Enough Nono for Now

Friday 26 October 2007

Two uncanny audience experiences in one week: after hearing concertgoers on Sunday coming away from a Philip Glass gig humming a 12-tone row, on Tuesday I was at Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the Arditti Quartet play Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima. I’ve previously explained what I think of this piece, but hearing the Arditti’s performance of it brought another dimension I hadn’t noticed before.

Just as its title suggests, Nono’s quartet is an extended series of silences, or near-silences of sustained faint chords, at times barely audible, from which brief fragments of muted activity occasionally surface. The Arditti played these long, soft notes with almost inhuman accuracy, the intonation almost never wavering. The sound was immaculate, remote.

Fragmente – Stille is music in which time is suspended, unlike Nono’s later, last works, such as the ‘No hay caminos, hay que caminar’ pieces, in which one is made always conscious of the sense of time passing. Again, the titles of these last pieces are apt, evoking journeys (La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura) instead of silent contemplation: the music is less rarefied, more grounded in human activity than derived from an abstract ideal.

The emphasis on action and motion, within a similar hushed, fragmentary sound-world, is present to such an extent in Nono’s last works that some of them demand the musicians move from place to place during the performance. His last piece, “Hay que caminar” soƱando for two violinists, was played at the Royal Academy of Music on Monday evening: the two players gradually circle each other round the audience before finally meeting on stage. The musicians must feel their way through disconnected gestures hovering between silence and noise: faltering harmonics, rushed arpeggios, the sound of wood on strings, more the shadows of sounds than the sounds themselves. Most remarkable is the way Nono writes for the pair of instruments, each echoing the other to reproduce similar effects to those he had previously obtained though using electronics.

Nono’s use of electronics was heard at an earlier Royal Academy concert, which The Rambler has described so I don’t have to. It is followed by a brief discussion of what happened in the second half, which was disrupted by boozers like me enjoying the subsidised beer in the attached student bar, blithely oblivious to the concert having started again without anyone informing us. It’s small comfort that the people responsible for the house lights were also in the bar, and so completely missed their cue as well.

I forgot to mention what that other weird audience experience was: during a forty-minute string quartet comprised almost entirely of the quietest sounds and long silences, played in a full concert hall in autumn in London, not a single person coughed.