A Weak Power Thinking Bringing to a Halt

By John Wollaston, 28 May 2008

The recent London performance of Luigi Nono's composition for orchestra and live-processing, Prometeo, was presented as an apotheosis of the Italian composer's work. John Wollaston essays a paraphrase of this complex 'super-capsule' of the untransmittable

Listen to this moment, a weak power thinking bringing to a halt – Chorus, Prometeo

As the culmination of a concert series of the work of composer Luigi Nono the London Sinfonietta played the UK première of Prometeo on Friday and Saturday ninth and tenth of May at the Southbank. The work stands as the final development in the composer's provocation to music theatre, in which he jettisons all visual content so that the drama may exist within the theatrics of the sound itself. The libretto, assembled by fellow Venetian Massimo Cacciari forms a pool of excerpts from works which are themselves already fragmentary: the words of Hesiod and Aeschylus are interrogated amongst Benjamin's 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' and Hölderlin's 'Schicksalslied' ('Song of Fate').

First Performance of Prometeo at San Marco, VeniceImage: Rehearsal before first performance of Prometeo in the Church of San Lorenzo, Venice (photo: Graziano Arici)

On arrival, (predetermined by the composer or simply necessary due to full surround sound I know not) the audience without reserved seating were forced to commune with one another, concert etiquette dissolving into bickering over whether a bottle of water on a seat could claim it with any legitimacy and despairing in several languages, threatening to leave, at least one law suit threatened. A humour that bore no intelligible preparation for the complex storm of fierce, perfect tension we were about to be tossed into. Sat next to me, a man in the midst of pulling on some article of clothing suddenly faced the bright barely audible space opening upon him and he remained for two and a half hours transfixed by quietness, full of doubting with his arms straight-jacketed about his body. I emphasise here 'audible space' as the collaborative unfolding of coordinates between the performers and electronic processing that articulated a polyphony of positions – manipulating, massing, re-arranging, making relative these sonorous spaces.

Prometeo (1984) is one of Luigi Nono's later works for live electronic processing and orchestral groups. Earlier pieces written in the ’60s and ’70s extend direct and polemical content: A Floresta e Jovem e Cheja includes texts by Frantz Fanon, and Fidel Castro and is dedicated to the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam; the machinic factory noise of La Fabbricca Illuminata for tape and soprano, constructed with the participation of workers of a Genovese factory, denounces capitalist exploitation and demands awareness of the harrowing conditions of production, (such tape works exist primarily as recordings requiring few or no musicians to perform them, thus they can be more simply presented in small venues near workplaces). The opera Intolleranza (1960) exerts a more explicit kind of scene of working class exploitation, political arrest and concentration camp internment (although the plotless type of musical theatre in Prometeo is already apparent here). The direct barrage and Nono's explicit political engagement, gave way over time to a more subtle approach, (whether this is due to disillusionment with the Italian Communist Party Nono joined in the early ’60s is a matter of speculation). Although later works still manifest concern with events current to their making, such as Diário Polacco 2 written as a response to General Jaruzelski's imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 and the final section '¿Donde Estas Hermano?' dedicated to the disappeared in Argentina, the texts chosen – for example in the case of the Second Polish Diary: by Boris Pasternak, Velimir Khlebnikov, Czeslaw Milosz, Endre Ady and Aleksander Blok – seem to some degree dissociated, or related in a more cautious manner. Furthermore, Nono composes an increasing distance between word and its sounding.

The distancing has become palpable in Prometeo. At this stage in Nono's later musical theatre, sight no longer has a purpose. As he considered the visual realm a site for the most dangerous sorts of dictatorial manipulations, of both audience and source material, Nono aimed to rescue his musical theatre from visual elements. This anti-visual syndrome was developed in order that the fusion of the point of view might be a delicate one taking place within a craft of intricate networks upon magnified sonic elements. The effect of the performance takes place in a limited central circle of sound. Four orchestral groups are positioned about the audience front, back, left and right. A choir stands behind the group on the stage and five solo singers are positioned higher and to the left on a wooden platform. Scattered high up in the boxes on both sides of the auditorium are smaller groups of musicians and two narrators, these smaller 'islands' of the 'archipelago' are virtually invisible to the audience and many of the more unusual sounds issue from these hidden places; the deep tubas, a contrabass clarinet, and specially constructed glass instruments. Including the speakers that encircle the audience, overhead, and against the furthest walls of the room, there are 22 points where a musical event can occur. This produces a kind of audio room within the auditorium, a model within which is inscribed several horizons, artificial or electronically produced, and actual. Each space has its chant, all together constitute the sky, and in these skies we might 'rediscover the possible' as Nono puts it.[1] 

