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luigi nono: il prometeo
a revolutionary's swansong


Together with Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Ligeti, Goeyvaerts and Kagel, Luigi Nono belongs to that handful of composers that provoked a landslide in the music of the fifties and sixties of the past century, that has remained unparalleled up to now. But, in contrast with many of his contemporaries, who will be remembered foremost for their early work, Nono (1924-1990) came to full bloom only at the end of his life. From 1975 onwards he dedicated himself to the composition of a number of closely related works such as ‘Das Atmende Klarsein’ (1980-1983), ‘André Richard’ (1981), ‘Guai ai gelidi Mostri’ (1983) and ‘Quando stanno morendo, Diario Polacco nr. 2 (1982). Apart from the important string quartet ‘Fragmente-Stille. An Diotima’(1979-80) and works like “Hay que caminar” sonando’ (1989), which enclose the whole as a kind of prologue and epilogue, we can envisage all the works of this period as an archipelago, in the middle of which arises the island of islands: the ‘Prometeo’. This ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’, originally conceived for the San Marco in Venice, was premiered in 1984 in the San Lorenzo in Venice. But it is the second version, reworked on the basis of his experience in the San Lorenzo in Venice, and premiered in the Scala di Milano in 1985, that has hence been performed in many places throughout the entire world. Not only is the ‘Prometeo’ the jewel in the crown of Nono’s oeuvre, it may also be considered one of the best works composed in the past century. And that holds especially true of the unforgettable last movement of this opera: the wonderful ‘Stasimo Secondo’.


...un orbe descompuesto
en sones por el viento.

from: 'Tragedia del ascolto'
Vladimir García Morales

Let us first examine the musical material.

To begin with: those remarkable two- or three-part vocal fragments running as a thread through the opera. It seems as though the melodic/harmonic universe, which had expanded to an endless profusion of points in serialism, is trying to reconstruct itself though absolute negation: the points are transformed into sustained tones and their profusion into single intervals– preferably octaves, fifths or fourths, but also sevenths and seconds, or the tritone. Of these intervals, the first tone often continues resounding when the second sets in, so that succession is transformed into simultaneity, wholly in the spirit of Schönbergs’ strive for integration of the vertical and the horizontal axis. Or of Skriabin: ‘Melody is harmony opened out, while harmony is melody drawn together’. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit!

Through such reduction of the serial profusion to the elementary interval, the tones are no longer freely floating in atonal space. The one and only tonic, the gravity of which had been denied in Schonberg’s universe, has become the very backbone of ‘Guai ai gelidi mostri’. In the ‘Prometeo’ it is rather the fifth in which the implosion comes to a standstill. The entire Prometeo seems to stay under the sign of the fifth: it begins with and ends with this divine interval, and what happens between seems to be one gigantic organum*. But one in which the circling around the tonic has come to a standstill: the melody, reduced to the succession of intervals, is moving so slowly, that it seems as though we are gliding from one tonic to another. The linear succession is broken up through frequent jumps to the higher or the lower octave, so that the whole seems to capriciously move through the ever changing registers of an expanded musical space. And also the strict parallel movement is broken in that the fifth often narrows to a fourth or a tritone, before unfolding into a new fifth. Often, also the octaves narrow into sevenths or widen into ninths. Thus, the organum unfolds to that remarkable way of moving developed in ‘Das atmende Klarsein’: one single note redoubles itself into a field of tension between tonic and dominant, or the field of tension between tonic and dominant narrows into a unison on a new tonic. Instead of the dodecaphonic beings that begrudge one another their fall into the primeval ground, we are dealing here with anxious mountaineers, cautiously moving over the mountain wall from one hold to another. That is the way in which Nono succeeds in conveying a feeling of constancy without having to resort to repeating the same tone, as in ‘Guai ai gelidi mostri’.

In such implosion of the melodic/harmonic or serial universe in octaves, fifths and fourths, Nono seems to have forgotten the thirds and the sixths. But they are not entirely absent. Where they shimmer through, they have something of an epiphany, as in the solos for bass flute in ‘Das atmende Klarsein’, where, already after the first minutes – at least in the version of Fabricciani – the unbroken beauty of the triad is got out of the instrument, played in overtones, which lend the sound something of a glass-harmonium – an echo of times bygone. And also in ‘Terzo, Quarta, Quinta Isola', but foremost in the ‘Stasimo Secondo’, they seem to relentlessly try to break through – as if the organum wanted to come to a standstill in a sustained triad, like in Wagners ‘Vorspiel’ to ‘Das Rheingold’.


Este silbar del aire en flautas graves
es el sonido cercenado de la noche
el sonido inaudible
que sustenta el tronar
de trompas y trompetas en la tromba
de clangores que dañan el silencio.

from: 'Tragedia del ascolto'
Vladimir García Morales

Nono enhances the natural clarity of the human voice through letting it sing on the most sonorous intervals – octaves, fifths and fourths (or a concatenation of them). The effect is further enhanced in that the tones are sustained for a long time, so that it seems as if the voice only sings vowels. Of the instruments, on the other hand, Nono is corroding the sonority in every conceivable way: by blowing too hard or too soft, by playing over the fingerboard or at the bridge, by letting the bow move around its axis (‘arco mobile’), by playing infinitely slowly, or by playing tones nearly out of the reach of the instruments. Or he has the tone pulsate through letting two instruments play not perfectly in unison, so that interferences are produced. Or he piles up tones in such quantities that the sound is approaching noise (clusters).

The effect of the unusual ways of playing is enhanced through the choice of the intervals. In ‘Guai ai gelidi mostri’ the sound of the flutes becomes unbearably piercing precisely because they are blown over on a fifth. The effect is further enhanced in that the fifths are piled up so that the harshness of seconds is added to the ‘dissonance’. These strident blocks of sound are the prelude to the powerful blasts of the coppers of the four orchestras, which again and again come to tear up the subtle fabric of the Prometeo.

On top of that, Nono also has the timbre of the sound change. As in that wonderful continuum of sounds played by the strings in the ‘Tyrannos’ from ‘Guai ai gelidi mostri’ or in the ‘Tre voci a’ and the ‘Interludio secondo’ from the Prometeo. The subtle changes are obtained through changes in the way of playing, through shifts in the relative weight of the instruments, or through the fading away of instruments.


But we would do injustice to Nono when so fiercely opposing the world of the instruments to the world of the voices. Voices and instruments often engage in a dialogue.

The interaction moves in two directions. Sometimes it is the voice that seems to become an instrument: when the sound of the voice is taken over by the sound of an instrument, that is so chosen as to be nearly distinguishable from the voice, like in those marvellous passages in ‘Terza/Quarta/Quinta Isola’, where the high register of the trombone seems to take the vowels out of the singers’ mouth. And in the 'Stasimo secondo’ the instruments engage in the most enchanting relations with the human voice. In all these cases, the instruments are played in such a way as to resemble the human voice or to gently merge with it.

In other cases, it is the instrument that seems to strive to become voice – although not necessarily a clearly singing one. We immediately think of those hesitatingly blown sounds of the bass flute in ‘Das atmende Klarsein’. The audible blowing in the flute reminds of a voice breathing in our ear. It is as if the instruments that are not allowed to sing, resign themselves to speaking, if not to mere breathing. But, remarkably enough, this move is not accomplished through bringing the instrument to articulated speech, as in Berio’s Sequenza for trombone.

