Two Italians on Mode

Two Italians on Mode

Grant Chu Covell

[January 2001. Orginally appeared in La Folia 3:2.]

At first glance, Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi could not seem further apart. Nono is political, a significant figure in the post-war European music scene, a respected teacher and mentor, and a relative (by marriage) to Schoenberg. Scelsi is an outsider, fanatic, mystic, and improviser. But both were close collaborators with some of the century’s great musicians, forging relationships and cultivating intensely loyal performers and interpreters.

Nono is somewhat familiar to followers of the Darmstadt school, has been well represented in recordings in performances, and recent revivals of his operas have taken place in Europe. Scelsi has been labeled the Italian Charles Ives (Whoa! Revueltas has been slapped with “the Mexican Charles Ives,” so does this make Scelsi an Italian Revueltas by commutation??!!).

Unknown for most of his life, Scelsi’s music appeared at the 1987 ISCM Festival which offered works that had been written decades before. Scelsi’s influence was immediate, and subsequent works by Cage and Nono can be traced directly to Scelsi’s single-note compositions. Both composers are influential post-war Italians of the last century (toss in Dallapiccolla, Petrassi and Donatoni), and both are less well known in the US than they are in the states. Mode’s new series will change their US presence for the better, and the first issue of each series is available now.

Luigi NONO: A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida for soprano, three reciters, b-flat clarinet, copper plates and 8-channel tape; Donde estas hermano? for 2 sopranos, mezzo soprano and alto; Djamila Boupachà (soprano solo from Canti di vita e d’amore: Sul ponti di Hiroshima.) Voxnova; Elisabeth Grard and Sophie Boulin (sopranos); Carol Robinson (clarinet); Gerard Pape (sound direction/live mix). Mode 87.

I must say that I am a major Luigi Nono fan. My wife will recount how obsessed I was to get to the “Luigi Nono” street in Milan over by the cemetery (the street is actually named after Nono’s grandfather, a painter). One of my small regrets is not having met him; the opportunity presented itself years before I had discovered the visceral power of his music.

Nono’s music is unpredictable and invigorating and quite unlike the work of any other. Noise (natural or electronic) and silence are powerful poles in his work. Nono’s music moves through monody, dense clusters, microtones and expanses of silence, and can alternate between being harsh and violent yet quiet and beautiful.

This is demanding music: Nono’s writing for strings is famously unidiomatic and awkward. The same can be said for his piano writing, which is full of clusters, wide finger stretching chords, fast repeated notes, and the full compass of the piano. Nono is also a significant composer of vocal works, and works that use live electronics or pre-recorded tape.

Nono was also one of the few actively political composers of all time, taking stances which alienated many and deeply inhibited his influence in the USA. However, his passionate Marxist and Communist leanings infused his work with deep integrity. Nono is an intensely humane composer, introspective, probing and demanding of humanity. Nono is the perfect foil to Stravinsky whose humanity is topical and trivial by comparison, and also to B. A. Zimmermann, who for all his sad genius expressed in such works as the Requiem for a Young Poet, is actually introspective and somewhat selfish.

Mode 87 combines powerful pieces with all these qualities into a single disc. A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida for sorprano, three reciters, b-flat clarinet, copper plates and 8-channel tape is a demanding and exhausting work to listen to. Mode has recorded performers who perform Nono with passion and corresponding intensity. A floresta comes from the phase in Nono’s life where large-scale works for performers, tape and electronics were never completely notated, the ensemble relying upon changes from performance to performance to work out a piece’s final shape. Such works were often toured, and Nono and the ensemble would make changes from performance to performance, usually never documenting the final result, except perhaps by making a recording. The notes indicate that the performers undertook extensive research using the existing recording made under Nono’s supervision and all the extant performance documentation. Carol Robinson, the clarinetist, worked with William O. Smith, a.k.a. Bill Smith, jazz and contemporary classical great who worked with Nono on the original clarinet part. Robinson matches Smith’s taped clarinet flawlessly. The voices of Voxnova and the seemingly small ensemble of clarinet and percussion radiate an intensity and breathtaking power which perfectly compliments Nono’s original tape.

