A response to comment on Nono’s music

I was just in Boston for a remarkable conference (website here) on the music of Luigi Nono, co-presented by Tufts and Harvard universities. I attended most of the talks, roundtables, workshops and concerts and I had a marvelous time. Met wonderful people (including Nuria Schoenberg Nono), and had great conversations and the opportunity to hear performances of a number of Nono’s works with electronics. Chris Burns and I performed “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” (1988-89) two nights in a row: a great chance to explore different uses of space, time and sound. (These were our 7th and 8th performances together of the piece.)

There were two reviews, one in the Boston Globe and one in the NY Times. Both say some terrific and significant things about the music, the reception, the performances. At the conference, except for at our own workshop and performances of “La lontananza”, I spent four days mostly listening – to presentations, discussions and music. Regarding David Allen’s Times review, though, I feel I have to respond to something perplexing that he wrote about “La lontananza”. He stated, “it felt short on invention, the rare piece that could actually benefit from visual projections or a staging.”

Given the many comments from the audience on both nights about the effectiveness and evocative qualities of my wandering movements in the piece, there was evidently far from a lack of staging or visual drama. I remember in 2011 when I got to know “La lontananza”, the idea of visual projections crossed my mind but I think adding video or some kind of props or a set (or a superimposed, artificial manner of dramatically “acting”) to this piece would be tacky. The point is a kind of theater that is embodied but also remains symbolic.

This is not Kurtág’s song cycle “Kafka Fragments”, which has a wealth of text and imagery to draw upon in order to invent a visual, dramatic staging of the music (à la Peter Sellars). The abstraction and the mere aural suggestion of the tapes are key to Nono’s piece, as are the use of the live violinist’s singing voice (which David Allen doesn’t mention) and the trajectory of the music itself (which has an overarching structure even as the performers have freedom. ) It is like in Nono’s “Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima” (1980) which involves a lot of associated text by Hölderlin which Nono purposely does not want given to the audience: he removes the literal, verbal, dramatic content of the work from the audience experience so that the music expresses it abstractly. It was a turning point at which Nono’s music became more intimate and about thought and listening rather than overt statements. In “Lontananza”, it is enough to have a mobile performer and the musique concrète sounds evoking imagery, and to say “wanderers” and “madrigal” in the piece’s title. The Toledo/Machado quote that inspired some of Nono’s late works – “wanderer, there is no way, there is only walking” – is not actually there in this piece, nor are the political texts he employed in earlier works.

It was a wonderful conference that if anything increased my appreciation for a musician of great expressive range, communicative vividness and humanity.