And that reminds us of the fact that, conversely, the voices do not always sing. In the 'Prologo' and the ‘Isola Seconda (Io)’ we hear them speak. In 'Hölderlin', they only pronounce consonants, so that it becomes apparent how much unarticulated singing on vowels is, in Nono’s mind, opposed to articulated speech. And in ‘Quando Stanno Morendo, Diario Polaco 2’ the opposition of singing on vowels to speaking with consonants is extended to a second opposition: the singing voice is gently turning into a nearly concealed groaning in the depths, which is contrasted with the ethereal voices singing in the heights. Such nearly concealed opposition is the key to a better understanding of the more concealed - aestheticised - opposition of voices to instruments in the Prometeo: the divine singing voices as the heavenly counterpart to the unbearable suffering in the human sublunar world, worded through the instruments.

ASCOLTA! (Listen!)
Intermezzo on sound as a ‘phenomenon’

The dimension of pitch folding in on itself, the extremely slowing down of movement, the strange sounds got out of familiar instruments: all this compels us to concentrate on sound itself. Nono understands it as an attempt at rehabilitating sound as a pure phenomenon. According to him, from the eighteenth century onwards (Rameau), sound has increasingly been understood as a means of expressing emotions – as a sign within a system of keys. It matters to free sound of such semiotic fetters. Nono is talking about a transition from ‘believing’ to ‘perceiving’ (Conversation entre Nono et Cacciari)**

From a theoretical point of view, that is a very misleading way of tackling the problem. Certainly, Nono never lets the melody run through all the tones of a scale. But that does not make him escape from tonality. An interval does not consist of unrelated tones, and even an isolated tone pre-eminently embodies the tonic wherein everything comes to rest. So, were are not dealing with a transition from ‘sign’ to ‘phenomenon’, but with a shift in mimetic domain: Nono’s succession of fifths does not evoke nothing, but something else than a melody running through all the tones of a scale. And the same holds true for timbre: we do not hear the hesitating sound produced by moving the bow extremely slowly over the string as the friction of horsehair over catgut – not as a ‘phenomenon’ hence – but as the hesitatingly shimmering through of some apparition in musical space. 

A second misunderstanding has been whispered into Nono’s ears by the very semiotic paradigm that is responsible for many a ravage in art theory***: as if a key would ‘refer’ to states of mind rather then embody them – to be mimesis of their appearance. Such ‘referring’ is dismissed as ‘story-telling’, ‘literature’, as ‘sign’ – and, as we shall see later: as ‘image/representation’. To which sound is then opposed as a pure phenomenon. But how little Nono understands his sounds as pure phenomena is testified by the titles in ‘Guai ai gelidi mostri’. These unmistakably betray that Nono is out at conjuring up a world, and leaves no doubt whatsoever as to the nature of the beings that inhabit these worlds: ‘In Tyrannos’, ‘Lemuria’, ‘Das grosse Nichts der Tiere’… 

Nono’s comments on his own work brim over with such theoretical misconceptions, as we shall see below. Fortunately, they have little impact on the quality of his practice.

"Caminante no hay caminos, hay que caminar"

The corollary of the implosion of the universe of pitch into isolated intervals or into sound moving in itself, is a slowing down of movement, often accentuated through fermatas. Often, movement comes to a standstill altogether, as in the long sustained tones of ‘Guai ai gelidi mostri’ and ‘Tre Voci a’. Or it comes to revolve within itself, as in ‘Interludio secondo’. Where events succeed one another at a higher speed, we have to do with short outbreaks amidst the generalised non-happening. And through the entire work, events are separated through often long silences, exemplary in the slow, fragmentary procession of the song.

No dramatic unfolding hence, let alone interaction or conflict. It is as though the whole world has come to a standstill. Or better still: as if all the actors have left the scene. So that the audience is left utterly alone in the void. Wherein silently the contours of an elusive event loom up. Which is no more than an attempt to appear. In the sight of which every partial engagement makes place for pure contemplation. In this sense Nono’s music is really a phenomenon – an apparition: pure epiphany. Although not of sound, but of the inaudible that wants to become audible.

And this event as an attempt at appearing, at becoming audible, is realised musically through a relentless recombination of elements on diverse levels. Nono compares such combinatoric with the way in which Wagner proceeds in the Tristan, where, according to Nono, always the same elements appear time and again only to ‘open new possibilities!’

That goes in the first place on the level of pitch. The separate tones acquire an ever changing character in that they are part of ever changing intervals. The highest tone of a tritone becomes a dissonant as soon as a fifth is added to its lowest tone. The fifth is turned into a fourth when the lowest tone of the interval is played an octave higher. And when the highest note of a second above the lowest tone of a fifth is played an octave higher, it is turned into a ninth that encompasses two fifths. Through the continuous changing from octaves, also the density of the musical fabric becomes another variable in the combinatoric: there is a generalised alternation between dense and wide writing. 

Also the global structure of the separate parts is governed by a combinatoric. A limited number of sonorous material appears in ever new combinations. In ‘guai ai gelidi mostri’ it is strings, voices and piercing winds. In the ‘Stasimo Secondo’ it is a vocal group, a choir of winds and a choir of strings. And so on.

And on the encompassing level of the whole work, finally, the kind of combination of the separate elements itself is submitted to a further encompassing combinatoric. Instruments and voices may move within the same register of musical space and combine in the most diverse ways (Interludio Primo; 3/4/5 Isola). Or they may be opposed as high to low (Hölderlin), while in ‘Tre voci a’ the voices are embedded between the lowest tones of the contrabass clarinet and the highest tones of the strings. On this highest level, it appears that still other elements become part of a generalised combinatoric. In some parts movement flows uninterruptedly (Hölderlin, Interludio Primo); in other parts the silent movement is broken through strident breakthroughs; in still other parts, tangentially swelling crescendo’s loom up from the profoundest silence (Prologo, 3/4/5 Isola). Or again: the deep sounds which stand on their own in the ‘Interludio Secondo’, are combined with voices in ‘Tre voci a’. Or again: in the ‘Interludio primo’ the choir sings only separate tones, while in the ‘Stasimo secondo the tones are sustained, so that the voices begin to evolve in two or three parts. Or again: in ‘Hölderlin’ the dense fabric of high voices is opposed to the angular movement of bass clarinet and bass flute in the depths, while in ‘Tre voci a’ the instruments, conversely, form a dense evolving cluster in the depths as opposed to the voices that follow a separate course in the heights. And so on …

But the Prometeo is more than a mere recombination without end. On the level of the separate parts, there is a clear articulation from beginning, over acme, to end. Thus, in Hölderlin, ever more voices are joining over the angular movement of the instruments, until they finally take over, while the ‘Sprechstimmen’ place the whole in a new perspective. In the ‘Stasimo secondo’ the gentle flow is ever more frequently broken up through deafening clusters, which unfold to more complex groups of three, whereby increasingly echo-relations are developed between the breakthroughs and the soft fabric in the background. In ‘Tre voci a’ the increasingly layered sound dissolves into a sustained unison. Other parts have a strophic structure: think of the ‘Prologo’ – and of ‘Das atmende Klarsein’, which was intended to be the last part of the Prometeo. Still other parts (Stasimo Secondo) render an unchanging state. 

