NONO, Luigi (Venezia, 29.1.1924 – Venezia, 8.5.1990)

© Angela Ida De Benedictis 2013; translation by Mark Weir

Born on 29 January 1924 in Venice, the second child of Mario Nono and Maria Manetti. The first input for his artistic and cultural development came from his family: his paternal grandfather, Luigi Nono, was a well known painter in the late nineteenth-century Venetian tradition, and the latter’s brother, his great uncle Urbano, was a sculptor; while his maternal grandmother, a descendant of the ancient Venetian family Priuli Bon, played the piano and sang, including the Lieder of her own day (among her music Nono was astonished to find an early edition of Hugo Wolf’s Italienische Lieder, and Montezuma by Sacchini; Nono 1987, p. 480). Both his mother and his father, an engineer by profession, were amateur pianists who enjoyed playing some of the major classics (including Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, often recalled by the composer as one of the first works he heard as a child; ibid.). Mario and Maria Nono took an active part in the cultural and musical life of Venetian high society, being regular patrons of the Teatro La Fenice and concert series in the city. Thanks to his father’s extensive record collection, Nono was able to get to know the music of Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler from an early age in the first recordings made by such conductors as Toscanini and Mengelberg. No less important were his encounters with literature in his father’s impressive library (now partly conserved in the composer’s legacy), including the first Italian translations of Russian poets and authors, the American novelists being published by Einaudi, Pavese, Gogol, Rilke and other authors who would surface over the years in the texts he selected for his compositions. In this fertile and privileged domestic environment one can recognise the roots of what was to become a hallmark of Nono’s artistic universe, namely the idea and practice of music as an art without frontiers which can be inspired by, and grounded in, a whole range of artistic and scientific manifestations (painting, architecture, literature, poetry, philosophy, etc.) from throughout history.

When he was about twelve Nono began to learn the piano with a friend of his mother, Signora Alessandri, who taught privately. He had already begun to attend performances at La Fenice and the international contemporary music festival of the Venice Biennale, and to make regular visits to Saint Mark’s Basilica, drawn by its unique acoustic (which would prove so important in his untiring exploration of space as a compositional element). He received his schooling at the Liceo Classico ‘Marco Polo’ in Venice. On finishing in the summer of 1942 he sought to allay his father’s worries about the uncertainty of music as a profession by enrolling as a law student in the University of Padua. Also during this year he met the young artist Emilio Vedova, forming a friendship which was maintained more or less constantly up until the composer’s death and nurtured by collaborations on a number of artistic projects.

Nono’s education and musical training took place during the crucial years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, in a family and intellectual milieu which were solidly middle class while being fundamentally hostile to Fascism. For health reasons he was exempted from military service and did not play an active part either in the war or in the Italian resistance movement. Nonetheless, during these years Nono made a point of frequenting young Venetian Socialists and exponents of the local opposition, pursuing political and cultural ideals that were at odds with the regime. In 1941, when he was 17 years old, his father succeeded in presenting him to one of the leading musical figures of the day, Gian Francesco Malipiero, a composer who ‘opened up all the musical horizons [to me]’ (Nono 1961, p. 3). For some time Nono attended his composition course at the Venice Conservatoire as an external student; after Malipiero’s retirement in 1943 he attended the class of counterpoint and fugue taught by Raffaele Cumar (a pupil of Malipiero and Dallapiccola), while continuing to study the piano privately with Gino Gorini. In an Italian cultural climate characterised by a general spurning of the avantgarde experiences that had emerged in Europe since the onset of the 20th century, Malipiero’s broadening of horizons involved above all the study of Monteverdi and the great Italian Renaissance tradition (featuring polyphony and the madrigal), the theoretical treatises by Zarlino, Gaffurio and Vicentino, and the discovery of the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Béla Bartók. Being of a curious and restless disposition, Nono was never able to submit to institutional curricula and soon began to nurture a decided aversion for the prescriptions of the ministerial programmes he viewed as tedious and often useless. After completing the first and second stages of the composition course at the Conservatorio ‘Benedetto Marcello’ of his city – respectively in 1947 and 1949 – he decided there was no point in going on to obtain the diploma. In 1946, thanks to Malipiero, Nono came into contact with the young Venetian composer and conductor Bruno Maderna, just four years older than himself, who had made his mark as a child prodigy. At about the same time he also got to know Luigi Dallapiccola, one of the most widely respected composers of the time and a crucial point of reference for many young musicians of his generation. The only evidence we have of attempts at composition prior to the fundamental encounter with Maderna are his own rather ephemeral recollections in a memoir (Nono 1979-80). In 1945, when he was frequenting Malipiero, and under the influence of his long disquisitions on the music of the 15th and 16th centuries, Nono composed La discesa di Cristo agli inferi, a piece (subsequently lost) modelled on sacred dramas and inspired by Monteverdi’s musical idiom (ibid, p. 242). The spark that set off the first decisive change of direction, after some eight years of musical studies he came to regard as partial and insufficient, appears to have been Dallapiccola’s comments about this score, which Nono had sent him at the suggestion of Malipiero: ‘I understand that here you have a lot in your heart you wish to express, but you still have to study a good deal in order to be able to do so’ (ibid). Nono was spurred by these words to start studying music all over again, practically from scratch, this time as apprentice to Bruno Maderna.

