performance!

“La lontananza…” is such a richly layered piece, offering much to think about and explore and try out. In any case, I wanted to write out some thoughts and share these with you. If you want to be fully in suspense about what happens in the piece, you could read no further, but I do think a fuller awareness of the piece’s many facets can deepen your experience of the piece.

I’m busy and rather pressed for time, so, even though I love to write good prose, I am going to forego contiguous paragraphs for now and set all these ideas and pieces of information out as bullet points. It’s a bit like what I’d do as an outline for an essay, but anyway given the mobile, open quality of the Nono, maybe this is in the spirit of the piece (!) Sometime, maybe I’ll actually turn this into an article or essay.


  • Luigi Nono (1924-1990) wrote “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” in 1988-89 at the electronics studio of the Heinrich Strobel foundation in Freiburg, Germany. It is his penultimate composition, the last being “‘Hay que caminar’ soñando” for two violins.
  • Collaboration with performers had become a significant part of his process (he worked closely, for instance, with pianist Maurizio Pollini and the Arditti Quartet). In “La lontananza”, he worked with violinist Gidon Kremer.  Nono had Kremer record improvisations during several days at the studio, then selected and electronically processed sounds from the recordings to make the 8-track tapes. Also on the tapes are noises from the room as they worked: chairs scraping, objects being slammed down, their voices speaking…
  • The full title of the piece is “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. Madrigale per più ‘caminantes’ con Gidon Kremer, violino solo, 8 nastri magnetici, da 8 a 10 leggii.”  Nono borrowed the term “lontananza” from composer Salvatore Sciarrino, who used this word, usually reserved for poetic expression, in the title of his work “All’aure in una lontananza”.  “Lontananza” essentially means “the far distance”. So, Nono’s title is “The nostalgic, utopian, future far-distance. Madrigal for a ‘wanderer” with Gidon Kremer, solo violin, 8 magnetic tapes and 8 to 10 music stands.”
  • In performance of the piece, the sound artist has all eight tracks playing from beginning to end (about 75 min. of material). He/she makes the choice of which tracks to bring out and boost in volume, which to suppress – thus, which material on the tapes to feature or bring into play at a given moment.
  • There are eight speakers located around the performance space. The sound artist also chooses from which of these the tape sounds emanate.
  • The violinist has six sections of music, each placed on a separate music stand. These are placed around the performance space, including at locations among or near the audience. The violinist enters after the tapes have started, sits by the first music stand and plays. He/she is directed by the score to walk slowly from one music stand to the next, after playing each section of music. It is suggested that the stands be randomly placed so that the performer must go searching for the next stand.  The violinist plays standing except for in the first section. At the end of the piece, the violinist’s last note is picked up by a microphone, recorded and sent out into the hall, as the performer exits the space.
  • The violinist can modulate the pacing of the performance through choice of tempos (usually marked within a range of tempi in the score) and by the speed or slowness of walking between sections.
  • Nono took inspiration for this piece (and several others, including his last work) from an inscription he saw on the wall of a monastery in Toledo, Spain: “Caminante, no hay caminos hay que caminar.” “Wanderer, there is no way, there is only walking.”
  • Much of Nono’s work throughout his life bore a political message. His early works, such as “Il canto sospeso” were often based on anti-fascist texts. The idea of the “wanderer” is not only an evocation of a general human condition – of looking for one’s way through life and in society – but also a more pointed reference to those displaced by war: emigrants, refugees, “alien” residents in foreign lands.
  • Nono’s use of “musique concrète”- sounds from everyday life – also grounded his music in a political consciousness
  • In “La lontananza”, the sounds from the work studio (bangs and scrapes and voices) are meant as a record or sonic diary of the work process that went into the piece – thus, an element of nostalgia (“nostalgica”)
  • Other nostalgic elements: use of a scale employed by Giuseppe Verdi in his “Quattro pezzi sacri”, and Kremer’s Romanticized style of violin playing on the tapes, displaying characteristic 19th-century virtuoso gestures such as jeté and spiccato bowing.


  • I see the piece in this emotional progression:
  • leggio I:  wanderer enters into an ominous, rather threatening environment, somewhat confrontational
  • leggio II:  agitation and intensity but starting to turn more inward (a few passages with voice)
  • leggio III:  the “serene vision”, inward harmony as the violinist’s voice joins with bowed lines
  • leggio IV:  tumult, sudden fluctuations of speeds
  • leggio V:  uncertainty, use of microtonal instability, Nono writes: “cercando il suono” (“looking for the sound”)
  • leggio VI:  continuing uncertainty, microtonality, sound becoming very fragile before exit, the violinist’s last note lingers in the hall as the wanderer becomes a memory and part of nostalgia


  • on the use of the voice:
  • Nono calls the piece a madrigal. As a young man, he studied Renaissance madrigals and here, late in his life, he returns to the idea of a polyphonic vocal piece. Much of his work throughout his life used text and singers, whether as soloists or chorus, vocal commentary or sung or spoken parts by instrumentalists
  • Here the voice invokes a “serena visionata”, the inner harmony and peace of the wanderer, whose relationship to the environment is more one of discord and flux. The warmth of the human voice contrasts with the harsher sounds, both on the tape and in the live violin part (dissonances, ponticello, col legno)
  • Nono writes in leggii 2 and 3:  “con voce dove possible, a unisono, V, VIII”. “With voice where possible.” Why has this not been attempted? Why have I never even heard the vocalizing mentioned?  I think that, because Kremer did not do it, and he was so integral to the piece’s creation, people have not bothered with it. However, Nono did not change the score: the indications remain and are there to be explored. It is possible that a male voice did not sound very effective: given the register of the violin part, it would be difficult for many men to sing at the unison or even the octave.
  • I admire Kremer’s playing hugely and he plays with such staggering conviction in all he does.  But I think he just had a different idea of how to execute some things in the piece. On his recording of the piece, he arpeggiates the chords in leggio 3, much as in the Bach Chaconne. It is a really lovely effect but it is very different from singing!
  • Chris and I discussed by email the theatrical issue of the two human figures in the performance: who are we? what do we represent? We agreed that, as the wanderer who is actually moving around the space and is described as a “caminante”, I am a personified figure. However, Chris is representing a world of sounds with all its associations and somewhat more abstract- and rather than being a controlling figure, he sees himself as a “hyperattentive listener”, exemplifying the listening of the audience and reacting in real-time to what he hears.


I really hope you’ll come and enjoy this performance, and the concert as a whole. I’m looking forward to hear the pieces of Pat Muchmore and Richard Warp (Muchmore at 7, Warp at 8:15, Nono at 9:30)!

Thanks to New Spectrum Foundation, Electronic Music Foundation and Greenwich House Music School for their assistance with this concert.

Tickets here:

By the way, if you are interested in more Nono, my group counter)induction is performing Nono’s string quartet “Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima” on March 4 at the Italian Academy. Another chance to explore and experience Nono’s music!


One Response to “Nono’s “La lontananza””

  1. Brian Fennelly said:

    Sep 08, 11 at 3:41 pm

    Wonderfull outline, Miranda! I wish I could attend what will be a spectacular performance.

    Best wishes,


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