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Luigi Nono
13 May 2008

Nono's Prometeo at Royal Festival Hall

Prometeo is so radically different that it’s almost incomprehensible heard from preconceived assumptions of what music “ought” to be.

Luigi Nono: Prometeo, Tragedia dell’ascolto.

London Sinfonietta, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, Synergy Vocals, Klaus Burger (euphonium), Diego Masson (conductor), Patrick Bailey (conductor),). Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London. 9 and 10.5. 2008 (AO)
Other contributors: Caroline Chaniolleau (narrator), Mathias Jung (narrator), André Richard (spatial sound director), Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg, Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig (sound projection).


What we think of as music now stems from 19th century orchestral tradition, which suggests that music should fit standard formats, to be listened to passively, often as no more than wallpaper. Nono’s ideas were revolutionary, not just in terms of his politics, but because he wanted to challenge the way we listen to music. Nono addresses the very fundamentals of why we have music at all, and its role in civilization. To penetrate just how radical Prometeo is, we have to approach it on its own terms without prejudgement.

Prometheus brought fire from the gods to mortals. It’s no accident that Nono had been fascinated by the myth from his youth. The fire Prometheus brought to the world was enlightenment. The Gods were enraged because Prometheus had broken their monopoly of power, so they condemned him to suffer eternally. Prometheus is an archetype idealist, who is compelled to seek knowledge and share it with the world. But his fate is to be destroyed for doing so. What does that tell us about idealism ? What is the destiny of those who, like Prometheus are the bringers of change ? What is the role of music in civilization? What is the role of an artist in society ? Why do people persist in seeking enlightenment when there’s no reward? Why does civilization matter at all ?

Meaning matters in Nono tremendously. But finding meaning, whatever it may be, means listening pro-actively, engaging in what’s happening: this isn’t music to audit passively. Listening is part of the process by which it “becomes” intelligible and the more you put into it, the more that you get from it. The piece isn’t even something that can be judged in conventional terms because its impact depends so much on how a listener has synthesized what he or she has heard. We’ve become conditioned to assuming that music is something to be consumed, and categorized in judgemental constraints. Yet things weren’t always this way.

The South Bank’s Fragments of Venice series was very well planned because it placed Nono’s music in context with Monteverdi. Why Monteverdi ? That’s a good question. Nono came from Venice, a city where water, land and sky converge seamlessly. Moreover, in Venice the past co-exists with the present. Wherever you go in the old quarter, there are vestiges of Venice’s glorious past as a centre of the then “civilised” world. As a young man, Nono would listen to music in Venice’s ancient churches : an unworldly haven from the hot, bustling clamour outside. Long before the western symphonic tradition developed into what we know now, that was how Europeans experienced sophisticated music.

Prometeo connects directly to that pre-modern approach to music. The primary function of church music was to inspire heightened spirituality. Whether audiences were religious or not was (and still is) beside the point. Church going was a profoundly artistic experience. Elaborate gothic and baroque decoration served to glorify the message of God. Wealthy merchants paid, but the beneficiaries were ordinary church goers for whom the church was a dazzling blaze of colour, sound and scent quite beyond their grim normal lives. The Mass was theatre. So Prometeo follows that deeper tradition, cloaking deep spiritual content with music.

Medieval and baroque polyphony are also the seeds of Nono’s approach to text. Most of the congregation didn’t understand Latin, but all knew the basics of what the Mass was about. They didn’t need to know every single word verbatim, but instead, meditated on spiritual meaning. So Nono uses fragments of text in many languages, spanning centuries of cultural history, from the ancient Greeks to Walter Benjamin. He breaks words down into the tiniest fragments. Syllables and even single letters are intoned in different progression. Such “lines” as they are, are sung by different voices in layers, so sounds overlap and modify each other. This is deliberate. We have to listen more carefully than ever to what is being conveyed. It’s supposed to be a challenge. We’ve become too accustomed to assuming that if we “hear” something we know what it means : hence the deluge of trendy jargonese we hear so much today which sounds good but means nothing. Nono makes us concentrate intensely on what we hear, or think we hear. Words are only shorthand for conveying ideas often can’t be easily expressed. André Richard (spatial sound director) apologizes for talking in four languages at the same time, but that’s exactly what Nono is doing. It means forming ideas with more care and listening more intently, because there is so much more outside the box, beyond linguistics.

There are quotations from Hölderlin’s Schicksalslied, "Doch uns ist gegeben auf keine Stätte zu ruhn……” the fragments of sound curling over and over in restless turmoil. Then, brilliantly, Nono uses the images of water being hurled from cliff to cliff, shattering into spray and yet re-forming into waves which again shatter, endlessly, “blinding wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippe”. They hurtle ever downwards, “Hinab ! Hinab !” This is powerfully expressed in the spiralling downward flow of the music. Indeed, the flow goes “underground” for a while emerging later, to be glimpsed in tiny snatches of “hinab!” or fragments of the word which occur later in the piece. Following with the text actually limits the understanding that comes from real listening. Conventional narrative this isn’t, but you need to know Nono to know.

This fragmentation also has meaning in itself. Prometeo works on many different levels. There are short, elusive references to other texts, other music embedded throughout. You certainly don’t need to recognise them all at once, but again, that’s the concept. Like pop ups in Windows, the references can lead you to read further, listen further and learn, far beyond the confines of the piece itself. It’s a panorama which opens other panoramas. Indeed, Nono even builds into the score comments and quotes which don’t appear in the performance, but exist to inform the performers about interpretation. His instructions even include marking some letters in capitals, even within words, like “HiNaB”. What you hear is only a point of entry. The deeper you go into Prometeo, the more there is to learn, if of course, you want to. We have a choice. When Prometheus brought light to mankind it was a precious gift, to be cherished. It’s important to approach Prometeo without any prejudgement, but once one is aware that there is meaning within, it’s not wise to ignore it. The explosion in information technology gives us tools, but do we use them wisely ? “Non spederla ! kei pleistôn (do not lose it, this weak messianic power!)” goes the First Interlude, which acts as a kind of commentary on what has gone before. Civilization wasn’t won easily, but can so easily be squandered.