Having completed his university studies – he graduated in law in 1947 with a thesis on the juridical concept of exceptio veritatis – he was able to devote himself exclusively to music, and he treated this new apprenticeship as a responsible, autonomous learning experience unrelated to any scholastic or academic institution. (We know of no compositions from the period 1946-47 apart from a projected vocal work with words from L’allegria by Giuseppe Ungaretti, a poet for whom Nono nurtured a long-standing admiration). The encounter with Maderna made an indelible mark on both Nono’s musical and personal development, and to the end of his life he referred to his friend as his first great mentor. In the course of lengthy days spent either in Maderna’s home or in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Nono – in the company of other acolytes including Romolo Grano, Gastone Fabris and Renzo Dall’Oglio – applied himself to an in-depth study of the music of the 15th and 16th centuries, covering ars antiqua and French ars nova, the Flemish school and Italian polyphony, in a continuous confrontation of theory and practice. Among the most highly appreciated and analysed composers were Guillaume de Machaut, John Dunstable, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Desprez, Adrian Willaert and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli; many of their compositions were transcribed on the basis of Ottaviano Petrucci’s Odhecaton. In the years around 1950 analysis of the music of this period stimulated a comparative study of the various compositional processes that characterised the history of music. Once an understanding of a musical technique had been achieved, the goal was to discover its function in relation to the historical juncture, seeking out new possible transformations or applications in the music of later ages, down to the present. For Nono the analysis of the relationship between the state of the material, its elaboration and the period of production took on a fundamental importance: he became – and remained – convinced that artistic language has to develop alongside the major political and social movements of the age, so that it represents one possibility (or means) of intervening in these events. Among Maderna’s protégés knowledge of the music of the past became the key to getting to know and engaging responsibly with the present. Once again it was Maderna who introduced Nono to Hindemith’s manual of compositional technique, Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 1st ed. 1937. For both composers, before they adopted the serial technique, this was a fertile source of concrete alternatives to a harmonic language which had been in crisis for several decades. In 1948, at the instigation of Malipiero, Nono attended, together with Maderna, an international conducting course held in Venice by Hermann Scherchen. Over the next five years or so the two young men enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the elderly conductor, who became a spiritual guide in both cultural and personal matters. Nono attended Scherchen’s concerts, stayed with him for lengthy periods in Zurich, Rapallo and Gravesano, and collaborated first as copyist and then as author with Scherchen’s publishing house, Ars Viva Verlag (purchased by B. Schott’s Söhne, Mainz in the 1950s). By frequenting Scherchen and hearing his performances and recollections, Nono gained firsthand knowledge of the conductor’s experiences in Germany from 1912 onwards, including the first performances of his beloved Schoenberg and Webern, and also German social and cultural life prior to the advent of Nazism. In 1948 and 1949, encouraged by Scherchen, Nono composed the Due liriche greche (unpublished, comprising La stella mattutina by Ion of Chios and Ai Dioscuri by Alcaeus of Mytilene in Italian translations by Salvatore Quasimodo), acknowledging the inspiration of Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia. Scherchen also stimulated him to study the music of Bach, Beethoven and Schumann, and above all the twelve tone method, which he mastered by analysing the different approaches of Schoenberg, Webern and Dallapiccola.

