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Seen and Heard Concert Review

 

LUIGI NONO: London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Claron McFadden (soprano), Sarah Nicolls (piano), Sebastien Bell (contrabass flute), Andrew Webster (contrabass clarinet), BBC Singers, Stephen Betteridge (conductor), Sound Intermedia, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27 April, 2005 (AO)

 

 

When I was 15, living far from the epicentre of Western music, I heard a most remarkable piece of music on the radio. A woman's voice emerged from a bizarre collection of noises, yet it seemed the most evocative, intriguing creation I'd ever heard. The composer's name you could never forget, “Gigi Nono”. Years later, arriving in London in its musical heyday, I visited a musician cousin who circulated in that vibrant avant garde scene. I was so innocent then that I'd never even worn jeans. So he almost fell over with shock when I mentioned Nono, his God. That encounter with the composer, at so early an age, helped shape me. It taught me, I hope, the importance of listening, of learning to understand music without prejudgement and received wisdom.

 

This concert was one I'd waited months for.As Richard Steinitz said before the concert, it was the biggest Nono event in the UK for years. The beautifully chosen programme covered Nono's whole career yet, remarkably, shows how, even from the start, he was developing ideas that would distinguish his later work. He was a true original, a composer whose music came from deep commitment to life. For me, his music is liberating because it is so genuine, and direct. It is music about listening, music that must be approached “from within” by personal engagement: it can't, I think, sincerely be understood “from without,” or from convention.

 

Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica was written in July 1951. Already, Nono is experimenting with rhythm and form. The piece builds up slowly, tentatively, then starts to walk, in toddler steps. With cries of dissonance from the light brass it hurls itself into a heady dance between three percussionists, three brass and the pianist, all challenging each other with inventive ideas in sound. A trombone boldly announces a series of long held, loud chords in Canti por 13 (1955). Written during Nono's Darmstadt years, it has an energy that seems to generate it own dynamic. Swathes of sound build up towards a sudden, exuberant shout of excitement.

 

For me, Nono is a “people-based” composer, in that his work, even when non-vocal, seems to evoke speech and the sounds of human life. His vocal work, therefore, has special meaning for me. Nuria Schoenberg Nono, the composer's widow, told of their visit to South America, with two small children in tow, and how excited Nono was by the vibrant colours and music he discovered. He found in the poetry of Antonio Machado texts that expressed the vividness of his experiences in the Spanish-speaking world. For his daughter, Nono wrote the lovely Ha Venido, Canciones por Silvia (1960). A choir of only six sings so lyrically, it seems like music from eternity itself, like angels. Then the divine Claron McFadden adds her voice, soaring higher and higher up a whole octave. Sometimes she leads, sometimes she sings with the choir. At one moment, she is rising up through the heights, then with the others, humming tenderly, as if in a lullaby. Humming then turns back to joyful song, celebrating Spring, the fresh beauty of nature and youth, and the joy of life. All in four minutes.

 

Canciones a Guiomar is another Machado setting, justly well known and loved. Intriguingly, Knussen started conducting before the music started, as if he sensed that the music grew out of a place in silence. What inventive sonorities inhabit this piece – the subtle sound of the side of a gong being caressed growing ever louder, the soprano's voice unfolding almost organically from the sound, and taking off in new directions. The choral balance was ideal, the nuances perfect. Nuria Nono mentioned that her husband had loved the way the waters of Venice reflected light onto walls in their hope, shimmering, delicately- moving light and shadow. It could have been a description of this music, voices reflecting instruments, exquisitely subtle and evanescent. The bells and percussion drifted in an out, further emphasising this ethereal beauty – as Nuria Nono said, this music was “the music of Venice”, the sounds of life in the city, distant bells, light and water. Even the violins and guitar are used as percussion, gently beaten, like the rocking of boats, the pulse of human life. Like Venice, there is something haunting and eternal about this music, for the tolling of bells mark the passing of time, as Nono was well aware. The recurrent refrain, “Subitamente, Guiomar!”, and, later, “Siempre tu ! Guiomar - ” McFadden sings poignantly, expressing the sadness underlying the beauty. As she descends into soft humming, the twelve-woman choir sings a strange, seamless line of longing. Nono brings the piece to a close, like the poem, not with a conclusive ending, but on floating, open notes.

 

Nono's humanitarianism led him to join the Communist Party which was then a powerful force in Italian politics. Like Hanns Eisler before him, (who set the Italian left-wing poet Silone), music was for Nono, a means of challenging society. However, he went far further, even further than Henze, reconstructing the very idea of music, just as his radical politics aimed to change the world. After the interval, we entered a Spartan, empty stage, shrouded in darkness but for a spotlight on a chair. McFadden entered, sat on the chair, and held her arm up. On her signal, the amazing La Fabbrica Illuminata began. Nono goes “beyond” music to make music, using recording tape to amplify what can't be done by conventional means. It opened up whole new dimensions. La Fabbrica live is like theatre in the round, disembodied voices, mumbled speech, industrial sounds come from all over the auditorium. Nuria Nono said that Nono had been fascinated by the sounds of great furnaces in steelworks and the like. As in real life, sounds which come from everywhere aren't clear – the synthesis stimulates. McFadden singing in dialogue with the recorded sounds was enthralling, a single human being interacting with a barrage from beyond. It was exquisitely painful and empowering at the same time. Nono's tapes were operated by an extraordinarily sensitive soundman, who could make the inanimate sound organic. Sounds Intermedia played the tapes like they were instruments, but McFadden was like an elemental force of Nature. Despite her grounding in the baroque, her feel for new music is profound. Watching her in this piece, I realised how much listening comes into it. It is quite the opposite of the conventional assumption that an artist produces a finite work. The process here is more like listening to pick out a work that exists in the imagination as a result of heard experiences. It's infinitely more subtle, and more open ended. McFadden may be able to sing the most amazing, almost non-human sounds, but her real brilliance is in the way she listens and creates. This is music that a listener has to get involved with intuitively and on a personal level – it's no use standing on the outside, repeating formulaic conventions – it has to be “lived”.

 

Being a good listener in conversation makes good listening in music. But this is anguished music, about cruelty, inhumanity and an immoral social order, and the experience can be searing. After this tour de force, anything else would seem tame. The piano solo “...sofferte onde serene..” is a startling piece, full of unexpected figures, but I was still reeling from La Fabbrica. My friend, more of a piano man, said it could have been played with more attack, but I do not know it well.

 

Percussionists must adore Con Luigi Dallapiccola where they get to do the most imaginative things with the whole panoply of their profession. Again, because of the nature of percussion, listening is the basis of what holds the music together – the silence between the notes. In this case, where the musicians must physically move from station to station, they depend on a conductor who can “hear” and co-ordinate. Moreover, the use of recorded tapes means that they have to respond precisely – tapes can't adapt. Knussen kept this tricky piece afloat with a deft sense of timing and, surprisingly, humour, for this piece, depends on great lightness and transparency. Yet, the musicians themselves are listening, for it is the chamber-like interaction of sounds that makes this piece sparkle. Again I was reminded of the reflections of light off water which Nuria Nono described so well.

 

Nono resolved some of the traumas of Darmstadt by celebrating Boulez's 60th birthday with A Pierre: Dell'azzuro silenzio, inquietum. It's a striking showpiece not the least because of the use of contrabass and contraflute, whose appearance and sounds are unusual, to put it mildly. Combined with the objets trouvé on the taped recordings, the effect was bizarre yet compelling and full of feeling. With Nono, a listener gets what he or she puts in. Listening is part of the creative process.

 

Anne Ozorio




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)