The more you listen to the work as a whole, the more the structure of an encompassing dramatic flow is revealing itself. In the beginning, it is only the succession of the movements that seems to obey a compelling logic. Thus, the ethereal song of the ‘Stasimo secondo’ seems to be a release from the threatening sounds in the ‘Interludio secondo’. But gradually it dawns on us that the ‘Prologo’ is a prologue indeed, and the ‘Stasimo secondo’ a genuine end, although what comes between may hardly be described as a development towards a peripety. Rather are we dealing with a gradually dissolution of the tensions unfolded in the ‘Isola prima’, with the ‘Interludio Primo’ as an onset to the final solution in the ‘Stasimo secondo’. That there is a ‘Stasimo primo’ next to a ‘Stasimo’ secondo’, and an ‘Intrerludio primo’ next to an ‘Interludio secondo’, suggests a binary structure. But there is no question of rigid symmetries. The ‘Interludio primo’ is more akin to the ‘Stasimo secondo’ than to the ‘Interludio secondo’, while, conversely, the ‘Stasimo primo’ is more akin to the ‘Interludio secondo’ than to the ‘Stasimo secondo’. That is why the binary structure rather reminds of the motet – if not of the two parts of Schönberg’s ‘Moses and Aron’, the third part of which is left unfinished.

We could tackle the problem of the overall structure in the vein of Lachenman, who conceives the Prometeo as ‘one gigantic madrigal’ (Symposium Luigi Nono**) – which implies that the overall structure is determined from without by the text. But that would do injustice to the fact that the structure of the Prometeo is musical in the first place. And it is in so far besides the question that it sweeps the sucession of attempts at breaking through, the ‘non-event’, under the carpet. For, with Nono, the endless return of the same elements opens up a totally different universe than in Wagner’s Tristan. With Nono, it is as if we get stuck in the onset of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony – which is equally built on a local combinatoric of fifth and fourth. Or as if of Mahler’s first Symphony we would only hear the first chord, so admired by Nono. Or as if Wagner’s entire Ring would flow back into the waters of the ‘Vorspiel’ to ‘Das Rheingold’. Or again: as if of Berg’s first ‘Orchesterstück’ we would hear only and endless recombination of the first germ cell. And - in another dimension - we are reminded of the fact that Prometeo partakes of the ‘organum’ – that other germ cell out of which the entire Western music has developed, long before it unfolded to the titanic dimensions of Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler. The truth is namely that the additive character of Nono’s experience of time is a reflection of life in a world wherein not so much the possible stays in the foreground, as rather the existing – which is so terribly overwhelming, that the possible can only survive as a faint flickering. Thus, the endless recombination is to be understood as an ever renewed effort to master ever new facets of one and the same problem that cannot be overseen as a whole. That is what is so poignantly affirmed/denied in the text on the music of that marvellous ‘Stasimo secondo’: ‘Und ist in der Wüste unbesiegbar’ (‘And is invincible in the desert’)… Such mood and such experience of time is the common denominator of the implosion of the serial universe with Nono, and the implosion of the melodic/harmonic universe with Liszt, who also restricted himself to a combinatoric of elementary motives – which he, just like Nono, often structured on symmetric positions around a central tone. Although Liszt could not refrain from now and then letting his minutest elements unfold to a melody of a somewhat longer breath, the élan of which nevertheless comes to a standstill in the void.

Also terms like ‘work in progress’ (Stenzl) or ‘fragment’, which are all too easily used in connection with the late Nono, only betray how dearly Nono would have welcomed a further unfolding of his universe. Such phrasings only conceal that the Prometeo is not just an ‘onset’ that only tentatively approaches Nono’s idea. Quite the contrary: a more poignant, more accomplished achievement of this feeling is unthinkable. The parallel with the work of the late Liszt is telling.

In this sense, the technique of the late Nono is not a rupture, but a deepening or a reductive generalisation of the earlier dodecaphonic and serial way of thinking.


Although practical considerations eventually referred to the San Lorenzo, and even though the Prometeo has been performed in different spaces since, it was conceived to be performed in the San Marco in Venice - with four orchestral groups, a choir of soloists, and an extended electronic apparatus to distribute sound in space! No better way to indicate that the Prometeo is meant to join the Venetian tradition of the cori spezzati, inaugurated by Willaert and accomplished by the two Gabrielis.

But Nono’s reference to the San Marco is rather ambivalent. More often than to the space of the San Marco contained by its five domes, Nono is referring to the open space of Venice, traversed with countless channels, more specifically the acoustic landscape – the soundscape – that unfolds to the ear when the murmuring of the water mingles with the sounds of the ships, the noise of the shipyards, the drone of motors, the ringing of the bells and the turmoil of the marketplace. Or, as it is phrased in the ‘Conversation entre Nono et Cacciari’**: ‘The sound of the bells spreads in different directions: some add to one another, are transported over the waters along the channels, other sounds evaporate nearly totally or mingle in various ways with the other signals of the lagoon and the city’. In his footsteps, André Richard is talking about ‘the way in which, at night, when walking through an alley, one can hear footsteps other than one’s own, or hear voices that sound as if they were nearby, while one can still continue walking without encountering a single person, and than suddenly stumble upon someone that one did not hear approaching. One is submerged in a sound space: the experience of an “acoustic labyrinth” wherein one does not know whether what one hears is nearby or far away…’

What catches the eye in such evocations is the emphasis on the hearing of things that are invisible. But foremost the fact that, in audible space, the sounds seems to break loose from the source of sound in visual space. That is why every soundscape – think of the sudden outburst of bells ringing over the city – has something of an epiphany (see: Musical space and its inhabitants’) – an auditory version of Plato’s cave wherein only the sound of the voices would resound. However much the prisoners in the cave would – this time freely – look around, they would never lay eyes upon the visual appearance from which the lovely voices were emanating.

Such disentanglement of audible and visual space is precisely what Nono is seeking. For, according to Nono, musical space has been subordinated to visual space: since the advent of the concert hall and the opera house, everything is focusing on the actors or the musicians on the scene, or, worse still, the gesticulation of the conductor. Nono’s philosophical friend Cacciari is referring to Foucault – theatres and concert halls appear simultaneously with jails and asylums – and to Derrida’s ‘idein’, the critique of the dominance of seeing. In a ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’ such subordination to the eye has to be undone: the instruments should be displayed around the listeners: the Venetian soundscape as the realisation of Nono’s dream to free sound from its visual fetters.

But there is a crucial difference between the audible soundscape over Venice and musical space that unfolds in the San Marco of the Gabrielis. It suffices to imagine the ‘Interludio Secondo’ performed in the San Marco. Wherever the deep sounds of the strings and winds may be produced, or wherever they may be distributed with the electronic apparatus, we do not hear them at our right or left, before or behind us. They rather seem to resonate in fathomless depths, not otherwise than Nietzsche’s ‘Ruf aus der Tiefe’. And when we imagine the ‘Stasimo secondo’ performed in the basilica, we would hear the voices high above us, wherever the singers may have been placed in the San Marco.