In 1950, with the backing of Scherchen and Maderna, Nono attended his first session of the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (summer contemporary music courses) held in Darmstadt. This fundamental rendez-vous for young musicians of the post-war generation witnessed his début on the international scene with Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’op. 41 di Arnold Schoenberg (1949-50). Conducted by Scherchen, the reception of this first orchestral work was not unanimously favourable, but the performance placed the young Nono firmly at the centre of avantgarde music. Nono went back to Darmstadt each year for ten years, from 1957 as a teacher, and the experience was of crucial importance in his artistic, personal and political evolution. It enabled him not only to gain further knowledge of serial music, and in particular the works of Schoenberg, but also to get to know Edgard Varèse, who was among the admirers of Variazioni canoniche at the controversial first performance, and whose visionary music played a crucial role in the evolution of Nono’s  sound world. Also at Darmstadt he established important relationships – nurtured in some cases by mutual admiration, in others by constructive dissent – with a number of musicians from Europe and beyond, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, John Cage and Hans Werner Henze. Above all Darmstadt was the venue for the first performance of some of the most significant compositions of the 1950s: the Variazioni canoniche were followed by Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica (1951), Epitaffio per Federico García Lorca I. España en el corazón (1952), La victoire de Guernica (1954), Incontri (1955), Cori di Didone (1958) and Composizione per orchestra n. 2: Diario Polacco ’58 (1959).

These works revealed Nono as one of the leading exponents of the European avantgarde and the serial technique, alongside Stockhausen and Boulez. Nonetheless, in 1959 he explicitly distanced himself from these two composers and from the milieu of the Ferienkurse as a whole. In a lecture entitled Geschichte und Gegenwart in der Musik von heute (History and Present in Music today, published in Italian as Presenza storica nella musica d’oggi) he took issue with what he himself dubbed the ‘Darmstadt school’ (cf. Nono 1957, p. 34), denouncing instances of incoherence and contradiction. After years in which valid stimuli had gone hand in hand with constructive clashes, this lecture marked a first rupture with the milieu and some of its representatives (Stockhausen in primis). The split reflected both deterministic tendencies manifested by the champions of integral serialism, deriving from the natural sciences, and quite contrary experiences based on chance and indeterminacy, involving a series of composers among whom Nono explicitly named Cage. In both cases Nono denounced the practitioners for shunning history and refusing to take a clear, responsible stance on the artistic issues of the present. The split was made definitive when Nono gave another lecture in 1960 entitled Text – Musik – Gesang (Text – Music – Song, published in Italian as Testo – musica – canto), in which he explicitly attacked Stockhausen and serial orthodoxy, seen as constituting a constriction.

In 1954 Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron received its first performance in Hamburg, and on this occasion Nono met the daughter of the Austrian maestro, Nuria Schoenberg. They married the following year, and in due course had two daughters, Silvia (born in 1959) and Serena Bastiana (in 1964). From late 1958 to early 1960 Nono had an important (if uncharacteristic) teaching experience as tutor to Helmut Lachenmann. During the long periods the latter spent in Venice, part of the time was devoted to the German texts of the two lectures Nono gave at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt. Throughout the 1950s, another important experience for Nono was the exploration of twentieth century political and cultural events outside Italy, from the Soviet Revolution to the culture of the Weimar Republic, covering the Russian and German historical avantgardes and the innovations in the domain of theatre spearheaded by Vsevolod Meyerhold, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Erwin Piscator. The stimuli he received from these sources were combined with his enthusiasm for the teachings of Antonio Gramsci, the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, and for poetry that grappled with the issues of the day, notably by Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Paul Éluard, Cesare Pavese, Giuseppe Ungaretti. The texts of the vocal works he composed during the 1950s were primarily by these authors, while the masterpiece dating from midway through the decade, Il canto sospeso (1955-56), was based on letters written by people sentenced to death for their part in the resistance movements in Europe. Having abandoned the use of pre-existing rhythmic materials, which had characterised his work between 1950 and 1953, and achieved his own elaboration of the serial technique as developed in the instrumental Canti per 13 (1955), Nono established his personal style in his vocal works: Il canto sospeso is based on a peculiar technique of fragmentation in which the text is enunciated in its vocalic or phonetic components either successively in the individual parts or simultaneously as a sound bloc or aggregate.

