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Luigi NONO (1924-1990)
A Trail on the Water - a film by Bettina Ehrhardt and Wolfgang Schreiber
with Claudio Abbado, Maurizio Pollini.
The Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Erwin Ortner, Experimentalstudio of the Heinrich Strobel Foundation of SWR, Freiburg. Recorded 2001.
Bonus: complete performance of Nono’s …sofferte onde serene…by Maurizio Pollini
DVD-all regions

What makes this a DVD to cherish is in fact the bonus: a complete performance of Luigi Nono’s beautiful, mysterious ...sofferte onde serene…, played by its dedicatee, Maurizio Pollini. It was recorded at the Mozarteum, Salzburg, in August 1999. Pollini is playing from a printed score, but the film starts and ends with Nono’s manuscript. The film thus conveys an intimate connection between performer and composer, who were close intimate friends. I don’t know what was going on in Pollini’s mind as he played those magnificent reverberating deep chords, but his face is uncommonly expressive. Almost the last shot is Nono’s final marking "Giudecca, 1976". It brings us right back to Nono, who wrote those words a quarter of a century before.

The film is a tribute to Nono, the human being as well as composer. Nono loved Venice, home of his ancestors. It exerted an invisible presence throughout his music. As Abbado says, "when he talked about Venice, it was magical". The film explores that mystery, a city that exists on land and sea. Nono’s birthplace, and the house in which he died, sits right at the water’s edge. The sea laps over flagstones, as if at any moment it will encroach on land. . It’s as if the inhabitants belong more to the sea than to firm ground. Moreover, in long shots of the horizon, the sea itself blends into sky, as if in a seamless whole. It’s an extraordinarily poetic image with which to describe Nono’s music. His music transcends boundaries, searching for something beyond conventional form, for something that can realign consciousness. Of course, there are shots of gondolas in canals, but this is not tourist stuff: it is timeless, blending past and present. Again, just as Nono wrote. His grounding in ancient music was deep and instinctive. The film takes us into the basilicas where the young Nono would go to listen to church music, not for religious reasons per se, but to experience the sounds of the past in the spaces for which they were made. His interest in polyphony runs like a thread through his later work, both choral and otherwise. The acoustic of the vast, cool churches also taught him to appreciate that music changes with different ambiences in performance. Above all, it is the ambiguity of sound, time and space that makes his music compelling. "I don’t look at the colour of the sea", he says, "but I do hear the colour of the water".

The relationship between Nono, Abbado and Pollini was very close indeed. Abbado and Pollini speak of Nono as both musician and man. They are also in a position to describe why political relevance was important to him. The 1960s was a time of upheaval and revolution, especially in Italy where fascist and Communist feelings were still vivid. Nono worked with the festivals at Reggio Emilia which attempted to bring "high art" to the proletariat, and to infuse art music with a spirit of change and social consciousness. Through film shot in the working class suburb where he lived, we see how close Nono was to ordinary people. The sounds of the street are all around – workers calling, the sound of wheels on cobblestones. Nuria Nono is shown shopping at an open air fish market for their daily meal. Nono’s music may be abstract but he was not a composer who lived in a vacuum. His music was meant to touch the minds and hearts of his listeners, to connect to the "great dramas" of human existence.

Abbado and Pollini also talk about specific musical experiences. For example, they discussed with him the German poet Hölderlin, whose idiosyncratic work opened new dimensions of imagination. They dig out all they could find out about him, for Nono was fascinated by the idea of two voices circulating and becoming a chorus. "Stupendous !" says Abbado. Nono and his friends also discuss the importance of silence in modern music. Nono says "People are afraid of silence, they don’t realise that silence, on the contrary, means something", or "I find silence full of thoughts, sounds, ideas". Abbado describes listening to Mahler with Nono, and hearing in the silences "circular music that slowly vanishes into the distance". As Nono said, "it is the inaudible and unheard that does not fill space but rather discovers it, uncovers it as if we too can become part of the sound and will resound it in ourselves". Like so many modern composers, Nono felt that intelligent listening opened new dimensions of experience.

The film also has wonderful passages in which Nuria Schoenberg Nono, the composer’s devoted wife talks of her husband and his ideas. Their relationship was highly creative. They met at the premiere of her father’s opera, Moses und Aron. While Nono’s own style was distinctive, the Schoenberg connection was also integral to Nono’s development.

This is a DVD to be recommended to anyone who wants to explore Nono’s music, or understand the processes that create a composer. It is sensitively filmed by people who understand music and musical intelligence, so can be enjoyed even if purchased mainly for the Pollini performance.

Anne Ozorio



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