“Now that things are so easy, there’s so much to do.” Nono, Tarkovsky, Facility, Impossibility.

Monday 8 October 2007

It must be nearly ten years ago that I took a friend to the abandoned power station in the middle of Melbourne for performace of Luigi Nono’s epic work for violin and tape, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. He came away from it exhilarated, saying that it was like the musical equivalent of a film by Tarkovsky.
The last and greatest piece on last Monday’s concert program was Nono’s ‘No hay caminos, hay que caminar’… Andrej Tarkovskij, for seven instrumental groups distributed around the concert hall. Nono described Tarkovsky as “a soul who enlightened me”; both made art that fought against the way modern life dulls one’s perception of the world.
Alison Croggon at Sarsaparilla has recently written beautifully about Tarkovsky, particularly his film Stalker.

Stalker’s beauty is woven out of its limitations, its finitudes. When I watch a Tarkovsky film, I am always aware of the literalness of his medium; he is never doing anything more than making a film. Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic.

Croggon writes that Stalker is a film about faith: it articulates faith, but does not attempt to explain its meaning or its purpose. The Stalker is a guide, who offers the hope to others of realising their desires, but he cannot fulfil these hopes for himself.

Meanwhile, Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music has also been writing about Luigi Nono, in particular his late string quartet Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima:
… each attempt to write something meaningful about the quartet has failed, and I’m not sure whether my failure lies in my inability to get closer to a work whose distance to my own musical culture is great, or in a more fundamental doubt about the work as a technical and musical achievement.

Wolf has problems with this piece: it seems hermetic and obscure. Worse still, Nono’s material seems thin, facile; is he using hermeticism as a cloak for a lack of musical substance?
This is something I hadn’t considered before, but if it is an issue then it strikes me as being of a piece with the other distinctive aspects of Nono’s late music. Nono’s music had always been about struggle, most obviously in the many works dealing with political and social struggle. In his late works the struggle becomes internalised, a matter of personal and spiritual wrestling. The quotation “No hay caminos, hay que caminar” is invoked in several of Nono’s titles from this period. It comes from a graffito he found on the wall of a Spanish monastery; loosely translated, it means “There is no way, yet we must go” – a sort of variant of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
The struggle is not just metaphysical, it is also a testing of Nono’s musical ideas and technique. Morton Feldman (who provided the quote for this post’s title) liked to complain that one of the many problems with composers is that they liked to make everything seem so easy: there is always the compulsion to make the music, even at its most anguished, seem to have emerged unmediated from the abstract, unscarred and unruffled. In other words, glib. It’s an important theme in writing and painting, but music pretends it doesn’t exist.
Nono’s music confronts this smoothing banality of technique with denuded musical material, isolated, halting phrases, inarticulate gestures, made from habit and apparently empty of meaning. In the same way, Tarkovsky in Stalker guides his limpid camera over industrial waste and other detritus. “Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic.”
This method shows itself most clearly in La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, with its taped part built up out of sounds produced by violinist Gidon Kremer in the studio. Set adrift by Nono without any music, Kremer was left flailing, confusedly making tentative, awkward, disconnected noises; his mutterings, dropped objects, and extraneous studio sounds intrude on the soundscape. When writing the solo part, Nono kept Kremer waiting until the morning of the premiere for the complete score, semi-legibly scrawled in biro. Composer and musician each stripped of language and technique, forced to make sense of what was left.
It’s a world that offers glimpses of an unsettling beauty that flourishes beyond human desires and yet can provide a home for the unsayable, unattainable longing that reaches beyond the confines of the self.

Repeatedly, in the score for Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima, the musicians are confronted by a fragment from Hölderlin, inscribed above the music, silently chiding them: “…but you cannot know that…”

  1. The last scores were a mess. I wonder if Nono's alcoholism was at work.