As can be seen from a number of theoretical works produced during the fifties, Nono became increasingly convinced of music’s communicative capacity and of the imperative to express the multi-faceted contradictions of his time in his art. In selecting texts he increasingly opted for political themes arising out of events of the present or immediate past. This transpires very clearly in the ‘azione scenica’ Intolleranza 1960 (1960-61), the first work to give tangible form to the ideas concerning a ‘new music theatre’ he had developed during the previous decade. And the trend reached its apogee in the first half of the 1970s with the second ‘azione scenica’, Al gran sole carico d’amore (1972-74, revised 1977).

Nono’s experience of theatre was based initially on the rejection – in common with many young composers of the post-war avantgarde – of a fin de siècle conception of opera that went hand in hand with overt dissent towards bourgeois society. Right from the first projects for works he jotted down during the fifties, including a number of subjects that never got off the drawing board using texts by John Steinbeck, Anna Seghers and Anna Frank, he viewed theatre as a venue for representing contemporary topics, exploiting expressive and technical expedients to match. In his research Nono focused on experiences, primarily in spoken theatre, dating from the first two decades of the 20th century. Like the study of the music of the past he had undertaken with Maderna, his familiarity with music theatre was also based on a historical enquiry designed to cover all the artistic experiences which, precisely because they had been condemned or suppressed by different regimes, emerged as models that still had considerable topical potential. During the fifties Nono read widely in ‘theatre’: from the experiences of Gropius and the Bauhaus as presented by Giulio Carlo Argan (Einaudi 1951) to Baty-Chavance’s history of drama (Einaudi 1951), and early twentieth century Russian and German theatre (including the seminal work on political theatre by Piscator, 1929) to monographs featuring Mayakovsky, Brecht, and so on. If one compares his theoretical writings with his first dramatic projects one can see that, from as early as the beginning of 1952, the composer had clarified the technical implications and theatre’s potential political function which, in 1960-61, gave rise to the first ‘azione scenica’, Intolleranza 1960, on a text he devised himself starting from an idea supplied by Angelo Maria Ripellino, and using extracts from Alleg, Brecht, Éluard, Fučik, Mayakovsky, Sartre and Ripellino; its staging involved the collaboration of Josef Svoboda and Emilio Vedova.

The first performance in Venice in 1961 was strenuously contested by the audience, on account above all of its political content, while musically it also created a sensation, dividing public and critics alike. Few people at the time remarked on the innovatory nature of its musical contents, for Intolleranza 1960 in fact marks a watershed in Nono’s output, standing as both a moment of synthesis and an experimentation in which consolidated techniques were matched with new compositional procedures pointing the way ahead. It combines all the major technical and linguistic advances that characterise the onset of the sixties. Among them, the new vocal technique of the ‘single line’ he experimented with in the a cappella pieces Sarà dolce tacere and ‘Ha venido’. Canciones para Silvia (both dated 1960), while in terms of the future, one of the most significant features is the use of tape and electroacoustic instruments. In fact 1960 also saw Nono’s first electronic composition, Omaggio a Emilio Vedova, made in the Studio di Fonologia Musicale of the RAI in Milan, the electronic laboratory where for almost two decades, up until 1979, he produced all the works he wrote for or using tape. Electronic treatment became a constant feature of Nono’s creative itinerary: he viewed technology as a new frontier that allowed him ever freer and more immediate artistic expression, experimenting with solutions involving sound and space that could not be obtained using traditional instruments and that, above all, transcended the codified musical genres. It was also thanks to electronics that Nono was able to move beyond rigidly organized compositional systems such as serial grids and the statistic regulation of musical parameters (typical of his compositions in the fifties), giving increasing prominence to the organization of sound events in local structures and according to intervals rather than rhythm. Released from series and the preordained control of pitches, the choice of intervals could become increasingly ‘intuitive’, being defined in situ and projected onto the juxtaposition or superimposition of complex sound textures (blocs, layers, lines and so on).