Relationships between opening and closing dimensions of sound and space evolve and change throughout the composition, and it is these that give the shape, and form substantial content of the music (rather than entrusting tone permutation by serial compositional treatment). Prometeo may not hang from the noose where much western modern classicism swings. The quiet interiorised sound affects, wherein mirrors and shadows tempt a Berkeleyan private perceptual wasteland where decoding is conditional upon specialist courses for listening, in fact compel a living transformation of sound relations, rather than arcane accumulation.[2] The sensible result of his raising a moving sound object, presenting it over again 'lit' by different sonic conditions and in different positions, focuses the interaction between live processing and live instrumentation where the orchestra remains lithe, interrupting, able to elaborate upon and burst through an electronic processing that develops and expands the sound, rather than overwhelming instrumental input. Collaboration extends some way into the development of Nono's compositions. Nono attended the Freiburg Electronic Studio with a cadre of musicians who brought their own unique capacities to the creative method of the composer. The score for Prometeo thereafter remains in progress, parts changed during preparations for the first three premières, and even now the topography of sound by definition alters for each environment Prometeo inhabits, interpreting each space uniquely.[3] The score brings an acoustic dramaturgy that itself constitutes an evolutionary fantasy, an organism in a perennial state of movement, circling, fleeing, re-appearing, passing to and fro overhead, stacking up close, weightily, airily spectral and transparent at an unspecifiable distance. Every visual part, every moving body has been taken away and this 'possible' Nono referred to must be discovered within all the variations, in direction of flight, sound colour and transitions that occur to the sounds as their units are multiplied by the electronics into extended space. In listening there is a polyphony of streams with pathways intersecting and overlaid. We hear physical relations amongst the sounds, perhaps a specific timbre takes attention from here to front to right, or the consistency in a rhythmic division connects parts, and these cause pathways to form in hearing between areas of the room as the sound moves, like a rondo.

Rehearsal before London performance in RFH (photo: Richard Haughton)Image: Rehearsal before London performance of Prometeo in RFH (photo: Richard Haughton) 

Nono often has players sound their instruments right at the edge of their sound making capacity, for instance bowing extremely slowly for strings, or blowing lightly for wind instruments at the point between breath and note, causing all kinds of instability and stuttering, at times going unheard, swamped by the dominant sound mass, or they are too distant. Then, from the speakers sounds are brought up from their inaudible origins, tracking across the auditorium, looping, replaying, synthesized with the new orchestral activity. Amplified echoes play explicit formal roles in the present sound, the electronics enable precisely defined constructions in the course of the now-time of hearing with shapes and resources of a previously articulated event. This re-enunciated remnant is made mobile to such extent in a multiplicity of movement that the listener becomes lost in a kind of unitary perception.[4] Pushed into transformation the sound particle is grasped and worked inside (pitchshifting, EQ, splitting frequencies) and outside it (dynamic change, amplification, modulation, physical positioning, gating[5], reversing), this activity of dissection of the singular sonic particle in the polyphonic anatomy of dimensions and motions could be considered an uncovering of a seamless exigency where each inaudible existent musical event (or quanta) is separated, closely observed and propelled into physical action coinciding substantially with the audible whole.

Listen does not a breath of air resonate here that the past breathed? (Prologue)

This kind of processing presents the sonic event produced by the musicians, and the singers phonetic stuttering of the source text fragments as a kind of messianic remnant resulting from the part's division, offering up an 'exigency of fulfilment, what gives itself “as an end”.'[6] A tension exists between a sense of circling the ultimate fragmentation, not the highest but the last, as sound director André Richard said at a pre-concert discussion, 'the last before dying', between this ultimate finality and an open possibility is compassable, the realm of infinitely variable potentialities where we ought 'rediscover the possible'. Nono's sound unravels a paradoxical seamlessness between the collapse into silence and extreme fragments of sonic event, pregnant and intensive. In this way, silence becomes a principle motivating force within the music.[7] 

