He’s sick, but he still takes a plastic cup of cheap red wine into a Nono concert

Friday 5 October 2007

I’ve only been to one Proms concert, to hear Berio’s Coro, a piece so overwhelming it couldn’t be swamped by the Albert Hall’s notorious acoustics. I was sat behind a row of BBC employees whose sole remark upon the music was that it wasn’t a bad effort for a commie.
Perhaps this back row brigade of insiders is the target audience for the protracted music festival “Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice“. The lifelong Red has been slowly regaining the attention he deserves since his death in 1989; for a while he was pigeonholed amongst the B-team of post-WWII serialists, distinguished by his explosive temperament and expressive vocal writing, usually for revolutionary texts that had not aged well (“UNCLE SAM WANTS ‘YOU’ NIGGER. Join the best paid army of negro mercenaries in the world! Support White Power, take a trip to Vietnam and win a medal!”*)
There is talk (and there are talks) about Nono’s politics and how it shaped his music in the program, but not too much of the music itself. Apart from a few notable exceptions (particularly a performance of A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida) the series focusses on Nono’s late works, less overtly political and more spiritual in nature.
I don’t know exactly why this is bugging me so much. These late works include many of his greatest pieces, his most haunting and mysterious music. Usually I can’t stand art that tries to sell a message. In part, I think it’s because of the faux-edginess of the program: at Monday’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall there were university students “responding live to the music by literally writing on the (foyer) walls”. That last bit was written on the back of a blank postcard us punters were handed as we entered, upon which we were invited to doodle and affix with blu-tac upon approved sectors of the foyer walls. I’ll spare you the five paragraphs of ranting I had written on the triteness of this gesture, “inspired by Nono’s ideas of protest through art.”
Also, I think I’m mildly annoyed at how many avant-garde composers are now gaining prominence under false premise of being some sort of proto-”Holy Minimalist”, like highbrow New Age music, all wafty spirituality and hushed tones of reverence. Besides obvious choices like Part, Gorecki, and Tavener, less tractable composers like Cage and even Webern are now getting gentle, mellow recordings of works that were once rightly considered prickly and demanding. Late Nono, with its pauses, long durations, and sense of ritual, seems to be the latest candidate for being co-opted by this movement.
Luckily, Nono’s spirit and soundworld is combative enough to resist this type of treatment, but I still wish there were some of the earlier, more confronting pieces on the program, like the monstrous, jawdropping Como una ola de fuerza y luz, which I’m sure spooked not one, but two of my housemates into moving out after they came home when day when I was playing it a little too loud.
I’m due down the pub, so no time to write about the concert now. Sorry, maybe next time!

* From Contrappunto dialettico alla mente (1968). The text is taken from a “pamphlet distributed by the Harlem Progressive Social Club”.