This simple experiment reminds us of a remarkable characteristic of musical space. In musical space, sounds are distributed alongside an – imaginary – vertical axis: high sounds ascend to the heights, and deep sounds descend to the depths, irrespective of the place where they are produced in real space. A rather modest attempt at constructing such spherical space is Renzo Piano’s construction for the performance of the Prometeo in the San Lorenzo: the audience is in the centre, surrounded with space – an echo of the more ambitious spheres in the midst of which Stockhausen imagined his audience:


Suppose we had the singers perform the ‘Hölderlin’ high above the audience in Renzo Piano’s ‘barca’ and the bass instruments deep below. Such arrangement would only endorse the propensity of the sounds to ascend or to descend. But the un-musical nature of the whole enterprise - the difference between a soundscape and musical space - would immediately become apparent when we had the sopranos perform below the audience and the bass instruments above it. Unexpectedly, we would find ourselves amidst a soundscape, surrounded by a multitude of sounds, of which we would, eagerly looking around, try to determine the origin in real space.

We suddenly understand why composers – besides: only during a short period - restricted themselves to the distribution of two or more choirs on the arms of the cross of the San Marco, and did not proceed to do the same in the vertical dimension – for which the Hagia Sofia would have been a more appropriate place (the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg, where Berio had his ‘Cronoca del Luoca’ performed, is a poor substitute). Musical space articulates itself on its own in the vertical dimension. That is why the technique of the cori spezzati is merely an episode in the conquest of musical space. It had already reached considerable heights in the Renaissance, and is pushed forward by Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler – and, as we shall see, by Nono himself. The distribution of instruments and singers in the horizontal plane is at best a method of letting musical space, that naturally unfolds in the vertical dimension, also expand in the horizontal dimension. Which is necessary as soon as more than one event is happening in one and the same layer of space, as in the music of the Gabrielis. Although the technology of pure musical space - not least with Nono - disposes of its own means of producing the same effect, as we shall see.

The electronic means of distributing sounds in space may at best give a new impetus to the creation of new kinds of soundscapes, like in Xenakis/Corbusier’s pavilion for Expo ’58 or Parc la Villette in Paris – successors of more primitive soundscapes like bell ringing or gun salvos. But to the development of musical space, the distribution of the instruments in real space is rather indifferent. A comparison with a stereo system speaks volumes. It is all too often overlooked that a stereo system does not at all disclose musical space: it rather renders more accurately the position of instruments in the real space of the concert hall. Although stereo is far more pleasurable to the ear, it has nothing to do with the unfolding of musical space. It suffices to play ‘Fragmente-Stille. An Diotima’ or “Hay que caminar” sonando’ (1989) on your system with the switch on ‘mono’: the unfolding of the rather impressive musical space of these works is not hindered at all.


Nobody would deny that a rather impressive spatial effect emanates from Nono’s Prometeo. But it is important to remind that such effect is not the result of the distribution of sound in space, but from a masterly use of purely musical means.

To begin with, Nono has a predilection for very high and very low sounds, which expand the limits of musical space to the height and to the depth. Therein, he is the successor of the above-mentioned conquerors of space. While they introduced new instruments, Nono also introduces new electronic devices – think of the ‘harmonizar’ which is able to render the sound of an instrument on a higher or lower pitch. And, as opposed to the electronic means of distributing sound in space, electronic means of changing pitch and colour may contribute to the construction of musical space indeed.

Again, with Nono the voices are moving with large leaps: fourths and fifths, octaves, sevenths and ninths. Nono enhances the effect through contrasting those leaps with seconds and micro-intervals circling around the end-points of the larger intervals. These intervals enhance the feeling of space: octaves, fourths and five sound ‘hollow’, and also here that effect is enhanced through contrast with seconds or clusters. One could object that also in many contemporary music sounds are tumbling through space on far greater intervals. But, apart from the fact that they are not contrasted with more dense intervals, above all the hierarchy between the tones is missing; space is no longer articulated around the beacons of the tonic on the vertical axis of musical space. Nono, on the other hand, articulates his expanded space through the quasi permanent presence of a tonic and the manifold octave-jumps or octave-doublings. This technique comes to its apogee in the ‘Stasimo secondo’: here, musical space extends from the highest to the lowest regions, and this enormous span is bridged through an articulation in clearly distinguishable layers, wherein the separate voices are moving each on their own level. Nono uses a similar technique in his impressive blocks of sound (chords or clusters) reaching from the highest to the lowest regions: the space in between is made all the more tangible in that Nono subdivides it in segments moving independently – the effect of which is further enhanced in that those segments resonate from different places in real space.

And, finally, there are the contrasts of volume: Nono summons up the whole range from the nearly audible to the deafening, in sudden outbursts or in breathtaking crescendos. Even more than the echo (see below), such ‘super-echo’s’ ensure a further expansion of space, this time in the horizontal dimension. The massive blocks of sound suggest a massive object in a large space. And that influences the perception of the nearly audible sounds wherein they are embedded: we situate them on a far distance in a endless space, so that they are experienced as something large, and not as something intimate nearby. Let us remark that, also here, the intermediate plans are articulated. As a rule it is voices that occupy the middle regions. Their mid-position as far as dynamics is concerned is further enhanced through timbre: Nono’s voices are singing clearly, which contrasts with the ‘infrasonorous’ sound of the hesitatingly produced sounds on the instruments, or with the ‘suprasonorous’ vehemence of the deafening chords and clusters played by the whole orchestra.

These techniques come to their apogee in ‘Fragmente-Stille. An Diotima’ and ‘Hay que caminar sonando’, with which we previously did our experiment with the mono rendering. We did not choose these works by chance: from the poor couple of square meters within the confines of which a handful of instruments are playing, an unbroken musical space is built up that is often, if possible, still more impressive than that in the Prometeo.


But Nono could not refrain from having the parts of the latter work played from different places in the concert hall. Although he motivates this procedure through a ‘literary’ given: ‘hay que caminar’. A late, somewhat easy echo of Kagel’s music theatre.

And that makes us ask the question why of all composers Luigi Nono, a master in creating musical spaces, was so obsessed by real space. Somewhat like the painter that would have the volume on his paintings enhanced through adding a third dimension like in a bas relief.

No doubt, Nono will have felt Stockhausen’s and Boulez’ breathing down his neck. But it catches the eye how late Nono introduces this new parameter in his work, and how he treats it totally differently than his competitors.

In a first series of cases the distribution of the loudspeakers only conceals the fact that Nono primarily uses purely musical techniques. From way back, contrasts between loud and soft are used to conjure up the horizontal dimension of musical space: the dynamic echo, counterpart of the pitch-echo (repetition on a different pitch) which structures musical space in the vertical dimension. With Nono, such musically evoked effect seems to be obtained through the distribution of the loudspeakers in space. But it is not so much the distribution of the loudspeaker that produces the special effect. Rather is it the difference in volume. For, however long the distance between the original source of sound and the loudspeaker through which the ‘delay’ resounds, the difference is too small to produce the effect intended. So that the composer has to resort to the purely musical technique of the dynamic echo. Thus, the distribution of the loudspeakers can be restricted to the range of the traditional orchestra. The reversed echo seems to be new – electronics has a predilection for amplifying. When a sound is repeated and amplified on another place, we get the impression that suddenly an imaginary space is opening up. But also such reversed echo is only an extension of the old mimetic procedure of intensified repetition, which creates the effect of approaching.

