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Fragments of Venice (4) :  Nono,   La Lontananza nostalgica utopia futura Irvine Arditti (violin), André Richard (sound projection)  Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 31.10.2007(AO)

La Lontananza is in many ways the quintessential expression of Nono’s brilliance.  It’s more than “just” music, it’s a conceptual innovation which makes us rethink the very nature of music.  For Luigi Nono, music grew from life, and enhanced life and similarly art didn’t need to be confined to any specific conventions. Form was just a “construct” to help frame ideas conveniently because  the spirit of art lies beyond that, free and limitless as the creative impulse.  Too much is often made of Nono’s “political” work, which so many of his contemporaries, like Henze and Berio  also  pursued but his real genius lies in pieces like this, which stretch the very spirit of art.

The South Bank Nono series wasn’t subtitled “Fragments of Venice” for nothing.  Entire programmes were devoted to Monteverdi and the baroque masters for a very good reason.  As a young man, Nono spent a lot of time in the many churches in Venice, staying for  hours in their cool interiors.  This  was a completely different world from the hot, noisy streets outside with their endless bustle where Nono would have heard music performed with reverence, and in an atmosphere conducive to inner reflection. He learned things like polyphony, freedom of expression within ensemble, and the subservience of elements like text to overall meaning.  More fundamentally, what he absorbed was the idea that music isn’t a fixed, rigid commodity but a human experience that draws from many sources, and has more possibilities than we can imagine. It’s no surprise then, that so many cutting edge composers today, like Ferneyhough, draw inspiration from the baroque, just as Nono did.

La Lontananza is performed in darkness, as if in an ancient, unlit and unheated church.  This stills the mind, the better that we can focus on contemplation, free of external distractions.  The first sounds we hear come from behind a screen, “masked” as it were – another aspect of the intriguing ambiguity that is so much part of the magic of Venice.  It is only when Irvine Arditti quietly materialises at the side of the screen that you realise that the violin you’re hearing exists not in “reality” but on a recording, forcing the listener to ask, 'What is reality ? What is illusion ? ' and ' Why ? '  which is even more pertinent.

In a church, what you hear is literally shaped by space. In the nave, you’ll hear certain resonances not quite so clear in the wings.  Even the height of the roof impacts on the way things sound.  Yet all are part of the whole experience.  Thus Nono has the violinist moving from place to place in the auditorium.  Processions, and movement, are part of music in many cultures, not just in Christianity, but something we’ve lost in the fixed-platform approach that has dominated western music for the last 300 years. Thus Arditti makes a progress round the hall, playing at different stands. At first it seems to matter “where” he’s playing, but as the music unfolds, that focus no longer seems important.  What impresses more is the seamless, surround sound quality of the experience. Gradually it no longer matters what is being played live and what’s recorded, for the  human violinist blends with the electronic version of himself on tape with such seamlessness that reality itself blurs once more. Again, we have the image of Venice, half built on water, half on land, and of horizons where sea blends into sky.

La Lontananza has a sub title, “madrigale per più ‘caminantes’ con Gideon Kremer”. The different positions  that Arditti plays in aren’t just for acoustic completeness, but reflect subtle progressions in the music itself.  For Nono, the idea of movement, of “travelling” is fundamental.  His music “goes somewhere” and is open ended.  The theme of journeying recurs in works like Hay no caminar which itself exists in two versions, one growing out of the other.  That title refers to an inscription Nono spotted in an old building. “Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar”. It means “Travellers, there are no roads, but we travel on.”  The South Bank series wisely presented Hay no Caminar twice, first in its semi-orchestral version with the London Sinfonietta, and then in the version for two violins, before which Arditti led a masterclass.  Arditti had  studied the piece with Nono himself, so his insights were fascinating.  He explained the significance of minute details so lucidly that even non-string players could appreciate what he meant.

This fascination with journeys connects to something quite fundamental in Nono’s music.  He’s an explorer, seeking new direction and means of expression.  The “journeying” also fills a spiritual purpose.  Nowadays, we expect so much  instant-access expertise, however superficial, that it’s easy to forget that in many cultures, the path to wisdom is through humble learning and experience.   La Lontananza is a pilgrimage towards some undefined goal, a kind of atheist Stations of the Cross. Its quiet but firm traverse is a kind of meditation, making us listen patiently and examine why.

A friend who did a lot of the theoretical maths that’s behind modern sound technology used to say that our ideas of “mono” and “stereo” were hopelessly primitive, because sound is ambient, coming at us from all sources, and at all levels. It’s our brains that filter and process what we “hear” whatever the sound sources. It’s not surface 'noise' that makes music, but something altogether more elusive.  Everything goes into the experience.  Thus, if during this performance, we heard the sounds of workmen outside the auditorium, and coughs from the audience, it wasn’t a problem because this music functioned on many levels.  Remember Nono, sitting in a church while a different world revolved around outside.

Each performance of this work is unique as it’s shaped by the spatial and acoustic properties of wherever it’s played. A church is a purpose-built “performance space” because its design and ornamentation extend the impact of the music.  Even the cruciform shape is symbolic. The Latin Mass could be like total theatre, conveying meaning in many levels, so even if the actual words were in an alien language, the impact still came through. Architecture shapes sound. In a church, high vaulted ceilings make sound echo, and what you hear in the wings is different from what you hear in the nave.  Yet it’s all part of the same “whole”, whatever the angle from which it’s heard.  Nono’s use of the entire performance space thus breaks rigid boundaries of sound projection and creates a more flexible approach to what music can be. His  use of  recorded sound and snatches of mechanical sound or taped noises also expands the panorama of what we hear beyond the confines of “formal” music. Sound projection becomes an art form in its own right.  André Richard, who has performed this piece since its inception, knows how to gauge a venue and its acoustic, and operates his instrument like a chamber player, sensitive to what’s happening around him and to his partner, the live soloist.  The possibilities of creating music in space are still being explored: just this year, Simon Bainbridge premiered two pieces on this theme, Music Sound Reflection and Diptych, which incidentally was inspired by Venice.

Arditti’s violin is clearly venerable, for its tone is lusciously rich and resonant – even with a broken string.  It would sound exquisite in any music, yet here he manages to coax beautiful new sounds which its maker might not have imagined.  Here we heard Arditti, in music that’s still state of the art,   yet his instrument would have been played by many other great virtuosos in their time and   hopefully, it will serve other musicians in centuries to come.  The performance juxtaposed past, present and future.  Once again, the world of the baroque connects to the modern, in parallel just as    in Venice, traces of the past co-exist with the present.

For Nono, history was important and he was immensely proud of what Venice had achieved.  By humbly learning from its traditions, he could continue to build on them, in his own way : there is so much in La Lontananza that rewards patient “pilgrimage” into its many depths.

Anne Ozorio



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