Mixed responses to the UK première of Nono’s Prometeo, given twice at the Festival Hall over the weekend.
While some words are distinct, the greater part of Massimo Cacciari’s text is separated out into its component vowels and consonants.
They become just another source of sound, mixed in with the instrumentals and electronics in a score that can range from quiet miasmas and gurglings to full brass blasts, from vocal purity redolent of the Renaissance to a tangled web of augmented fourths and major sevenths, from aggressive discord to the sort of soft ambient music commercially available on CDs fostering relaxation.
Just occasionally, the teetering, trembling sounds break out into massive climaxes, a reminder that Nono, for all his uncompromising modernism, was a Venetian, an heir to the spatial experiments of Monteverdi and the Gabrielis.
I disagree with much of the sentiment of Norris’s review – “innocuous aural massage” my arse! – but Clements’s really perplexes me. His reference to “a slow unvaried unfolding” doesn’t tally with my experience at all. Sure, there are points of continuity, even reuse of the same materials, but the variety between each of the 11 sections is very distinct and, I would suggest, gives the piece a much greater linear shape than it is otherwise credited with. His line above also surprises me, as it seems to suggest that the Venetian connection (found in a certain spatial aspect) is something of an afterthought, rather than the poetic core of the entire piece!
The Festival Hall, of all Prometeo’s venues, must be the most abstract, providing no evocative atmosphere except, perhaps, that of a recording studio. So Prometeo had to stand alone; and at times it seemed more like a work of modernist reference than an overwhelming emotional experience. But, on coming out into a London Saturday night, it was palpably clear that any work that can resensitise and refocus the human spirit, presenting listening as understanding rather than as distraction, can’t be all bad.
Better than any illegal substance, Prometeo sends you into a waking trance, though the sound of dropped programmes suggested the experience induced sleep in others. Only a few sceptics walked out, thinking no doubt that the naked emperor of Modernism was back in town. I’m still in two minds but this was an unmissable event, brilliantly brought off.
[T]he Southbank Centre was right to stage this overdue UK premiere, if only to show how unrealistic modernism had become by the time Nono completed his “theatre of sounds” in 1984-85. He was an idealist. Even if Prometeo is musically too thin to sustain the weight of theory and ideas motivating it, you have to admire the purity of Nono’s artistic/aesthetic quest, something today’s composers, dogged by the demands of consumer accessibility, are not allowed even to contemplate.
There are no sops to the merely curious: no hypnotic beauty, such as a comparably prolonged and austere work by Morton Feldman would offer; no dramatisation of divergent time-streams, as in Stockhausen’s Gruppen, with its three conductors. You are clearly meant to give your all to the piece – and the large (second-night) audience was amazingly attentive – but, for me, this study in listening was not so much a luminous personal transport as a reminder of dictation exercises in school music lessons. There was plenty of time to pick out intervals. Lots of bare ecclesiastical fifths.
Over two-and-a-half unbroken hours, Nono’s into-his-beard musings purred by with the occasional rumble, as listeners meditated, zoned out or allowed their heads to fall. On the outer edges of audibility much of the time, it occasionally raised those heads with a titanic climax reverberating around the hall. Under Diego Masson and Patrick Bailey, the London Sinfonietta and the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble, plus Synergy Vocals and sundry soloists, reminded us that, if Prometheus was Western civilisation’s first rebel, Nono was his appropriate 20th-century heir.
[T]he effort was to hold on to, to make sense of a music that seemingly refused to lead the ear, to accumulate, to achieve any sense of climax or closure.
And yet, through the work’s disparate sounds there was a kind of austere continuity to be discerned. As the entire structure finally resolved on a bare fifth, one had the touching sense of Nono making his peace with the great European musical heritage he had spent so much of his career questioning and trying to revolutionise.
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The combination of such instrumental composition, voices, and the all-important spatial dimension – not just the placing of instrumentalists and voices, but also that of the twenty-seven speakers, to be understood not as agents of amplification but as points at which music could take place – inevitably brought to mind the great Venetian polychoral works of the past. St Mark’s, in a sense, was brought to the South Bank and transformed. But equally so was Venice itself, or at least the Venice of Nono’s understanding … . The twists and turns, the lapping of the waves, the transfer between East and West were voiced; indeed, the interchanges, and landscapes of Venetian, European, and world history were present throughout this retelling of the Prometheus myth. Moreover, the words, a fascinating assemblage from Massimo Cacciari, are far more readily audible than many commentators – have they actually been listening? – would have one believe.