Prometeo cuts an elliptical effort to emancipate relations between music and text, that cognate states might emerge precisely from all that is unsaid, hidden, unfleshed. The essential motivation (aside from the all but imperceptible traditional Greek tragic mechanics), splitting parts where emerge affinities between extinguishing and potential, is at work also with the 'setting' of texts. Distancing himself from and rebutting Stockhausen's well meant remarks that serial re-organisation of the sonic content of texts Nono used in his music forced a rift between phonetics and semantics, Nono asserted his music 'intertwined the phonetic and semantic aspects of its texts at historically profound levels'.[8] The engagement of words and sound with political and musico-historical forces occurs in an oblique and complex manner. Unwinding the filaments of sentences, Nono apportions elements of individual words, layering horizontally as well as sequentially among several performers, enacting the existing life of words on a collective plane. The transfiguration inherited from Khlebnikov and others' experiments with 'Zaum' (sound) poetry evolved as the favoured path of the composer, restoring a kind of primitive simplicity in sound that might recapture power lost in the compromise of previous word associations.

Nono deals plastically with barest essential word elements, arranging into fluctuate spacial and sonic relations. The confrontation of verbal and sonic connections opened before the listener plays significant part in the intensity of attentiveness that Nono seeks to develop in the audience, whereby some common meaning of event to be recreated in the word sound surrounds the audience and musicians.[9] Soloists and chorus singers whose performance voices are selected to have the same tonal qualities, (except the role of Prometheus), manifest a collective personage in the form of an internal continuity that along with the whole ordinance of electronic processing reveals a decisive excavation of opposition or subordination (hierarchical disruption also in orchestra direction dispersed among two conductors and one sound director). An intensive drama occurs between this kind of levelling and a further need for interruption. Cutting across these distant quiet fields of sounds where ululation forms between text, its use and sounding, are dense, ear-puncturing fanfares from the entire orchestra. And in the shifting modulation of these compact and overwhelming interruptions and their aftereffects we hear Nono's affinity for paratactical means, iterating irregularity, disturbing any dominant audio stream.

The words themselves inter-piercing the sound mass in particulate form, bypassing expectations of the understanding, and Nono's Prometheus himself is perhaps a direct play on Hölderlin's conception of tragedy through, 'the amiable, the understanding in misfortune. The dreaming naive... to depict man's understanding as wandering below the unthinkable.'[10] Concentration and dispersion in singing, speech and silence of specific word particles derived from particular texts implement expiatory circling in the regions of the head-stream.[11] By parts, parts of words, parts of emotions, far from inert, the mass of voices moves with a different and yet equal force to the conscious meaning from which it has been discovered, persistent amongst the texts, and leading to an understanding of the common insubstantial determinant of the sources. This perhaps can be understood by way of the intensive title heading an earlier more monumental composition Il canto sospeso, Suspended song, where Nono collages the final letters of prisoners of war condemned to death; behind this, where the pre-existing conditioned forms of expression can only fail to guard against, as sound director Richard plainly prefaced the performance, 'how can we be alive in front of the suffering'. This is not a question, but proposes a state the work attempts to formulate. Prometeo, as with some of Nono's other works, can be thought of as a super-capsule that tends toward a state of saturation of the truly untransmittable, continuing to agitate perception where (among other lucid contingents) an audience can return to confront the fact of the texts against the polyphony of allusions encountered in the sound theatre. Alert to all kinds of directions simultaneously Nono's audience is engaged with a sense of awareness wherein there is also a sense of possibility, achieved through the unreconciled in a state of mobile equilibrium.

Diagram by Nono for the position of the audience, lighting and orchestral groups for the first performance of Prometeo (Image: Fondazione Archivo Luigi Nono Onlus)

Image: Diagram by Nono for the position of the audience, lighting and orchestral groups for the first performance of Prometeo (Image: Fondazione Archivo Luigi Nono Onlus)

Avoiding a false tragedy by representing what neither word nor production can express, some sense of universal suffering in a continuum of catastrophe, the listener can be brought to a sense of senseless suffering only to the extent that he is lost in what cannot be said or sung. Nono finds a way to allow for the use of this sense determined by the capacity to be untransmittable and perpetually unintelligible, and by these means nevertheless transmission occurs in substance assuming fully the mass of the untransmittable, the sense that is abandoned cannot disrupt the appearance of this suffering. Nono overlays and intersects the pathways in the music to ways of endless beginning, enfilading or negating, discarding, picking up again of distinct paths. Here, prevails a Brechtian mutative (Mann ist Mann) or Musilian fistulate man where, 'as the quintessence of his possibilities, potential man, the unwritten poem of his existence confronts man as recorded fact, as reality, as character.'[12] 'Do you call truth, this narrow clearing?' the actor's voice named 'Mythology' questioned. There is no claim to know, knowledge isn't an issue here. The sonic theatre of the events presented by Nono refuses to converge on clarity.