During the 1960s and 70s political commitment, social conflict and denunciation, and the rejection of individual psychology in favour of the collective drama – all elements which characterise Intolleranza 1960 – became constants of his production as the concept of engagement took on for Nono the value of a ‘moral imperative’ (J.-P. Sartre) to match the aesthetic imperative. The relationship between art and the present became ever more interwoven and profound: each work, whether completed or merely planned, was conceived as a means to participate actively, and with his own specific attributes, in a broader process of transformation of the social reality. Having stripped the term ‘ideology’ of the negative connotation pertaining to its Marxist conceptualization, Nono allied this thought category with the Gramscian concept of ‘idea of the world’, enhancing the characteristics of ‘instrument of truth’ and ‘social function’ which are inseparable from the artistic message. He was able to link the development of a musical language of his own to these functions without the need for mediation, achieving a compositional technique which also enabled an ethical testimony to the composer’s here and now. This need for topicality involved the dual aspects of content and form, a combination which characterised the relationship between creation and commitment for Nono right from the outset. In La fabbrica illuminata (1964), for example, a voice performing live interacts with itself pre-recorded on tape and with a variety of sound materials (noises, the voices of workers, etc.) recorded in the Italsider factory at Genova Cornigliano and elaborated in the electronic studio. The denunciation, implicit in the texts of the documentary made by Giuliano Scabia on the condition of the workers, is offset at the end by a confident affirmation of faith in love and the future, in a mingling of drama and hope that is characteristic of many of Nono’s vocal works. The two subsequent works, A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida (1965-66), using documentary texts curated by Giovanni Pirelli, and Y entonces comprendió (1969-70), with texts by Carlos Franqui and Ernesto Che Guevara, have an international and thirdworldist dimension. In these pieces greater use is made of the alternation of live and pre-recorded voices; moreover one can recognise a more radical use of some aspects of compositional practice (intimately linked with questions of performing practice) which were to prove decisive in his works of the 1970s and 80s. In fact, starting from works such as La fabbrica illuminata and A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida, Nono’s creative process becomes increasingly linked to specific performers, whom he selected for their timbric and expressive characteristics (in this phase we can mention, among others, Carla Henius, Kadigia Bove, Elena Vicini and Liliana Poli). Thanks to the work he did with the musicians during the composition process, Nono began to feel less of a need to assert his authorial wishes in a single, definitive printed edition (viz. A floresta, which was reconstructed and published after his death in 1998). Being subject to environmental variables involving the projection of sound in space, the influence of microphones and so on, the work began to be envisaged as the product of a process in continuous evolution and could often be left at the stage of instructions, project or outline, to be defined in a complete form merely in the directions given to the performer (whose memory could often constitute, wholly or in part, the text of the work). Even when the work was published, as in the case of Y entonces and the subsequent Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1971-72, with a text by Julio Huasi), the ultimate modalities were nonetheless defined only gradually in collaboration with the performers (whether singers, instrumentalists or sound technicians) and increasingly involved a performing practice which was quite atypical with respect to traditional conventions.

In these years each choice of text and/or performing modality testified to Nono’s determination to treat music as a means of political and social struggle aimed at the injustices and absurdities of the present. In both his artistic and human biography the concept of engagement has been (and indeed continues to be) one of the most complex and fiercely debated issues which can easily be misrepresented, particularly when subjected to partisan interpretations. Nono was a member of the Italian Communist Party from 1952 (and of the Central Committee from March 1975) and a friend of high-ranking party officers and Marxist critics such as Luigi Pestalozza. He never betrayed the ideal of the engagé avantgarde artist even when, in the latter phases of his life, his commitment and denunciations took on less direct forms. Politically the most fertile period was the 1960s and 70s, when artistic milestones often coincided with biographical highpoints, viz. the various journeys he made in Eastern bloc countries starting in 1958, to the USSR in 1963 and again in the seventies, to the USA in 1965 and 1979, and to Latin America from 1967 onwards, first to Argentina, then to Chile, Peru and Cuba. This was the time when he measured himself against the theory and practice of International Marxism, participating in workers’ movements during the sixties and the students’ revolt in 1968. For him political militancy, made explicit in his ethical, social and artistic choices, was inseparable from his activity as a musician continually in search of new sound worlds. It was in fact on account of the dual issue of the politicisation of his works and the ‘revolutionary’ use of live electronics that he parted company with his first publisher, Ars Viva Verlag (Schott), and passed to Ricordi. Several times in the sixties and seventies Nono spoke of his music as the product of a union between technique and ideology, making no secret of his impelling need to base his music in the present:

‘There is no doubt that a score has no more chance of causing a revolution than a picture, a poem or a book; but music, just like a picture, poem or book, can testify to the desolate state of society, can contribute, can be the basis for awareness, if its technical attributes maintain the same level as the ideological ones’. (Nono 1969, p. 26).