The effect of an echo can also be obtained through a change in timbre, as when a motif is first played by one family of instruments, and then by another. Such ’colour echoes’ develop into a genuine auditory ‘plan’ (coulisse). The effect is obtained when two families of instruments are first playing together, while one of them stops before the other. We then have the impression that a second appearance was hiding behind the first one. That is a most efficient way of creating a feeling op musical depth. The effect is amply used in ‘Al gran sole carico d’amore’. In the ‘Prometeo’, the technique is further refined through electronically changing the colour of the instruments. 

Also resonance determines the kind of space evoked. Formerly, the quantity of resonance was a characteristic of a given space. The imaginary representation of a larger or smaller sphere - or cave - replaced the real space in which the music was performed. Only on some instruments was it possible to additionally control the quantity of resonance through pedals and dampers. But it is only electronics that made it possible to control the quantity of resonance at will. As when in ‘Ommagio a Kurtag’ a sound in the foreground suddenly seems to resound from within an immense resonating cave. Addition of long sustained echoes makes space further expand – and shrink our body accordingly. Think of the ‘Stasimo secondo’ in which the many-layered space finds its counterpart in the often threefold echoes on the axis of time. But, on the other hand, a long echo suits only a single sustained tone, that then seems to pervade the entire space. For, when sounds succeed one another rapidly, the echo of each of them is adding to the other, so that in the end everything merges into one cluster of echoes – wherefore a damper has been introduced on the piano. When listening to the ‘Hölderlin’, it immediately becomes apparent that change of pitch and echo are incompatible indeed, and that the electronic techniques have no adequate means of tackling the problem – apart from controlling the volume of the echo. Already the simple dampers on the piano are more sophisticated. Not to mention the sovereign way in which the Gabrielis succeeded in neutralising the constant echo of the San Marco through delicately balancing the length of the notes with a well-thought change of chords. Wherein Nono - at least in the Hölderlin – largely fails. 

And, finally, also the splitting up of the orchestra in diverse groups of instruments and singers – and of loudspeakers – distributed all around the audience, can only facilitate the unfolding of musical space. At least in so far as coherent musical events are produced in one and the same place, or in so far as more or less independent parts of one encompassing musical whole are spread over different places – which was evident for the old masters of the cori spezzati (double choir technique). To accomplished musical mimesis, this causes no problems whatsoever, because the ‘inhabitants’ of musical space dispose of purely musical means of being together (see: ‘Musical space and its inhabitants’). But as soon as musical events – under their simplest form: individual sounds – begin to move in space, our deep rooted instinct to localise them is stirred. There is no more efficient means of destroying musical space. For, in order to localise a sound in real space, we have to stop situating high tones in the heights and lower ones in the depths. And, worse still: we equally have to leave musical space. For, equally compelling is our propensity to compensate our poor potential to audibly localise sounds in real space through switching over to our eyes. So that we inexorably have to land up in precisely the visual space from which Nono so dearly wanted to release us. Precisely here, in real space where sounds are surrounding us from all sides, sound is subjugated to the eye. And it now dawns on us that such was not the case in the concert hall at all: the imaginary musical space unfolds not only into the heights and the depths, but also far behind and far before, far to the left and far to the right of the scene where the musicians are playing. 

Granted: in contrast with so many others, Nono escapes the metamorphosis of composer into an architect of auditory landscapes. In the first place because time flows so slowly, that musical space can unfold undisturbed - reason why also the Garbielis had an outspoken predilection for long sustained tones. And when the sounds are moving altogether, they do so gradually and subtly.

Let us remark that it does not matter whether the movement in space is realised with electronic means or through instruments distributed in space – as when Nono has the sound turn around the audience by letting subsequent orchestras fall in. And that makes us ask the question what is gained through the use of the new electronic means. Nono himself unwillingly betrays how superior the old method is, in writing down many an echo (be it of pitch, dynamic or colour) – not least the many ‘echo lontano’s’ spread all over the Prometeo. And it remains to be asked why he did not do that with all the echoes – the ‘Stasimo secondo’, but foremost the ‘Hölderlin’ would only have gained. It suffices to compare the confuse and messy fabric of the voices in the ‘Hölderlin’ with comparable passages in ‘Al gran sole carico d’amore’, which are musically far more convincing.

Writing down the electronically realised effects would also have spared the Prometeo and other works of the late Nono another fate. In the meantime, we know all too good how the accelerated technical innovation also accelerates the tempo in which the outdated is dumped in the waste bin. And it remains to be seen whether the Prometeo will be translated with each further technological revolution. Bearing the piles of vinyl in mind that are doomed to silence without the corollary pick-ups – we cannot but regret that Nono has not meticulously written down his works. Scores can be read by now for centuries, and they will continue to do so for centuries to come…


The text now. For after all, next to ‘Intolleranza’ (1960) en ‘Al gran sole carico d’amore’ (1975), the Prometeo is Nono’s third opera. Although we cannot call it an opera in the strict sense. Not only does Nono ban the spectacle, as in an oratorio, but first and foremost the word. The Prometeo is conceived as a ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’, a ‘tragedy of hearing’, where purely musical events silence the word and drive the actors from the scene. That should not surprise us, since we already analysed above how the dramatic tension is falling apart in a series of timid attempts at getting loose from the ground tone. The Prometeo is not meant to be narrative, just like Ligeti’s ‘Aventures

It seems paradoxical, then, that Cacciari selected a quite extensive corpus of texts for this ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’. But Nono adopts a rather ambivalent stance on those texts. In many cases they are not set to music at all. In ‘Isola Prima’ Prometheus’ report of his benefactions conferred to mankind and Hephaistos’ report of Prometheus sufferings imposed by Zeus, are only written down on the score. Whereby Nono remarks: ‘The text should never be read! He should be heard and felt through the orchestral groups.’ In that sense the texts have the function of the more usual verbal indications on the score like ‘espressivo’, although they are more extensive and rather metaphoric. In other cases, it is only fragments that are set to music. Therein Nono develops the practice inaugurated in ‘Das atmende Klarsein’, where he only uses isolated fragments from Rilke’s text. But the words are nearly understandable and are reduced to musical sounds: wholly in the spirit of Nono’s endeavour to ban the sign and to restore music as a ‘phenomenon’. The effect is further enhanced when delays, filters and the halaphone are set at the text, as in the ‘Isola seconda’. And in the ‘Prologo’, finally, the text is simply spoken. That makes it understandable, but in ‘Hölderlin’ the effect is neutralised in that the speakers recite different texts simultaneously. In that same ‘Hölderlin’ the speakers have to omit the vowels and accentuate the consonants. Also these two interventions reduce spoken language to a pure ‘phenomenal’ material, just like in Ligeti’s ‘Aventures’.

