c)i concert March 4: Nono’s string quartet and Schoenberg

My ensemble counter)induction is playing a program of three great works on Sunday March 4 at the Italian Academy at Columbia University. Called “Where Words Leave Off”, the concert comprises Lachenmann’s “Dal Niente”, Nono’s “Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima” and Schoenberg’s “Ode to Napoleon” for reciter and piano quintet, with Paula Robison narrating. These works explore the combining of text and music in unusual ways (ie. words not sung but spoken or thought), and music as a vehicle for political message. (Narration is used sometimes in musical works, but this is one of the most effective instances I know of.)

Hope you can come!  Note that it is at *6pm* and is free

I’m having an interesting Nono year, having performed and recorded his “La lontanaza nostalgica utopica futura” for solo violin and 8-track tape in the fall. Look out for my CD in surround sound sometime soon, hopefully along with my giving another NY performance. See my blog posts from that time. It’s really great now to work on another major, late piece of his, from the period during which he scaled down his huge works to smaller media and focused on more inward expression. Below you can read my program note about the string quartet that we’ll play on Sunday. Thanks to Håvard Enge’s paper on the piece for the quotes from Lachenmann and Nono.


One of the most remarkable aspects of the work of the Italian composer-philosopher Luigi Nono (1924-90) was his melding of music with words and political message. His early work was based on more purely musical study of polyphony, the madrigal tradition and the Second Viennese School, and later on, serialism, which was explored at the Darmstadt courses. However, his interest in putting forth pointedly political, anti-fascist themes soon became evident with Il canto sospeso, for solo singers, chorus and orchestra (1955). The piece incorporated text from letters by political prisoners during World War II. He thereafter wrote many large-scale pieces encompassing ideas drawn from philosophy, politics, history and religion. His work strove toward a new kind of music theater, involving text (often documentary material from taped speeches and riots), spatialization, improvisation, references to the physical world, electronics and amplification.

Nono’s string quartet, Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima marked in 1980 a turning point in his work. At this time, he found a need to renew his approach and his interest turned more toward introversion, reflection, silence and listening, rather than outward statement and protest. As he said, “Listening is very difficult. Difficult to listen to others in the silence…When one comes to listen, one often tries to rediscover oneself in others. To rediscover one’s own mechanisms, system, rationalism in the others. Instead of hearing the silence, instead of hearing the others, one often hopes to hear oneself. That is an academic, conservative, and reactionary repetition…Perhaps one can change the rituals; perhaps it is possible to try to wake up the ear. To wake up the ear, the eyes, human thinking, intelligence, the most exposed inwardness.”

Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima consists of 52 musical sections, which Nono associates with 53 fragments of text from Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion and poems to Diotima. Diotima, a character in Hyperion, is surmised to represent a woman with whom Hölderlin was in love (she also is a figure in Plato’s Symposium). In Fragmente-Stille, Nono stipulates that the text not be read aloud or presented to the audience in any way, but that the fragments be thought silently, or “sung inwardly”, by the performers while they play the piece. The music progresses haltingly, with many fermatas which are sometimes on sustained tones but often on silences and held for long spans. Thus the fermatas allow time for the performers to think on and internalize the text and for listeners fully to experience the silence and stillness.

As Nono’s pupil Helmut Lachenmann put it: It is not just the composed score of the Diotima quartet which puts across this music’s message: it is the perception of its reflection in our inner selves, across the space of silence and also remembrance, reflection, self-discovery as opened up by the fermata.” Also: “the silence into which Nono’s late works lead us is a fortissimo of agitated perception.”

In the musical sounds, Nono sought to explore varied, nuanced qualities, inspired by Schoenberg’s idea of Klangfarben. The players are asked for many different kinds of timbres, attacks and dynamics, often at quiet volume. Material occasionally returns in the piece, perhaps in relation to subtle correspondences in the text. Nono drew some of the material from Giuseppe Verdi’s “scala enigmata”, a scale that Nono employed in other works. He also refers in Fragmente-Stille to Ockeghem’s “Maleur me bat” – in the viola part at section 48 (perhaps an homage to Nono’s teacher Bruno Maderna who used it as a harmonization exercise) – and he writes an expressive direction from Beethoven’s quartet Op. 132, “mit innigster Empfindung”, at section 26, exactly halfway through the piece. That section is notable for the anomalous absence of fermatas. Nono’s quartet was commissioned by the City of Bonn to mark Beethoven’s 210th birthday and was premiered by the LaSalle Quartet.