Deprived of the option to look at the performers or to understand how the sound was being produced, obliged to sit still for over 2 hours and hemmed in on all sides by sound, I found it hard also to understand how the work exemplified democracy or freedom. Perhaps it’s simply a case of unreasonably raised expectations, but it all seemed like just another pleasant Friday night out.
We are told that hearing Prometeo is a deeply personal experience. Describing it can therefore only be subjective and any one response is as valid as another. Those transported to another plane are just experiencing it in a different way from the people, and there were a number, who found they had to leave the auditorium before the performance was over. Nono certainly pushes the observer to the limit. Two hours and 20 minutes, without interval, is a long time when the promised plateau of serenity doesn’t appear.
Much is made of Nono’s use of space. Again though, spatial arrangements aren’t an aim in themselves, but integral to the meaning of the piece. Nono is reminding us that sound is ambient, it comes from all around. It is up to us to process, from whatever position we may be in at any given time. This too subverts the conventional notion of music as a commodity to be consumed passively. Prometeo subverts the very idea that what we hear should be fixed in any given form. Rather it makes us realise that what we hear comes from one perspective among many. The four compact orchestras are placed in different places around wherever the performance is held. Each performance will differ according to where it takes place. There’s always an element of spontaneity, of using resources where they are found so there’s no “definitive” setting. On this occasion, the Royal Box provided an excellent place to position the string unit, between the main orchestra in the front, back and side. Other boxes were used for the euphonium, for the glass instruments, for the voices. These days when most of us get our music through recording, it’s easy to forget that recordings are only snapshots in time, frozen forever by mechanical means. Music, in the real world, is something far more alive and fluid.
Nono is classed as one of those nasty modernists we’re all supposed to reject these days in favour of Golijov. But what’s striking is that this music (as well as being far more immediate than the anti-modernists would have you believe) doesn’t sound “modern” at all. It sounds extraordinarily, immensely ancient. We leave the hall at the end, and to return to the bustle of London after this feels like returning from a journey to an unimaginably distant world, perhaps even time. The world seems too fast. Nono gives our thoughts space to breathe. And time.
There’s so much more to be said, and yet also nothing. I go about my day as before. But behind it somewhere there’s the memory of this other place, and it’ll be a while before it’s absorbed. it’s all a matter of time.
Prometeo rarely rises above a whisper (though it does so to great effect on a number of occasions), and it very often returns to bare and beautiful forms of the three most basic intervals of Western music, the octave, fifth, and fourth. These are frequently contrasted both by dense chromaticism and by very slight decays (such as the overlaying of a fifth at the semitone above or below). But the abiding effect of the tones of the work is one of tonal-serial simplicity. This effect is enriched by Nono’s unsurpassed ear for colour, which in this work is always shown to be alive to unique combinations and doublings between wind, brass and strings, and his decision to include no percussion highlights the revolutionary rhetorical aspect of the piece. This rhetoric of silence and delicate concentration is broken only very rarely, such as in the tumults of the Hölderlin section, and in these moments the performers negotiated arresting dynamic fissures that resonated long after they had ceased.
The action, for want of a better word, occurs in the movement of sound around the space. That first performance in Venice took place in the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo. The London performance was in Royal Festival Hall, surely the least atmospheric and most clinical environment in which Prometeo has yet been performed. The location, and absence of extraneous sound, must have had an effect upon the experience.
I am rarely shocked to hear an arrangement of musicians sound quite different to how they appear on a CD. With this performance of Prometeo however, the added detail and depth within the room made this a completely different experience of what is essentially a fully composed piece of music. Even little things like hearing the work right the way through (rather than the forced break that happens on both CD versions as Prometeo will not fit onto a single disc) was a strange experience. The nine parts of the work felt like they belonged together here, as opposed to different tracks on album as I have subconsciously considered them in the past. There could be no getting up to make a cup of tea halfway through, there were no intervals, no coming up for air. An overwhelming experience that has made me stop and rethink my opinion of what is possible in a live music performance.
My own (somewhat muddled) thoughts are at Musical Pointers.