Sound Box / Music for society's sake
A Jaffa music festival is showcasing the work of the late Italian composer and human rights activist Luigi Nono.
In October 1981 Italian composer Luigi Nono was commissioned to write a piece for the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music. Those were stormy days for Poland. It was the year Wojciech Jaruzelski rose to power, imposed martial law and became a dictator; to protest his actions, the Solidarity movement was formed by Lech Walesa in the shipyards of Gdansk.
Everyone knew where Nono's heart lay. An advocate for human rights, an anti-fascist and one of the biggest humanists of his generation - who had become one of Europe's greatest composers of the post-World War II era by the time he died in 1990 - he composed a piece called "Quando Stanno Morendo" (When They Are Dying ) for four female voices, cello and live electronic music, a work that was entirely a protest against the oppression taking place in Poland.
The work contained seven songs set to texts by Eastern European writers and poets including Boris Pasternak, Czeslaw Milosz and Aleksandr Blok. The opening text, by Velimir Khlebnikov, accuses the Russian occupier directly: "Moscow - who are you? / I know that you are / orthodox wolves," he wrote.
News of the work reached Jaruzelski, who could not allow such a challenge to his regime and canceled the entire festival. Nono's friend and the person who worked closely with him on his creations, the Swiss composer and conductor Andre Richard, recalled those days from his room in a Tel Aviv hotel before his performance this week at the Marathon Hateiva music festival (Tuesday through Saturday, Hateiva Studio, Jaffa, featuring many multidisciplinary artists and performers and alto Noa Frenkel ). At the festival, Richard is responsible for the electronics during the performance of Nono's "Homage to Gyorgy Kurtag" (Wednesday at 8:30 P.M. ), which will wind up two days of lectures and workshops on Nono and his contemporaries given by members of the Experimental Studio of Freiburg, Germany, who are guests of the festival.
"Nono did not give up and performed the piece in Venice," says Richard, "and seven years later was again invited to perform it at the festival in Poland. But he suspected that the conductor selected to conduct the piece was a KGB agent and canceled its performance there. The disappointment in Poland was tremendous. They had waited for years for this piece to be performed there, and then, a week before the concert, he asked me to travel there and conduct it. I laughed, but he insisted and that is what I did. It was the peak of my career."
From Sartre to Malcolm X
Nono was born in Venice in 1924 to a family of artists. His parents loved music, which they studied in Venice. As a vehement opponent of the fascism and war he witnessed, he identified with the principles of freedom. He also became a prominent spokesman for socialism in his country. He studied philosophy and literature and was very committed to his social and political involvement; and when he met the Italian composer Bruno Maderna and later discovered the new musical ideas that were expressed at the Darmstadt Festival in the 1950s, his social ideology merged with his creative works.
Revolutionary texts by Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre, Federico Garcia Lorca and the modernist playwrights of his era served Nono in his works, as did later writings by figures including Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht and Malcolm X, along with texts by anonymous students who took part in protest demonstrations.
Nono wrote political works about those fighting fascism in Spain, including his "Monument to Garcia Lorca." His extensive knowledge of the arts and literature led him to create a multi-layered musical performance in which he combined plastic arts, theater, film and philosophy. His approach was that every artistic work must be motivated by questions about morality and politics.
"The artist must be involved and the work must be for the sake of society, under no circumstances 'art for art's sake,'" explains Andre Richard. "Consequently, Nono also talked with the audience before performances of his works and explained his views to them. In his last year he attended a performance of his work 'Remember What They Did to You in Auschwitz' (1965 ), in Berlin. The work ended and the audience did not applaud at all; it was impossible. And then Nono went on stage and in German began repeatedly calling to the audience: 'Don't forget' ('nicht vergessen' ) until the sentence turned into a shout that echoed throughout the auditorium. The audience was stunned.
"His political speeches also caused stirs," says Richard. "At the world premiere of his opera, 'Prometeo' (Prometheus ), in 1985, which was produced by the La Scala opera in Milan and performed at a factory, he asked to speak. And in front of the rich and dignified audience, he came in dressed in factory worker's clothes, in a red checked shirt, and told of the exploitation of workers. 'Do you know what they manufacture in this factory? Engines for boats to be used by the rich!'"
Moments of humanity
From a historical perspective, Luigi Nono belonged to the Darmstadt school of composers - both in regard to his writing technique, at least early in his career, and, primarily, to the spirit of his works. As post-World War II Europe lay in ruins, a spirit of renewal slowly surfaced: the spirit of freedom, optimistic thoughts about the future, a desire to change what had led to the destruction. This spirit was motivated by curiosity and courage; in the musical world, it was motivated by the desire to create a real alternative to the music of fascist regimes.
In the German city of Darmstadt, Nono learned about the radical compositional method of serialism, which sought to turn its back on the music of the past. Unlike some of his colleagues, he cleverly integrated serialist techniques into his body of work, using them primarily for moments of expression and humanity and used vocal solos and choruses, giving a prominent place to spoken language. As his colleagues strove for objectivity and abstraction, and therefore rid their works of what they considered to be non-musical components, Nono took the opposite position.
"When he came to lectures and master classes in Eastern Europe, people left him out a little, they said his socialism and communism are idealistic and not based in reality," Richard says. "He was a humanist who lived by the light of ideals, but people had to live and adjust their beliefs to the reality and the two did not always meet.
"But Nono was like the sun, giving life and energy to all those around him," adds Richard. "He longed to work only with the simple people, and stayed away from anyone who was a little condescending or arrogant. His interest was in the performers themselves, in them as people, and from there his music sprouted in cooperation with them. The works were a dialogue with the performers. The aesthetics were his, but within it was the freedom to grow.
"I worked with many composers who were contemporaries of his, for example, with [German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen; that was a different story. He decided everything, almost like a dictator, and knew exactly what he wanted and what had to be the end result, whereas Nono came to the studio without knowing what was going to happen. For him, the quest was the important part, so he said. And he couldn't stand the phrase 'I know.'"