Also the text, then, stays under the sign of ambivalence: the repressed word is re-introduced in the music, only to be so maltreated as to become unrecognisable. It seems as though Nono is wrestling with the prohibition against pronouncing the name of God. For, the emphasis on the consonants in ‘Hölderlin’ inevitably reminds of the omission of vowels in Hebrew. Against this background, it catches the eye that, in Nono’s music, precisely the most important words are selected, while in the Temple ‘the word’ must not be named. And also: that the entire opera, foremost the ‘Prologo’, brims over with names from the polytheistic pantheon of the Greeks – the negation of the name of the one and only God?

Be that as it may, the Prometeo has not really become the ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’ announced in the title: the music is also determined with a non-musical, inaudible element: the text. This is already the case on a purely audible plane: words sung and spoken. But the text also governs the music from within. Nono himself complains that not enough attention has been paid to the way in which the treats the text. Let us explore the relation between the – audible or inaudible – text in the Prometeo.

The most obvious relation is to be found in ‘Hölderlin’. There we literally hear the Gods from Hölderlin's ‘Schicksalslied’ walk over the clouds high above our heads, while, in the sublunar world, we hear the contrabass clarinet and the bass flute move angularly – ‘von Klippe zu Klippe geworfen’. The remarkable thing is that the text, which paints the fate of the mortals, is not sung in the deeper regions where mankind has to dwell, but in the higher spheres were the Gods are moving in the ‘Götterlüfte’. Only at the end, a third party recites the text as if it were a comment on the whole scene. A similar tone painting, but on a more detailed level, is to be found in ‘Io’, where a ‘Sprechchor’ is shouting ‘hu!’ and ‘ha!’. This is an illustration of the text written in the score: ‘In what kind of world have I been dropped!’ – the sung versions of those deafening chords with which the brass instruments are tearing up the soft fabric of the Prometeo. In still other cases, as in the ‘Interludio secondo’ there is no text at all, unless the final words of the previous ‘Tre voci b’ ‘This soft force, listen to it!’ refer to it. And, as a rule, the relation of text to word is far more general and vague, as in the ‘Stasimo secondo’. The music suggests individual beings blindly groping their way in a dark void – although it gives not precisely the impression of the desert, wherein, according to the text, ‘the people is invincible’ (Und ist in der Wüste unbesiegbar’). 

No doubt, this music is illustrative. But what it tells in itself is so eloquent and overwhelming, that it seems as if the relation of text and music is reversed: where, in many a case, music is merely a poor and local filling in of what is fully conjured up in the text, with Nono the text seems rather an attempt to confine the undetermined richness of the music into the limits of a narrow interpretation. Herein the function of the text with Nono reminds us of the function of the mise-en-scène with Ligeti: under the guise of a literary or scenic fulfilment of the music, the musical content is rather negated. This time it is not so much the ‘mise-en-scène’ which comes down to a ‘mise-hors-musique’ but the ‘mise-en-texte’. For that matter, Ligeti’s treatment of the word would have been far more becoming to the Prometeo: imagine the vocal parts sung on divine pure vowels, how eloquent would have been the contrast with the voices uttering meaningless consonants and the hesitatingly played instruments in the sublunar human world? Only then would the Prometeo truly have been called a ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’, where music would have been telling its own story, without any comment of someone who felt called to give us an interpretation through a text, or to determine its content beforehand.

Thus, in Nono’s ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’ the repressed word continues to govern the music. That is already apparent from the fact that probably the text to the Prometeo is read more often than that to whatever other opera. And that lends an unexpected overtone to the words of Jürg Stenzl’ (Le nouveau Luigi Nono)**: ‘What is generally qualified as extra-musical has from the beginning been an intra-musical factor in the music of Luigi Nono’.


Perhaps even more radical than the word, Nono claims to ban the image from his music. According to Nono, visual representation is far more leading astray from the content of music. He reminds of the fact that Berlioz and Wagner coupled totally different representations to the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony: where the one heard a funeral march, the other saw a dance. Such ‘illustrative thinking’ or ‘visual lecture’ has to be replaced with a ‘listening that is able to shrug off the idolatrous fetters of the image, of the story, of the succession of moments, of the elementary discourse of words’ (Conversation entre Luigi Nono en Massimo Cacciari)**. From this quotation – in which Nono explicitly refers to Moses’ golden calf – it is apparent that image and text are closely connected in Nono’s mind. That should not come as a surprise: after all, visual representations to music are above all mediated through a text. That is why, with Nono and his philosophical guardian angels, text and image are subsumed under the common denominator ‘sign’ and hence contrasted with music as ‘phenomenon’, as we have seen.

Which does not prevent Nono from being far more irreconcilable with the image than with the word. The text still survives as fragment in the music, and determines from without the whole unrolling of the opera. Visual representation, on the other hand, is radically banned. No actors and no scene in the Prometeo. That reminds of the ambivalence of Moses’ mimetic taboo: while representation mediated by words – the story of the golden calf included – survives as a story in the Bible, the golden calf itself is irrevocably smashed to smithereens.

The ban on the visual lays also at the basis of Nono’s obsession with the distribution of instruments and loudspeakers in the concert hall. As we have seen, this was an attempt at freeing music from the fetters of the ‘unidirectional’ space wherein it had been confined ever since the advent of concert halls and opera houses. We already pointed to the danger that musical space that used to unfold in the San Marco would be replaced with the unmusical - while real - soundscape over the waters of the sinking city. 
That should make us suspicious. The obstinacy with which Nono banned the visual, has something of a defence against an opposite tendency. And indeed: initially Nono had not so much a ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’ in mind. Rather did he aim at a kind of ‘integration of the arts’: as if he was out to integrate not only the parameter of space, but colour as well. Schönberg already preceded him in this matter, just like Skriabin, who – not by chance also in a ‘Prometheus’ – wanted to add colours produced on a light organ to the sounds of the orchestra. Instead of Skriabin’s light dome, Nono was playing with the idea of curtains, moved through ventilators – he must have thought of something like polar light. Sound not freed from the visual, hence, but firmly chained to it, not otherwise than Prometheus on his rock. Although Nono seems not to be aware of the problem. For in his mind ‘visual’ is rather a synonym to ‘figurative’. So that colour, as long as it is free from every representation, is on the same footing as pure sound. It is even audible: Nono is talking about ‘hearing colour as I hear heaven or the stones of Venice’ – the stones of that very Venice that formerly was praised for its disentanglement of sound and vision! The opposition between eye and ear is surreptitiously replaced with the opposition between ‘representation’ and ‘abstraction’. And of course: to Luigi Nono, music belongs to the ‘abstract’ ‘non-mimetic’ arts! The shift is sealed in that Nono understands the intimate relationship of sound and colour in terms of vibrations. Which reminds of Hauer, who constructed a colour circle comprising twelve compartments assigned to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. To assimilate sound and colour, Nono not only reduces visual representation to colour, but also sound to pure vibration! To the effect that sound is no longer a phenomenon, but rather its complete opposite: a number – in the Jewish tradition the equivalent of the letter – the sign! An umpteenth contradiction between theory and practice! All these theoretical inconsistencies cannot conceal the fact that, even when God has exchanged his representation as a golden calf for the more ‘abstract’ fire of the burning bush, he nevertheless continues to appear there, and for the eye at that! 