This and similar reflections produced during the sixties (viz. Il musicista nella fabbrica, 1966, and the presentation of Contrappunto dialettico alla mente, 1968) have often proved to be misleading in terms of musical criticism, where emphasis has been placed all too readily on the ‘ideological attributes’ rather than the innovative scope and artistic value of the music. With the benefit of hindsight the relationship between art and ideology can be seen to go back to the apprenticeship Nono served with Maderna in the late 1940s. It was in fact at the heart of his début work, Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’op. 41 di Arnold Schoenberg, which he later characterised as ‘the consequence of my first studies of enigmatic canons but […] also an ideological choice’ (Nono 1979-80, p. 242). In the most overtly engagé phase of his development, political militancy undoubtedly provided stimuli for his creativity: as he wrote by way of presentation of his Composizione per orchestra n. 2 – Diario polacco ’58, following his first visit to Poland, ‘the genesis of any work of mine is always grounded in a personal provocation: an event, an experience, a text from everyday life triggers my instinct and my technical competence to give a testimony as musician and human being’ (Nono 1960, p. 433), and these words apply equally well to the last phases of his artistic career.

These ‘provocations’ or stimuli are often quite apparent in his choices of materials and collaborators. In terms of textual material, during the sixties and seventies he tended to use texts taken from authors or dealing with historical subjects symbolising struggle, power, hope and sacrifice on behalf of the collectivity (Karl Marx, Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht, Fidel Castro, Tania Bunke, and so on). For sound material Nono often had recourse to actual sounds captured in the environments of work or revolt and embedded in his works with or for tape, in which physical and auditory violence are inextricably interwoven (viz. La fabbrica illuminata, A floresta or Non consumiamo Marx, the second part of the diptych Musica-Manifesto n. 1, 1969). His collaborations included working with Piscator on the electronic music for the staging of Peter Weiss’s Die Ermittlung [The Investigation] in 1965; with Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini: not only were they both good friends, from 1965 and 1966 respectively, but each became indissolubly linked with the genesis of some of his major works (the piano parts of both Como una ola de fuerza y luz, 1971-72 and …..sofferte onde serene…, 1976, were inspired by and written for Pollini, while Abbado conducted the premières of Come una ola, Al gran sole carico d’amore and Prometeo); and with the Living Theatre in 1966, working on the tape for A floresta, and with the director and set designer of the Taganka Theatre in Moscow, Yuri Lyubimov and David Borovsky, in the collective production of Al gran sole carico d’amore. This second azione scenica, featuring worldwide liberation struggles, marked the climax of Nono’s overtly political period. From the Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution of 1905, the revolution in Cuba and so on, Nono depicted a number of uprisings in the cause of freedom through the role played by women activists, who emerge as symbols of hope, strength and love. Composing, making and disseminating music represented a dialectic synthesis of art and life which he saw as the only means to ‘wholly realise himself’ (Nono 1963, 144). The concepts of engagement and responsibility seem to represent – overtly during the central years of his artistic ‘struggle’, more covertly during the 1980s – an echo of the lesson of Piscator, whose book Das politische Theater (1929, published by Einaudi in Italian in 1960) was a decisive text for Nono in the early fifties, as he came to realise that ‘the synthesis of art and politics means supreme responsibility, means putting at the service of the supreme goals of humanity all the means one has at one’s disposal and hence also art’ (Piscator, Il teatro politico, Torino 1960, p. 48).

