Nono’s Prometeo at Royal Festival Hall

What we think of as music now stems from 19th century
orchestral tradition, which suggests that music should fit standard formats,
to be listened to passively, often as no more than wallpaper. Nonoís ideas
were revolutionary, not just in terms of his politics, but because he wanted
to challenge the way we listen to music. Nono addresses the very fundamentals
of why we have music at all, and its role in civilization. To penetrate just
how radical Prometeo is, we have to approach it on its own terms
without prejudgement.

Prometheus brought fire from the gods to mortals. Itís no accident that
Nono had been fascinated by the myth from his youth. The fire Prometheus
brought to the world was enlightenment. The Gods were enraged because
Prometheus had broken their monopoly of power, so they condemned him to
suffer eternally. Prometheus is an archetype idealist, who is compelled to
seek knowledge and share it with the world. But his fate is to be destroyed
for doing so. What does that tell us about idealism ? What is the destiny of
those who, like Prometheus are the bringers of change ? What is the role of
music in civilization? What is the role of an artist in society ? Why do
people persist in seeking enlightenment when thereís no reward? Why does
civilization matter at all ?

Meaning matters in Nono tremendously. But finding meaning, whatever it may
be, means listening pro-actively, engaging in whatís happening: this
isnít music to audit passively. Listening is part of the process by which
it ìbecomesî intelligible and the more you put into it, the more that you
get from it. The piece isnít even something that can be judged in
conventional terms because its impact depends so much on how a listener has
synthesized what he or she has heard. Weíve become conditioned to assuming
that music is something to be consumed, and categorized in judgemental
constraints. Yet things werenít always this way.

The South Bankís Fragments of Venice series was very well
planned because it placed Nonoís music in context with Monteverdi. Why
Monteverdi ? Thatís a good question. Nono came from Venice, a city where
water, land and sky converge seamlessly. Moreover, in Venice the past
co-exists with the present. Wherever you go in the old quarter, there are
vestiges of Veniceís glorious past as a centre of the then ìcivilisedî
world. As a young man, Nono would listen to music in Veniceís ancient
churches : an unworldly haven from the hot, bustling clamour outside. Long
before the western symphonic tradition developed into what we know now, that
was how Europeans experienced sophisticated music.

Prometeo connects directly to that pre-modern approach to music.
The primary function of church music was to inspire heightened spirituality.
Whether audiences were religious or not was (and still is) beside the point.
Church going was a profoundly artistic experience. Elaborate gothic and
baroque decoration served to glorify the message of God. Wealthy merchants
paid, but the beneficiaries were ordinary church goers for whom the church
was a dazzling blaze of colour, sound and scent quite beyond their grim
normal lives. The Mass was theatre. So Prometeo follows that deeper
tradition, cloaking deep spiritual content with music.

Medieval and baroque polyphony are also the seeds of Nonoís approach to
text. Most of the congregation didnít understand Latin, but all knew the
basics of what the Mass was about. They didnít need to know every single
word verbatim, but instead, meditated on spiritual meaning. So Nono uses
fragments of text in many languages, spanning centuries of cultural history,
from the ancient Greeks to Walter Benjamin. He breaks words down into the
tiniest fragments. Syllables and even single letters are intoned in different
progression. Such ìlinesî as they are, are sung by different voices in
layers, so sounds overlap and modify each other. This is deliberate. We have
to listen more carefully than ever to what is being conveyed. Itís supposed
to be a challenge. Weíve become too accustomed to assuming that if we
ìhearî something we know what it means : hence the deluge of trendy
jargonese we hear so much today which sounds good but means nothing. Nono
makes us concentrate intensely on what we hear, or think we hear.
Words are only shorthand for conveying ideas often canít be easily
expressed. AndrÈ Richard (spatial sound director) apologizes for talking in
four languages at the same time, but thatís exactly what Nono is doing. It
means forming ideas with more care and listening more intently, because there
is so much more outside the box, beyond linguistics.

