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Luigi NONO (1924-1990) La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (1988-89)
Marco Fusi (violin), Pierluigi Billone (sound direction)
rec. March 2020 at BlowOutStudio, Brussels, Belgium
Package includes instructions to access a free download of the binaural HD version of this recording KAIROS 0015086KAI [61:12]
Firstly, let’s talk about the title: Google Translate’s equivalent for La Lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is “The future utopian nostalgic remoteness”. Literal, disappointing and for those who know no Nono (!) probably useless. I’ve always had time for this piece and my one extant memory of the day of my 50th birthday was reading a fascinating article about it by Tim Rutherford-Johnson in The Guardian prior to a London performance (it’s
here). He includes a cumbersome but paradoxically more accessible translation by the work’s dedicatee, Nono’s younger compatriot Salvatore Sciarrino: “the past reflected in the present (nostalgica) brings about a creative utopia (utopica), the desire for what is known becomes a vehicle for what will be possible (futura) through the medium of distance (lontananza)”. There is also a subtitle: “Madrigale perpi¨ "caminantes" con Gidon Kremer, violino solo, 8 nastri magnetici, da 8 a 10 leggii” This is also a paradox – a straightforward statement of the performing forces required which contrarily is intentionally vague and gives the listener absolutely no idea what to expect: “Madrigal for several ‘fellow-travellers’ with Gidon Kremer, solo violin, 8 magnetic tapes and between 8 and 10 music stands”
All of the above requires unpacking and decoding. It seems to me that the music of the distant past, especially that associated with Venice (the composer’s birthplace), and madrigal form was of at least equal importance to Nono as the potential of technology to mediate (even interfere) in both composition and performance. The spatial aspects of 16th and 17th century Venetian music are certainly refracted in much of Nono’s mature work, most obviously in the theatrical epic Prometeo which many of his admirers would regard as his masterpiece.
In 1987 Nono encountered the violinist Gidon Kremer for the first time; each man immediately recognised a kindred spirit in the other and some kind of joint project became inevitable. The Italian invited Kremer to his second home, the legendary Experimental Studio of the Heinrich Strobel Foundation in Freiburg. Over the course of a week in early 1988 Nono recorded many hours of Kremer’s improvisations; he subjected the results to intensive analysis before selecting and processing specific sounds and gestures which he duly collated into a tape. The original idea seems to have been to transcribe this into a playable score for solo violin, but the process proved too stressful in the few weeks that remained before the scheduled premiere; the first version of the work, originally entitled La Lontananza nostalgica -futura thus resulted in something of a fudged compromise which involved Kremer performing alongside the tapes. Unsurprisingly Nono was dissatisfied with the two performances that did occur in the Autumn of 1988; he therefore completely re-wrote the solo part and re-imagined the role of the tapes.
During the three decades which have since elapsed (Nono died soon after completing the revisions) La Lontananza nostalgica utopica futura has become a classic of contemporary violin literature - this, I believe is its sixth recording (and its second on Kairos). As the composer Grant Chu Covell has asserted, Gidon Kremer’s very presence inevitably looms large over the piece – in
this extremely helpful article he quotes Nono as stating that “….the tapes contain 1000 Gidons…” He goes on to suggest that some players may find this rather intimidating, and that Nono’s final tape manipulations may have deliberately intended such tension. In any case, this narrative certainly sheds some light on the work’s final title.
In hi-jacking an overused word beloved of reality TV show contestants and presenters (and restoring it to its original context) the performers of this work are literally engaged on a ‘journey’. Nono’s score (or performing instructions) for the solo violinist is spread across six of the “between 8 and 10 music stands” specified in the work’s subtitle. The player literally has to plot a path to navigate them – some are left empty to add complexity and creativity to the list of requirements for the ‘voyage’; as Covell states in a live performance the careful, deliberate way in which the player carries themselves between each point underpins its inherent, understated ‘theatricality’ – this of course can only be imagined in listening to a recording. The entire work plays for an hour, divided into six movements or as Nono designated them ‘leggii’
Marco Fusi and Pierluigi Billone’s account of the work seems to have more ‘edge’ than rival versions I have heard. Both performers spent hours subjecting Nono’s performance materials to further detailed analysis; Billone’s status as the ‘tape manipulator’ seems to be more obviously equal to that of Fusi’s in this reading – Billone is, after all, a notable, rather confrontational composer in his own right. Where the new disc really scores is in providing access to a high-resolution binaural recording of the work. Listeners will need headphones – preferably decent ones. Those who can access a portable USB DAC will benefit even more.