they know how to put together the broken, this weak power is not lose it

In this kind of 'porous pretext for many possible meanings'[13] Prometeo manifests an understanding between two figures, Prometheus and Io, and the fate dispensed to them. This figure of Prometheus, who has a kind of austere authority in omnipresent imprisonment along with his own understanding of what force might be conceived in a moment by his art of invention, endures suffering in an infinitely struggling body and mind over and above any submission to death or madness (from which he steers Io at the 'Second Island'). Between two who share a comparable condition, Nono, like Nietzsche, jettisons any moral criticism, focusing on this captive who has understood his potential, the kind of creative, explosive force available compressed within a moment, a compact disturbance to affect redress. Again, with a kind of guerilla parataxis Prometheus seeks a continual refreshment of laws that will displace the preceding ones,[14] 'capable of fitting more closely the mobility of facts'.[15] Overcoming essentials of force that encapsulate Nono's earlier compositions (dictates of serial pointillism, overall symmetries), Prometeo extends a precise and irregular wandering, focussing on the appearance and disappearance of intensive localised activities, picking up, examining their skittering and vortices, searching through the relative shapes that spring up across the sonic theatre's electronically extended topography and extensive time, (convolution of time that takes place in the soloists' singing of Benjamin texts and the chorus' reciting ancient myths and Benjamin texts simultaneously, leaping Hölderlin-like over eras). Prometheus is compelled during the stasimonos of the chorus never to relinquish his only weapons: the power of his invention, his mobility, the velocity of his sudden inspiration for change. Prometeo forms a kind of ballad (or madrigal) of good council, where one cannot claim to know but where all one's impressions are assimilated on some kind of immediate human level, in concentration, listening, attentiveness, giving a tragedy to be listened to ('tragedia dell'ascolto' proposed in the subtitle); for anything else, this review being a case in point, can only paraphrase.[16]

The voice of those silenced endures in the echo

The music itself, other than the fanfares' explosive rivets, is extremely quiet and the sounds move according to their own spacial itineraries that one must listen carefully in the search for points where lines or shapes begin or end. Sounds often pass away to some distant horizon of audibility and then return, transformed amongst others, pressing vertically about you. On Friday the tension of the first performance racked the audience well that in the short pause between 'first' and 'second island' we burst with a sound short stifled and hysterical, a compressed and nervous laugh, Hu! prefiguring Io's crooked exclamation 'What land, what race Cronos Ha!' The performance was nervous in appearance to such piquancy that it caused a terminal crisis, constricting throats across the auditorium charging the audience with participation by choking. Saturday the performance came more assuredly and though the summits and liquidity gave to a more consuming omnipresence, Prometeo seemed to lose in places a cracked expressivity that associated well with its modality, when a singular voice in uncertainty and torment sings clearly and is picked up by others equally uncertainly and the sound travels and is given no place to rest. This complex drift and flight in multidimensional activity does not arouse the deep, hypnotic listening turned on by, for example, Pauline Oliveros, or other early minimalists. Here in Prometeo a defluxion of concentration and restlessness of mind sharpens senses, straining the listener to question or uphold relations between sounds or points of sonic event. Nono anticipated this vitality ought to extend beyond conventional concert closure. How far this bears I haven't the space to summon in this review but the work's intention clearly is not solely the construction of a self-gratifying environment. By surrendering the visual and logical field, Nono achieves through the ear some allusive gateway to the soul, yet the desultory sublunar world maintains its ground. The unenclosed non-narrative line of wordlessly projected textual content can lead directly to a return to the libretto's root texts – a prospect of some, arguably pleonastic, didactic follow-up to a hearing of the drama; the capsule expands, branching out about the attentive listener's accidental interpretations and sympathies (that can account for few causes in formulating the material substance of a listener's life).

Nono's electronic processes differ from the later computed-analytical-to-reconstitutive-sonics of the spectral composers, Radulescu, Grisey and others. For a work decades old Prometeo produces, at least to these ears, still a broadening of electronic music in formal complexity and behaviour – and I hope I've hinted how one senses Nono never quite deposed his political considerations. According to the work's internal mechanics where potential confronts fact, Nono finds his allusive force exploring technical innovation in sound aggregates and relative connotations in perceptual mechanics; there, he demurs 'what hasn't been chosen is more right [than what was].'[17] With taut tendons and dry as leather the musical colour comes as murmurs of an intelligible living form of sound production, timbral relations, multiple spacial itineraries that give shape and perspectives that resist becoming univocal. Prometeo forms a ear-sundering, disjunctive, deeply reflective and shimmering sound world, wherein the gelid hovering, mythopoetical dramaturgy binds segmentation of untimely collapse in broken chant.