But in the context of his career as a composer stretching over nearly 40 years, during which time he passed from serial technique to electronic music and then live electronics, the concept of engagement also applies to the ‘responsible’ conception of research implicit in each new work and in the construction of an innovatory language whose revolutionary aspect lies in the resulting sound world. This means putting into perspective, if not actually rejecting out of hand, the notion of an alleged ‘a-political’ phase for Nono in the 1980s: art experienced as responsibility and subjective commitment (associating the author, performer and listener) is a constant which characterises his whole artistic biography and is not confined to political content, whether overt or latent. Nono came to regard the traditional venues for the production and diffusion of music, together with the relative performing practices, as profoundly inadequate for communicating his aural messages. During the 1960s and 70s his work took on an ever more collective dimension: alternative spaces (such as works canteens and workers’ recreational clubs) served as concert halls, while his quest for a new music theatre came to involve a radical critique of the traditional modes of witnessing and enjoying performances. More than the institutions themselves, it was the forms and customs rooted in those institutions (whether cultural, social or concert-promoting) that were considered obsolete and continually called into question. He also began to apply the concept of ‘engagement’ to the exploitation of space: in both projects and works that were actually staged – ranging from Intolleranza 1960 to the ‘tragedy of listening’ Prometeo (1984, rev. 1985) – Nono’s determination to break down the traditional barrier between stage and audience became ever more radical, for he saw this as the relic of an ‘antidemocratic’ ritual with ‘the faithful attending and the celebrant officiating’ (Nono 1962, p. 122). In this case it was not the idea itself that was innovatory, for it was already current in experiences of the Russian avantgarde and in the approach of Gropius and Piscator to theatre (while in the musical sphere one should at least recall experiments like Luciano Berio’s Passaggio, 1962). It was rather the aural and visual dimension which Nono set out to project onto a dimension of artistic exploitation stripped of all physical and ideal barriers. The ‘space’ which the composer imagined – achieved during the eighties by means of the transformation, elaboration and projection in real time of sound made possible by live electronics – was conceived as an environment in which spatial and temporal relationships could form part of a total dimension both in acoustic terms (with the multiplication and spatialization of the sound sources) and visually (by eliminating the separation of stage and auditorium).

In the mid-seventies, after his second major staged production Al gran sole carico d’amore, Nono underwent a profound creative crisis, heightened by the deaths in the space of four months of his father (in October 1975) and his mother (January 1976). Not long afterwards Nono had this to say about this particular period and its personal and artistic consequences: Immediately after Al gran sole an unutterable silence descended: that is to say, I did not possess the means I needed to express myself. This was the time my friendship with Massimo Cacciari blossomed, even though I’d known him since 1965. I felt the need not only to study my musical language but also to analyse my own mental categories, and I began to compose again, “…..sofferte onde serene…“, a work which taxed me to the extreme’ (Nono 1979-80, p. 245). Previous attributes such as the performer’s prime function in the creative process, the role of technologies and so on, were complemented by a new impulse towards the interiorization of the musical message and the concept of engagement. With the onset of the 1980s the chief characteristics of Nono’s style – starting from the string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, 1979-80 – are silence, pauses, the juxtaposition of fragments in which pianissimi verging on the imperceptible alternate with explosions of sound, and the structural value of space. Although these elements have prompted some critics and commentators to speak of either a ‘turning-point’ (viz. Nono, la svolta, a memorable article Massimo Mila devoted to this final phase of Nono’s activity in 1988) or abrupt caesuras in his artistic development, there can be no doubt that the germ of all these elements was already present (and indeed exploited) in a number of works going back to the 1950s. In Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica, for example, there are silences and sonorities verging on the inaudible, just as the chiaroscuro use of dynamics and the lacerated sonorities typical of some works dating from the eighties are to be found in Due espressioni per orchestra (1953), Il canto sospeso, La terra e la compagna (1957) and Cori di Didone. Contrary to interpretations of technique or style dictated by sequential decades, one can recognise a continuous development running right through Nono’s creative career, involving the unremitting elaboration of elements that go to nurture a sound world with a rich potential for imagery, at times verging on utopia.

The changes in the political and social scene and the awareness of the progressive loss of a collective subject and the illusory nature of social revolution are visible in the texts Nono selected for his compositions during the eighties, clearly influenced by his friendship with the philosopher Massimo Cacciari. Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, the Hebrew mystics, Walter Benjamin, Edmond Jabès, Giordano Bruno, Friedrich Nietzsche, tragedy and Greek mythology: these are the sources Cacciari reworked for Das atmende Klarsein (1981), Quando stanno morendo. Diario polacco n. 2 (1981), Guai ai gelidi mostri (1983) and for Prometeo, an opera sui generis. These new literary stimuli were complemented by the technical resources offered by live electronics, which Nono was able to explore in Germany in the Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung, Freiburg. He began to use this brand new electronic laboratory in 1980, and took his leave of the now technologically obsolete Studio di Fonologia of the RAI by making a tribute to one of the leading lights of his youth, Con Luigi Dallapiccola (1979), the first work in which he went beyond the mere use of tape, with sounds being transformed in real time.