In the introductory Leggio I the ground rules are established between the players and listeners will get some idea of the breadth of vocabulary employed by both during the entire piece. The solo violin part wavers between extremes of silence and din, drama and calm, action and stasis. La Lontananza thus announces itself as a more-or-less complete lexicon of arco sound and gesture and it rapidly becomes apparent that Marco Fusi is completely attuned to the sonic consequences of the most subtle of his physical movements. He describes how he perceives the piece as an opportunity to inveigle outsiders (the listeners) into the private world of the violinist’s own experience. The singular, literal sound of his playing is relatively easy to disentangle from Kremer’s on the tapes compared to other recordings.
An element of cantabile is applied at times within the second leggio, although whether listeners unfamiliar with Nono’s approach to sound will necessarily perceive it that way is another matter. The performers here attempt to find the work’s ‘equilibrium’ during this panel and indeed the sounds that emerge in due course seem to briefly achieve a lyrical ‘sweet-spot’ though the complementarity of taped and live sounds subsequently diverges rather swiftly. Leggio III is the focal point of the entire work, the ppppppppp marking consistently applied to the violin part suggesting an intimacy which manifests itself in sounds which reveal the most minute granulations. The preoccupation here is with the tactility of sound; the listener becomes aware of Fusi’s extraordinarily instinctive reactions to Billone’s tape manipulations.
Having reached the apex of the curve, the remaining three leggii represent its slow, often beautiful contraction and decline. Leggio IV is unpredictable and marks out an uncertain course, characterised by dramatic contrasts of harsh sforzandi and near inaudibility. Some of the sounds here approach a fairground nightmare, only to subside in threads of tranquillity. It provides a real challenge of extreme listening. Some of the multi-tracked string sounds approach the quietly ecstatic choral effects of Prometeo. In contrast Leggio IV’s closing moments are apocalyptic – not necessarily loud, just discomfiting and disorienting – and hardly balm to the ears at the height of a pandemic! The work continues to wind down in the penultimate Leggio V in which Fusi showcases a variety of bowing techniques. In the booklet he offers the analogy of breathing and despite attempts to disrupt the primal essence of this sound, the long, tenuto notes do tend to prevail. Leggio V projects a ghostly quality here which eludes rival recordings, most obviously in the binaural manifestation. When we reach the final Leggio VI the sense is one of dissolution rather than resolution. The dynamic is a constant ppppp, and the weave of Fusi’s violin is almost imperceptibly absorbed into the sound-world created by the Billone’s manipulation of the tapes. The tenuto spirit of the previous leggio persists in a thread of sound which somehow oscillates and pulsates. The performers might have left the stage but the receptive listener will feel that La Lontananza is continuing somewhere ad infinitum, for better or for worse….
Nono’s many admirers will probably have settled on their favourite recording of this work – among those that I know within that community the two front-runners unsurprisingly seem to be Gidon Kremer on DG (474326-2 – a more concise account, paired with Nono’s absolutely final word, the violin duo “Hay que caminar”, so˝ando with Tatiana Grindenko) and Irvine Arditti (a Disques Montaigne/Na´ve reissue on MO 782133). Fusi and Billone’s reading of this uncompromising monolith is undoubtedly the most ‘in-your-face’ I have experienced to date and I must reiterate that its attraction for me lies in the superb binaural experience purchasers can download.
A couple of final remarks: in my view Nono was certainly a master but those who may be curious should by no means start with this work – to say it is ‘difficult’ is a huge understatement. My ‘click’ moment occurred with Metzmacher’s recording of Prometeo (there have been at least two since). La Lontananza was basically this composer’s end point and I feel it is best listened to with some appreciation of the arc travelled by this most singular figure.
To conclude, one ‘fellow-traveller’ who certainly seemed to appreciate Luigi Nono’s significance was the late Anne Ozorio, a regular Musicweb contributor whom I never had the pleasure of meeting but whose writing unfailingly illuminated some tough repertoire. By way of a tribute to Anne I unhesitatingly refer those interested to her magisterial review of experiencing Irvine Arditi’s live performance of La Lontananza nostalgica utopica futura in London back in October 2007. It’s here.