Saturday, October 06, 2007

Not knowing Nono

Ben Harper, of Boring Like a Drill, has a great post about Luigi Nono's music, focusing in on its changing reception, or more precisely, its changing packaging.

I am rather attached to Nono's 1980 string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima and I have, more than once, considered adding it to my "landmarks" list (see the sidebar). But each attempt to write something meaningful about the quartet has failed, and I'm not sure whether my failure lies in my inability to get closer to a work whose distance to my own musical culture is great, or in a more fundamental doubt about the work as a technical and musical achievement.

Nono does not make it easy: the score is annotated with a series of 53 quotes from Hölderlin, difficult, sometimes cryptic or even mystical stuff. These are not at all like the playful texts that sometimes accompany scores by Satie; I suspect they are more akin to Ives's philosophical Essays before a Sonata, but without the connecting prose and argument that give Ives's writings their explanatory power, I suspect that the function of the Hölderlin texts is to accompany, not explain, the music.

The music of the quartet is mostly quiet, always on the edge of the abundant silences which are measured both precisely and under fermati of various relative lengths. The progress of the piece is always in a halting rhythm and uncertain metric. Nono's choices of pitches and timbres continually challenge the ear's ability to define a pitch as a pitch. The use of Verdi's scala enigmatica (C, Db, E, F#, G#,A#, B) is less a point of reference for the listener than a point of departure for the composer, in particular allowing the contrast between the wholetone and semitone clusters found in the scale and chromatic or microtonal modifications of individual pitches to further obscure pitch relations.

There is substantial critical literature, mostly in German, about Nono's music, none of which I have found helpful in getting into the quartet. There is also Nono's music-historical role and, in particular, the controversies around him, his work, and the work of others: Nono's attacks on Cage and Stockhausen in 1958 (the Cage attack was largely the writing of the young Helmut Lachenmann) ; his engagement with the PCI; the turn away from real politics (and possibly towards the mystical) with the Quartet and the 1984 "tragedy of listening", Prometeo; the ugly posthumous attack on a supposed Scelsi-Nono-Feldman "cult", spurred on by the composer György Ligeti and led by the critic Peter Niklas Wilson... None of that is much help either.

Both supporters and detractors of Nono's music share a lack of loquacity when it comes to engagement with the actual material substance of the work. I like to be able to discuss music in very concrete terms, and these have been either vague or absent in the Nono discussion; with Nono's turns, especially in the latter music, to territories (both musical and otherwise) that are very mysterious to me, obscure notes have invited more obscure notice, and as a listener I scarcely know where to begin.

As attractive as musical territories are which are slow, quiet, halting, obscured, ambiguous, ephemeral and/or enigmatic, they can also be deceptive. They can disguise writing made from facility and habit rather than labor and conviction, and an absence of material will often be less a mark of profound economy than the receipt for an absence of ideas. With Nono's quartet, my gullibility is tested: I am attached to the piece, but can't begin to explain why; I doubt its technique but want to believe.


Peter T. said...

I have difficulty in listening to the Quartet, too, but I don´t have such problems with works that Nono wrote after this piece. It strikes me that the Quartet is, rather than a kind of Opus Magnum of Nono´s late years, something like a beginning of a relatively new period in his output, not yet fully developed. But maybe I´am just unable of the concentration this piece requires. BTW, where could I learn more about the attack on Scelsi-Nono-Feldman cult you refer to? Thanks.

Ben.H said...

I'm not good at musicology, but I'm thinking of several different approaches to Nono's late music for my next blog post. Now I'll have to work in a response to your post, to explain why I "get" the obscurity (and possibly questionable material) of Fragmente-Stille and subsequent Nono pieces.

I'd also be interested to find out more about this "Scelsi-Nono-Feldman cult" attack, as well as Nono's (and Lachenmann's) criticism of Cage et al. These are arguments I'm not at all familiar with.

Daniel Wolf said...

The key article is Peter Niklas Wilson's "Sakrale Sehnsüchte. Der Scelsi-Feldman-Nono Kult" in MusikTexte 44, page 2. In MusikTexte 46/47, there is an exchange of letters between Wilson and the ocmposer Tom Johnson and others about this and a very improtant interview with Ligeti.

Ligeti, in this and several other interviews claimed to reject a cult status for himself and cults (whether religious, political, musical, or personal) in general, something that I found terribly ironic, as Ligeti was never shy of self-promotion, and was terribly obsessed with questions of status in the new music world. (After a concert, I once approached Ligeti to ask a technical question about the then-new Etudes. I had a score in hand, and without asking or being asked, he ripped it out of my hands and autographed it, even while I protested that he stop!)

(Maybe I should sell the score on eBay?)