There are quotations from Hˆlderlinís Schicksalslied,
Doch uns ist gegeben auf keine St‰tte zu ruhnÖÖî the
fragments of sound curling over and over in restless turmoil. Then,
brilliantly, Nono uses the images of water being hurled from cliff to cliff,
shattering into spray and yet re-forming into waves which again shatter,
endlessly, ìblinding wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippeî. They
hurtle ever downwards, ìHinab ! Hinab !î This is powerfully
expressed in the spiralling downward flow of the music. Indeed, the flow goes
ìundergroundî for a while emerging later, to be glimpsed in tiny snatches
of ìhinab!î or fragments of the word which occur later in the piece.
Following with the text actually limits the understanding that comes from
real listening. Conventional narrative this isnít, but you need to know
Nono to know.

This fragmentation also has meaning in itself. Prometeo works on
many different levels. There are short, elusive references to other texts,
other music embedded throughout. You certainly donít need to recognise them
all at once, but again, thatís the concept. Like pop ups in Windows, the
references can lead you to read further, listen further and learn, far beyond
the confines of the piece itself. Itís a panorama which opens other
panoramas. Indeed, Nono even builds into the score comments and quotes which
donít appear in the performance, but exist to inform the performers about
interpretation. His instructions even include marking some letters in
capitals, even within words, like ìHiNaBî. What you hear is only
a point of entry. The deeper you go into Prometeo, the more there is
to learn, if of course, you want to. We have a choice. When Prometheus
brought light to mankind it was a precious gift, to be cherished. Itís
important to approach Prometeo without any prejudgement, but once
one is aware that there is meaning within, itís not wise to ignore it. The
explosion in information technology gives us tools, but do we use them wisely
? ìNon spederla ! kei pleistÙn (do not lose it, this weak messianic
î goes the First Interlude, which acts as a kind of commentary
on what has gone before. Civilization wasnít won easily, but can so easily
be squandered.

Nono died before the revolution in information technology that is the
internet. Nowadays anyone can play with a search engine and produce
ìinstant eruditionî which looks impressive, but is in fact superficial if
not downright fraudulent. Instead of real learning, we have ìgoogle
intellectualsî whose superficial expertise makes a mockery of the real
business of learning, which is to assess and process, and create original
ideas. So the Second Interlude is entirely instrumental, beyond words at all.
Crucially itís positioned between the Three Voices, where weíre reminded
of the ìla debole forzaî (the ìweak powerî) of enlightenment, and the
final Second Stasimon, which reaffirms Nonoís faith in the imperative of
civilization. Words matter desperately, but words can also be noise. For a
few minutes, they disappear, so when they return, we absorb them more
effectively, remembering that their absence.

Much is made of Nonoís use of space. Again though, spatial arrangements
arenít an aim in themselves, but integral to the meaning of the piece. Nono
is reminding us that sound is ambient, it comes from all around. It is up to
us to process, from whatever position we may be in at any given time. This
too subverts the conventional notion of music as a commodity to be consumed
passively. Prometeo subverts the very idea that what we hear should
be fixed in any given form. Rather it makes us realise that what we hear
comes from one perspective among many. The four compact orchestras are placed
in different places around wherever the performance is held. Each performance
will differ according to where it takes place. Thereís always an element of
spontaneity, of using resources where they are found so thereís no
ìdefinitiveî setting. On this occasion, the Royal Box provided an
excellent place to position the string unit, between the main orchestra in
the front, back and side. Other boxes were used for the euphonium, for the
glass instruments, for the voices. These days when most of us get our music
through recording, itís easy to forget that recordings are only snapshots
in time, frozen forever by mechanical means. Music, in the real world, is
something far more alive and fluid.