Perhaps precisely therefore, the ‘fire’ has been banned, of all places in an opera dedicated to the hero who stole the fire from the Gods! The initial scenic concept survives in the wooden construction of Renzo Piano for the San Lorenzo. There were several plans, connected with stairs on which the musicians had to move. Jürgen Flimm would provide the colour effects. But Nono was afraid that the music would be referred to the background and restricted himself eventually with black-and-white effects. Until, in later performances, the visual dimension totally disappears and only survives in the guise of colours on the score. The title ‘tragedia dell’ascolto – added by Cacciari – seals the process of repression. Thus is, in a broader historic perspective, undone the movement with which Wagner in Bayreuth made the orchestra disappear under the scene, so that the view of the orchestra would no longer interfere with the spectacle on the scene. Perhaps, Nono was rather thinking of this development when demonstratively distributing the instruments in space again. To accomplish his move, we should perform Nono’s music in a completely darkened space wherein, conversely, every reminder of the proceedings on the scene would have disappeared… 

But it is precisely in such darkened space that the repressed dimension of the visual resurges again. For, pretending that musical space is ‘unidirectional’ through the positioning of the instruments on the scene, comes down to the assertion that sound is in the instruments – just like in the visual world, where the sound of the motor is in the car and the voice of the singer in the larynx. Only when music would dwell in the instruments, would it make sense to distribute instruments in space. As we have seen, musical space only unfolds as soon as sound breaks free from the source of the sound: only in real, visual space does the sound of Wagner’s ‘Vorspiel zu Lohengrin’ emanate from the strings; in musical space it descends from heaven. We need no Venetian channels to disentangle sound and its source: the miracle is happening in whatever concert hall, as soon as the instruments start playing. A well-thought-out distribution of loudspeakers is only necessary when a soundscape has to be constructed, where Unidentified Sounding Objects are moving hence and forth – like in the cinema, where sound is irrevocably connected to the happenings on the screen. That Nono more often refers to the auditory landscape in Venice than to the musical space in the San Marco, betrays his blindness for the specific nature of musical space. Happily, the misunderstanding is merely of a theoretical nature: the musical spaces Nono conjures up as a composer are so overwhelming, that they easily would survive whatever distribution of instruments or loudspeakers in space, provided it would not be too much against the grain.


Doch uns ist gegeben auf keiner Stätte zu ruhn...'
Hölderlin, Hyperions Schiksalslied

We may surmise that also to the aborted expulsion of the word is the result of an opposite move.

Is Prometheus not the revolutionary that steals the fire from the Gods to bring it to humankind? Wherefore he is chained on the rock and mankind is plagued with Pandora’s box. Nono, who had to witness the decay of the Old and the New Left – broader: the decay of the Socialist Revolution - after World War II, emphasises the second half of this story. Which makes him a spirit kindred to Hölderlin, who witnessed another decay – that of the French Revolution in Germany – broader: the decay of the Bourgeois Revolution. To Hölderlin’s ‘Schicksalslied’, which paints as it were the situation after the assault on paradise, is dedicated an entire part of the Prometeo, and fragments of it are shattered throughout the entire opera.

The failure of the revolt – the Prometeo is written in the era of the triumphant advent of neo-liberalism under the auguries of Thatcher and Reagan – devaluates the aim to illusion and the striving for it to sin – the sin of hybris. Wherefore Nono no longer walks the Shining Path, but resigns to being under way. Repeatedly he quotes Machado: ‘Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar’. And such is also the fate of his Prometheus: ‘The figure of Prometheus represents and everlasting quest, an everlasting finding, transcending, fixation and transgression’. Nono also refers to the Talmud where it is written about Jacob’s ladder: ‘To the left or to the right, upwards or downwards, it matters to progress without questioning what lays behind or before us’. Marx’ ‘spectre of the revolution haunting Europe’ – the title of one of Nono’s works from 1971 – is transformed into the wandering Jew, and thus Marx’ proletariat into the Jewish people that is ‘invincible in the desert’.

Nono seems to have gone a long way. On a purely political level the theoreticians of the socialist revolution are first replaced with the Frankfurter Schule, Benjamin, Foucault/Derrida/Cacciari and eventually Levinas: the Talmud and the Cabbala! In the wake of this succession, the struggle of classes is replaced with the battle of the Gods, in case: Christ versus Jahweh: ‘'A la logique eidétique, haptique, aux dieux de l'Occident, qui se montrent, ou au Dieu de la révélation incarnée s'oppose, scandaleusement, le "Ecoute-moi, Israël!"...'**. Also Allah is firmly in charge these days. There is no question of a sudden betrayal of his former revolutionary stance, which was from the beginning only a form of revolt against all kinds of suppression, especially that of the Jews through fascism – but also that of all kinds of rebels against Stalin. And from hence it is only a step to a generalised rejection of all kinds of power, as with Foucault, or to an identification with the people that is hated by many, but chosen by God. That is the thread that runs through Nono’s political biography. It explains also how it is that, while working on the Prometeo, Nono also composed ‘Quando stanno morendo Diario Polacco nr. 2’ (1982), a fierce indictment of Jaruzelski's coup. The style of this work is nearly discernable from that of the Prometeo. It is only more explicit: the voice is literally smothered to a groaning, above which the celestial voices of the sopranos are hovering like a consoling hallucination. Which sheds a new light on the more ‘mythological’ and less explicit ‘Prometeo’, in which the divine voices continue singing and only the human instruments are doomed to groan.

Remains the question why Nono did not seal this development with a choice of a Jewish hero – we immediately think of Moses! The answer is that the shift in his world view had unexpected consequences for Nono’s position in the - this time musical - revolution of which he has been a fervent advocate ever since the fifties. In an era when the then avant-garde was out to extend the Schönbergian series to the parameters of timbre, dynamics and duration, the promethean act par excellence would have been to introduce the visual dimension as a further parameter. Such total integration had already been announced in another Prometheus: that of Skriabin in 1911. About the same time, also Kandinsky played with the idea in ‘The yellow Sound’ and his friend Schönberg realised ‘Die glückliche Hand’ in 1913, in the score of which successions of colour are noted. But instead of the ‘Artwork of the Future’ expected by Kandinsky, Schönberg wrote ‘Moses and Aron’ in 1930 – his true response to Skriabin’s Prometheus? For, in the Jewish tradition, the act of Prometheus is accomplished through the idolatrous mass that erects the golden calf against the will of Moses. As Nono begins to understand himself as a Jew, he cannot but resign to this in essence heathen enterprise and join the efforts of his spiritual father and physical father-in-law Schönberg. There are lots of references to the ‘Moses and Aron’ in the Prometeo: the last words are borrowed from it. Also the bipartition of the Prometeo could be a kind of mimicry of the two of the originally intended three movements of Schönberg’s opera. But it is above all Schönberg’s idea to electronically transfer the six-part choir - the voice of God – into the concert hall that is echoed in Nono’s Prometeo: the omnipresent voice of God as his omnipresent eye. Do we here stumble on the the deeper roots of Nono’s conquest of real space? The rage of Zeus against Prometheus replaced with the obedience to the Law of Moses: what should have been a mystic marriage of sound and light, is transformed into a ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’ playing in the dark and steeped in an ineffable melancholy – totally opposed to Skriabin’s Prometheus, that comes to its apogee in the triumph of light welcomed through the whole of mankind. But the initial heathen gleam of the act survives on the level of the text – hors-musique: Nono’s drama is not about the idolatrous mass, but about Prometheus. And also the dome, upon which in Skriabin’s Prometheus the orgy of light was celebrated, survives in the dark of Nono’s concert hall – Nono’s San Marco – albeit equally hors-musique, outside musical space, as analysed. The instruments and loudspeakers that are so deliberately distributed around the audience, are the nearly concealed afterglow of the light in the dome above the heads of the audience in Skriabin’s Prometheus. And to complete the story, we should have to refer to the way in which Nono - in more revolutionary times, when he had no problems with the stories that afterwards have been discarded as ‘big’ - did not hesitate to set up a grand spectacle with sound and colour slides. In the context of domes that cannot fail to remind of the pantheistic epiphany of Gods and saints on the domes of the San Marco, or its predecessor in the Hagia Sofia.