The philosophy underlying the creations of his last decade – characterised by proceeding by ‘attempts’ or ‘choices’ and by the constant transformations of sound events in performance – recalls Leonardo’s image of the sculptor who ‘nel fare la sua opera fa per forza di braccia e di percussione a consumare il marmo, od altra pietra soverchia, ch’eccede la figura che dentro a quella si rinchiude’ (‘when making his work uses the strength of his arm in hammering to remove the superfluous marble or other stone which surrounds the figure embedded within the stone’; Leonardo, Trattato della pittura, § 32 ‘Differenza tra la pittura e la scoltura’). This mode of proceeding by subtraction, modelling the sound in real time and allowing it to be enriched by new possibilities thrown up as reactions to technical hitches, can be clearly seen in the genesis of Prometeo, constructed out of at least four preliminary works designated as ‘studies’: Io, frammento dal Prometeo (1981), Das atmende Klarsein, Quando stanno morendo. Diario polacco n. 2, and Guai ai gelidi mostri. Although Prometeo features among Nono’s works for the theatre, the scenic or narrative element has actually been completely stripped away: all the ‘theatre’ or action is in the sound, viewed as a mobile entity deprived of any visual apparatus and projected into a resonant space consisting of a wooden ark-like structure specifically designed by Renzo Piano for the church of San Lorenzo in Venice for the work’s first performance in 1984. Ideally Prometeo can be seen as the culmination of all the dramaturgical experiments carried out in the wake of Intolleranza 1960, subsumed in a sound world in which sight gradually cedes to pure listening. In terms of text the work is concerned not so much with revisiting the mythological figure of Prometheus as with affirming the figure’s ‘revolutionary’ standing, seen in his incessant search for a new order that can subvert the preceding one: ‘in a word, [for] an unending Promethean continuity’ (Nono 1987, p. 559).

Biografia | Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono Onlus

The whole of Nono’s output is based on the pursuit of new sonorities, requiring not only a different manner of experiencing sound (by performers and listeners) but also new configurations for concert venues. Far from being apolitical or disengaged, this output projects the ideal of an art that is as human as it is politically committed into the interior realms of the ‘unsayable’ (a topic that was every bit as dear to Nono in his later years as ‘utopia’). In the wake of Prometeo, once the collaboration with Cacciari had come to an end and he was spending an increasing amount of time in Germany, Nono wrote his most visionary orchestral works: A Carlo Scarpa architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili (1984) for orchestra using micro-intervals, Caminantes… Ayacucho (1986-87) and ‘No hay caminos. Hay que caminar’… Andrei Tarkowskij (1987). These works for large forces were accompanied by chamber pieces employing live electronics, including tributes to Boulez and Cacciari, A Pierre, dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum (1985) and Risonanze erranti. Liederzyklus a Massimo Cacciari (1986), and solo works with or without transformation technology: Post-Prae-Ludium per Donau (1988), La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. Madrigale per più ‘caminantes’ con Gidon Kremer (1988-89), inspired by the outstanding violinist, and ‘Hay que caminar’ sognando (1989), the final work in Nono’s catalogue. Each of these pieces was invariably performed by individuals with whom he enjoyed an intimate working relationship: Roberto Fabbriciani, Ciro Scarponi, Giancarlo Schiaffini, Susanne Otto, Stefano Scodanibbio, Hans Peter Haller, and so on. In many cases they spent lengthy sessions with the composer in the electronic laboratory in Freiburg preparing the end product, making them the repositories of the author’s will as Nono became ever less tolerant of the limits and boundaries of traditional musical notation.

During the final years of his life Nono intensified his dealings with Germany and experienced firsthand the phases that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Other journeys which proved decisive for the genesis of some of his last works took him to Spain; in Toledo in 1985 he saw on a monastery wall the paraphrase of a line by Machado, ‘Caminantes: no hay caminos, hay que caminar’, which inspired the cycle of the Caminantes that brought his oeuvre to an end. In 1986-87 he spent a long period in Berlin thanks to a grant promoting academic exchanges from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. In 1987-88 he was elected to the prestigious Berlin research institute Wissenschaftskolleg. In March 1990 he received the Großer Kunstpreis Berlin, awarded annually by one of the six sections of the Akademie der Künste to a figure of distinction in the arts. Affected by a serious liver disorder, Nono died in Venice two months later, on 8 May 1990, in the house where he was born at the Zattere.