What was impressive about these performances, particularly the one on the
10th, was the feeling that dynamic energy was flowing between the disparate
groups of performers. Nono uses sound as sculpture. Although there are two
conventional conductors, AndrÈ Richard is the sculptor who pulls everything
together, giving four dimensional shape to what we hear, from whatever
position we may be in. The score is amazingly complex: the sheet music is a
metre long and almost as wide, to incorporate the detail. There are sounds
here made by unusual instruments, by unusual techniques and sounds which
exist only in electronic mediums. Yet Richard made it possible for us to hear
all the fragments, from the circular rubbing of the glass bowls to the faint
but insistent tapping of bow on violin. Precision is important ñ the
singers use tuning forks to keep them on pitch. Sometimes they cup their
hands to extend their voices like miniature wind instruments, often they
whisper barely above the threshold of audibility. Yet again, this quietness,
throughout the piece, is its soul. There are moments where Nono marks the
score pppppp, where the ìmusicî reverberates in the imagination
of the listener. Nono writes ìislandsî in the music and in the
instrumentation, but islands donít exist in isolation. It is Richard who
creates the flow that keeps the islands connected. We donít, yet, have
enough music vocabulary to describe what he does, but it is a new dimension
in sound creation, a new form of musicianship.

As someone in the audience noted, The Royal Festival Hall is a strange
place to hear such disturbing music. The original performance was held in a
disused church in Venice, which is now which is now closed to the public. The
performers were placed in a huge wooden structure designed by the architect
Renzo Piano like the inside of a violin, so the sound would resonate inside
the structure, and then inside the church and beyond. At a workshop on
Prometeo held on 4th May, Enno Senft, bassist of the London
Sinfonietta, recalled how the shaky structure added to the performance
because it gave a sense of danger, as if the structure could collapse at any
time. Yet this, too, is relevant to meaning. Pianoís structure embodied the
idea that civilization is fragile. Stability canít be taken for granted.
Health and Safety regulations now would make it impossible to recreate that
first performance, so perhaps its memory should remain in our minds. The
first performance remains as a ghost, just as the ghosts of ancient Venice
live on in the present. Nono didnít plan this strange juxtaposition of time
and place, but itís a valid way of thinking about Prometeo and its
panoramic vision of human experience.

Prometeoís subtitle is ìThe Tragedy of Listeningî.
This refers to the Greek notion of tragedy yet also to the modern sense of
the word. Prometheus brings light to the world but suffers for having done
so. Is the fate of Prometheus that of anyone who brings about innovation,
even if itís for the ultimate benefit of others? Are mortals fundamentally
incapable of appreciating art, innovation and civilization? Or is barbarism
inevitable? Yet for Prometheus and for idealists like Nono, there is no other
choice. Itís their destiny to strive for enlightenment no matter what the
personal cost. They are driven, like the forces that create the waves that
shatter against the cliffs. The faint flame of faith in the ultimate value of
learning is kept alive as long as there are those prepared top listen.
ìAscolta ! Ascolta ! (listen ! listen !)”. We may not
understand, and may never understand, but if we donít even try,
Prometheusís gift and what it symbolizes, will have been in vain.

Congratulations to the South Bank for having the vision to make these
performances possible. Prometeo isnít easy listening, and it
isnít cheap to produce. But its cultural signifigance is very great indeed,
and quite likely wonít be appreciated fully in our time. There have been 60
performances in Europe but this was only the first in Britain. Yet,
ultimately, it doesnít matter what popular reaction might be. Like
Prometheus, it is enough that someone has enough faith in the fundamental
value of art, whether or not it pleases mass audiences. This is why the South
Bank matters. It has the courage and foresight to recognise Prometeo
and bring it to Britain at last.

Please see the review of the recent Col
Legno SACD recording
of Prometeo.

Anne Ozorio © 2008

Reprinted from Seen
and Heard
with permission of the author.

image_description=Luigi Nono
product_title=Luigi Nono: Prometeo, Tragedia dellíascolto.
product_by=London Sinfonietta, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, Synergy Vocals, Klaus Burger (euphonium), Diego Masson (conductor), Patrick Bailey (conductor),). Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London. 9 and 10.5. 2008 (AO)
Other contributors: Caroline Chaniolleau (narrator), Mathias Jung (narrator), AndrÈ Richard (spatial sound director), Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg, Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig (sound projection).