John Wollaston <pannikel at> is an illustrator and compiles beneath the floorboards journal Breaking Sciomachy


Unnumbered citations are from Prometeo libretto, translation supplied by Southbank Centre as part of the concert programme.

[1] In the foreword to score Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima. That work serves as a preliminary study to Prometeo, Nono writes of this quartet's fragments, 'silent "chants" of other spaces, other skies to otherwise rediscover the possible'.

[2] 'George Berkeley [...] was an Irish philosopher. His primary philosophical achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory, summed up in his dictum, "Esse est percipi" ("To be is to be perceived"), contends that individuals can only directly know sensations and ideas of objects, not abstractions such as "matter."'

[3] Simon Yuill writes on musical notation and live systems in Mute Vol 2 #8 available here:

[4] Freiburg Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts' 'Halaphon'. Nono says of the Halaphon, 'You dynamise a sound in space through various loudspeakers at contrasting velocity, and this sound then extends itself by spinning in a single direction as well as in several directions. You can make the same sound spin with four other motions in space: for example with different dynamics, with different tempi, accelerating and decelerating, or else with jumps... Listening turns out to be extremely complex, but the most extraordinary thing is that you do not need four different signals; a single signal suffices.'

[5] 'Gating': A 'gate' interrupts an instrument's microphone signal path, silencing it. Nono puts it to use triggering the gate open with another instrument–amplification of one instrument relies on another sounding, then both heard together.

[6] Primâ facie remnant's division collapsing to some point of infinitely extensive tension, that undertakes a kind of radical messianic itinerary that Agamben recognised excavating St. Paul and Walter Benjamin. Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains. Patricia Dailey, trans. (Stanford University Press, 2005) p.56. Following quote ibid.p.76. 

[7] Largely contrary to John Cage's sense of silence. For Cage 'each moment holds as much or as little significance as any other'. Nono sought an intensive significance to each moment, and said the quest for freedom unconstrained by musico-historical forces sought by Cage in aleatorism was 'the oppression which instinct exerts on reason' (Nono, cited in Michael Gorodecki, 'Strands in 20th-century Italian Music', The Musical Times, Vol.133, No.1787, Jan., 1992, pp.10-17.

[8] Luigi Nono, 'Text-Musik-Gesang' in Jürg Stenzl, ed., Luigi Nono: Texte, Studien über seine Musik, Zürich: Atlantis Musikbuch-Verlag, 1975.

[9] As Doesburg, Mondriaan and Kok called for in De Stijl manifesto of April 1920.

[10] Friedrich Hölderlin, 'Remarks on "Antigone"' in, Essays and Letters on Theory, Thomas Pfau, trans. & ed. State University of New York Press, 1988, p.110.

[11] 'Silence', since at times words are left unsaid yet are printed over the score. The texts themselves remain attached to the whole phenomenon of Prometeo; a condensed guide to the libretto in ancient Greek, Italian and German along with an English translation was made available at the performance.

[12] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities. Sophie Wilkins, trans. and Burton Pike, ed. London: Picador, 1997, pp.270-1.

[13] Musil's depicting Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, ibid. p.270. Prometheus has affinities with Musil's characterisation. After Cacciari had introduced him to it, Nono voiced his appreciation of Musil's work in a number of interviews, cited by Carola Nielinger-Vakil in 'Quiet Revolutions: Hölderlin Fragments by Luigi Nono and Wolfgang Rihm', in Music and Letters, Vol.81, No.2, Oxford University Press, May 2000, pp.247-255.

[14] Adorno covers paratactical disturbance as political and rhetorical strategy in a 1963 speech, here: 'Parataxis: On Hölderlin's late poetry', in Notes to Literature Vol.1, Shierry Weber Nicholson, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992) pp. 109-49. Nielinger-Vakil suggests Adorno's lecturing in Darmstadt from 1950 to 1966 contributed to Hölderlin's significance with Nono and the other Darmstadt composers; in 'Quiet Revolutions', ibid. p.246.

[15] Musil, ibid., p.272.

[16] Helmut Lachenmann, former pupil of Nono, calls Prometeo 'one giant madrigal';

[17] Nono quoted in Gorodecki, ibid., p.16.