Nono died before the revolution in information technology that is the internet. Nowadays anyone can play with a search engine and produce “instant erudition” which looks impressive, but is in fact superficial if not downright fraudulent. Instead of real learning, we have “google intellectuals” whose superficial expertise makes a mockery of the real business of learning, which is to assess and process, and create original ideas. So the Second Interlude is entirely instrumental, beyond words at all. Crucially it’s positioned between the Three Voices, where we’re reminded of the “la debole forza” (the “weak power”) of enlightenment, and the final Second Stasimon, which reaffirms Nono’s faith in the imperative of civilization. Words matter desperately, but words can also be noise. For a few minutes, they disappear, so when they return, we absorb them more effectively, remembering that their absence.

Much is made of Nono’s use of space. Again though, spatial arrangements aren’t an aim in themselves, but integral to the meaning of the piece. Nono is reminding us that sound is ambient, it comes from all around. It is up to us to process, from whatever position we may be in at any given time. This too subverts the conventional notion of music as a commodity to be consumed passively. Prometeo subverts the very idea that what we hear should be fixed in any given form. Rather it makes us realise that what we hear comes from one perspective among many. The four compact orchestras are placed in different places around wherever the performance is held. Each performance will differ according to where it takes place. There’s always an element of spontaneity, of using resources where they are found so there’s no “definitive” setting. On this occasion, the Royal Box provided an excellent place to position the string unit, between the main orchestra in the front, back and side. Other boxes were used for the euphonium, for the glass instruments, for the voices. These days when most of us get our music through recording, it’s easy to forget that recordings are only snapshots in time, frozen forever by mechanical means. Music, in the real world, is something far more alive and fluid.

What was impressive about these performances, particularly the one on the 10th, was the feeling that dynamic energy was flowing between the disparate groups of performers. Nono uses sound as sculpture. Although there are two conventional conductors, André Richard is the sculptor who pulls everything together, giving four dimensional shape to what we hear, from whatever position we may be in. The score is amazingly complex: the sheet music is a metre long and almost as wide, to incorporate the detail. There are sounds here made by unusual instruments, by unusual techniques and sounds which exist only in electronic mediums. Yet Richard made it possible for us to hear all the fragments, from the circular rubbing of the glass bowls to the faint but insistent tapping of bow on violin. Precision is important – the singers use tuning forks to keep them on pitch. Sometimes they cup their hands to extend their voices like miniature wind instruments, often they whisper barely above the threshold of audibility. Yet again, this quietness, throughout the piece, is its soul. There are moments where Nono marks the score pppppp, where the “music” reverberates in the imagination of the listener. Nono writes “islands” in the music and in the instrumentation, but islands don’t exist in isolation. It is Richard who creates the flow that keeps the islands connected. We don’t, yet, have enough music vocabulary to describe what he does, but it is a new dimension in sound creation, a new form of musicianship.

As someone in the audience noted, The Royal Festival Hall is a strange place to hear such disturbing music. The original performance was held in a disused church in Venice, which is now which is now closed to the public. The performers were placed in a huge wooden structure designed by the architect Renzo Piano like the inside of a violin, so the sound would resonate inside the structure, and then inside the church and beyond. At a workshop on Prometeo held on 4th May, Enno Senft, bassist of the London Sinfonietta, recalled how the shaky structure added to the performance because it gave a sense of danger, as if the structure could collapse at any time. Yet this, too, is relevant to meaning. Piano’s structure embodied the idea that civilization is fragile. Stability can’t be taken for granted. Health and Safety regulations now would make it impossible to recreate that first performance, so perhaps its memory should remain in our minds. The first performance remains as a ghost, just as the ghosts of ancient Venice live on in the present. Nono didn’t plan this strange juxtaposition of time and place, but it’s a valid way of thinking about Prometeo and its panoramic vision of human experience.

Prometeo’s subtitle is “The Tragedy of Listening”. This refers to the Greek notion of tragedy yet also to the modern sense of the word. Prometheus brings light to the world but suffers for having done so. Is the fate of Prometheus that of anyone who brings about innovation, even if it’s for the ultimate benefit of others? Are mortals fundamentally incapable of appreciating art, innovation and civilization? Or is barbarism inevitable? Yet for Prometheus and for idealists like Nono, there is no other choice. It’s their destiny to strive for enlightenment no matter what the personal cost. They are driven, like the forces that create the waves that shatter against the cliffs. The faint flame of faith in the ultimate value of learning is kept alive as long as there are those prepared top listen. “Ascolta ! Ascolta ! (listen ! listen !)”. We may not understand, and may never understand, but if we don’t even try, Prometheus’s gift and what it symbolizes, will have been in vain.

Congratulations to the South Bank for having the vision to make these performances possible. Prometeo isn’t easy listening, and it isn’t cheap to produce. But its cultural signifigance is very great indeed, and quite likely won’t be appreciated fully in our time. There have been 60 performances in Europe but this was only the first in Britain. Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what popular reaction might be. Like Prometheus, it is enough that someone has enough faith in the fundamental value of art, whether or not it pleases mass audiences. This is why the South Bank matters. It has the courage and foresight to recognise Prometeo and bring it to Britain at last.

Please see the review of the recent Col Legno SACD recording of Prometeo.

Anne Ozorio © 2008

Reprinted from Seen and Heard with permission of the author.

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