Nono’s resignation from the Prometean rebellion under the auguries of Moses acquires its full weight when we open larger historical registers. For, in fact, the Prometean revolution has taken place a long time ago, in Bayreuth, albeit under Arian auguries: there, Wagner had word, performance and music merge in his ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. Of this revolution, Skriabin is already a restoration: there is no text and the performance on the scene is reduced to a play of colours on the dome of light. This restoration goes hand in hand with a narrowing of the content: Prometheus, who with Beethoven still referred to Enlightenment, and who with Wagner was transformed into Siegfried, has become the concocter of a mere artistic ecstasy  with Skriabin. And Schönberg’s move against Wagner/Skriabin goes hand in hand with a relapse in the very religion, that has been so scorned by the Enlightenment. From Stockhausen and Boulez, as from Nono, we could have expected an extension of the serial organisation to the visual dimension. But, with Boulez, the image appears only via the text, as with Schönberg. On instigation of Kagel, Stockhausen chose for a scenic solution in ‘Originale’, just like Ligeti in his Aventures. In a further stage we see Stockhausen play around with seven colours and regress to a rather cheap mysticism. But, on another level, with Stockhausen and Boulez the visual dimension is surreptitiously introduced under the guise of the parameter ‘space’. And, in this context, it is all too apparent that the movement of sounds in space is a substitute for the acting of the actors on the scene. Also here Kagel has set the tune through promoting the movements of the musicians to a scenic event. Where the peripeties of sound, confined within the body, steal the show: from Kagels musicians playing a box match to Stockhausen’s and Boulez’ sounds moving around in space… Nono, on the other hand, first introduced the image as a representation conjured up by words. Of the visualising of space with Stockhausen and Boulez we find with him only a faint echo, which has rather the character of a lapsus, which is more than countered through the impressive unfolding of true musical space.

Via another formula - the dissolution of art in life - artists like Hermann Nitsch intended to eliminate the sensory specialisation of art. But they knew only to realise the ‘integration of arts’ through replacing mimesis with life itself. Especially with Nitsch we are witnessing a regression – and a formidable one at that: to the pre-religious times of Freud’s murder of the primeval father.

It appears that Nono’s move is merely the epiphenomon of a far deeper collective process. After the ‘Götterdämmering’, also the ‘Menschendämmerung’. A prologue to the barbarism that will flood a world wherein the belief in the ‘big stories’ is forsworn. Only to leave room to far more archaic forebears – in the best case the liberalism of the early Enlightenment, but in the worst case those from the dark religious, if not pre-religious – primeval phases.


...el poder leve
de la memoria líquida en el aire.
from: 'Tragedia del ascolto'

Vladimir García Morales

Which does not prevent that we cannot but dearly recommend this music! It is unheard in all the senses of the word: not only sometimes nearly audible, but above all totally new, and quasi unknown at that. For, our comments on the literary content of the Prometeo and the ideological fabric woven around it are not concerning the music. Immune for the text, as it always has been, it is talking of the fundamental feeling of all those who are conscious of what has happened and what is about to happen.

Wherefore we cannot be grateful enough that Luigi Nono has left us such music.


© Stefan BeystJune-July 2003

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* Organum developed from the practice of adding voices running parallel above a plainchant.

*** See Arthur Danto and Nelson Goodman


ABBINANTI, Frank: 'Prometeo, Tragedia d'ascolto. an Opera by Luigi Nono' http://www.cubeensemble.com/arch/arch1994.html
BERTAGGIA, MIchele: 'Conversation entre Luigi Nono et Massimo Cacciari' From: Verso Prometeo, La Biennale/Ricordi, Venise 1984. Entretien réalisé au printemps 1984, avant la création de la première version de Prometeo.
BRADTER, Cornelius: Eine experimentelle mehrkanalaufnahme. Luigi Nonos Prometeo in der Philharmonie Berlin: http://www.kgw.tu-berlin.de/~cbradter/nono/
CACCIARI, Massimo: 'Verso Prometeo'
DAVISMOON, Stephen: 'Luigi Nono: Suspended Song', Harwood Academic Pub (June 1, 1999)
DE CARVALLO, Vieira: ‘New Music between Search for Idenitity and Autopoiesis. Or: the Tragedy of Listening’http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals/details/issue/
FENEYROU, Laurent: ‘Moses and the Warsaw ghetto. Arnold Schönberg according to Luigi Nono’ http://www.teatromassimo.it/inglese/avidilumi/ issue15/feneyrou15.htm
INTERVIEW MET HANS PETER HALLER:http://home.t-online.de/home/
PANKOW, Edgar, PETERS, Günter (ed.): ' Prometheus. Mythos der Kultur'. München: Fink 1999. See also:http://www.tu-chemnitz.de/phil/avl/AVLinC/Projekte/
SALLIS, Friedemann: 'Le paradoxe postmoderne et l´oeuvre tardive de Luigi Nono', in Circuit 11 (2000), no 1 http://www.erudit.org/erudit/circuit/v11n01/sallis/sallis.htm
METZGER, H-K. en RIEHM R.: ‘Luigi Nono’ in Musik-Konzepte 20, Munich 1981
STENZL, Jurg: "Luigi Nono", Livret-programme Ed. Festival d'Automne à Paris, Contrechamps, Paris, 1987, pp.86-97.
STENZL, Jurg: 'Le nouveau Luigi Nono '
STENZL, Jurg: 'Les chemins de Prometeo' (nouvelle version) http://www.festival
STENZEL, Jürg: 'Luigi Nono' Rowohlt, 1998.

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Background to this text:      stefan beyst: theory on art


From the same author:

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Stefan Drees   Vladimir García Morales  
Classical Composers Database
Références/musicologie   La mediathèque  
Center for New Music University of California Berkeley
María de la O del Santo Mora y José Vela Castillo.
New Music Links 
Alistair Appleton
Future of Modern Music
Publicopera  Audiotisados
Forum Klassika

Quoted in:

 ENRIQUE, Gavilán: 'Escúchame con atención: Liturgia del relato en Wagner',
 Universitat de València, 2007 (p.193).   


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