A floresta comes from 1965-66 and bears a few artifacts of the time. On occasion the declamatory style of the reciters seems a touch dated, but you will experience nothing like the same overwhelming embarrassment as listening to works like Ligeti’s Nouvelle Aventures or Berio’s Laborintius. Nono’s felt strongly that the words of unjustly treated workers and of revolutionaries must be heard, and he presents them with great sincerity and passion. Consequently, A floresta rises above other topical and pointlessly contrary works of the 60’s and 70’s.

It is hard to listen to anything after such a strong opener, but the CD is completed with two short works for voices, ¿Donde estas hermano? for four voices, and Djamila Boupachá for solo soprano. After the intensity of A floresta, lyrical melodies draped with silence are a fitting conclusion, perfectly representing the complexity and depth of Nono. I’m greedily looking forward to more from this series.

Giacinto SCELSI: Sonata No. 2; Sonata No. 4; Suite No. 9, Ttai. Louise Bessette (piano). Mode 92.

A somewhat recent dictionary of music glibly marked Scelsi as someone who forbade the taking of his photo. I don’t recall the exact citation, but I do recall the grammar of the dictionary entry wonderfully unclear. I wondered whether he forbade being the subject of a photo taken by someone else, or if he owned a physical photo that he refused to have taken away from him. From what I’ve learned about Scelsi, both behaviors would be completely in character.

Scelsi is most often associated with his Quattro pezzi su una nota sola (1959). Through brilliant and skillful orchestration each of the four orchestral pieces really does hover around one note each, a single note or pitch that becomes emphasized through octaves, overtones and much microtonal fluctuation with percussion. His works for smaller ensembles, especially the string quartets, are phenomenal and the ultimate illustrations of the Scelsi style: the full gamut of sound production, precise rhythmic details and notations, and movements that explore but one note or pitch and its overtones. Yes, he sounds like a quack, but Scelsi can get more out of a single note than most composers do with their entire careers.

But here is a disc of piano music, an instrument with fixed pitches which doesn’t submit itself to the same sort of quivering harmonies and colors that are Scelsi’s modus opperandi. I have always valued the string quartets, small chamber ensembles and the orchestral and choral music over the solo piano music, but this disc makes a strong case for Scelsi and the piano.

Sonata No. 2 is a lush work easily mistakable for Scriabin with its open harmonies, fast repeated notes and specific representations of bells and chimes. Written in 1939 but premiered forty years later (such a delay is typical to Scelsi), Scelsi’s mysticism is very tangible. Sonata No. 4 is from 1941, and is more advanced and aggressive than Sonata No. 2. It too reflects the Scriabin sensibility, but there are harbingers of Scelsi’s deep fascination with single tones and small cells of material.

Suite No 9, Ttai, (1953) is from Scelsi’s second major creative period, and among his last works for the piano. From the notes we learn these crucial facts: “Scelsi characterized Ttai as “a succession of episodes alternately expressing Time and Man, as symbolized by cathedrals or monasteries, with the sacred sound of Om. ” Emphasizing the suite’s calm, meditative and mysterious character, Scelsi wondered if this piece should be played at conventional concerts at all, and advised in its preface: “This suite should be listened to and played with the greatest inner calm. Nervous people stay away!”

Of the three works on this disc, it is this Suite which seems most characteristically “Scelsi-like.” Entire sections and movements are anchored to specific ranges of the keyboard. Some movements focus on specific pitches and some are devoid of emotion, but most balance stretches of inactivity with sudden flurries of trills and ostentatious gestures. When there is motion, the pitches are kept to a small range and undulating patterns appear over slightly complex rhythmic motion. This is reflective music and a very different type of piano music than most people are used to hearing.

Either you get Scelsi, or you don’t. The essence of Scelsi doesn’t appear on the printed page, you must saturate yourself in it to get at the non-musical associations and richness, regardless of whether you subscribe to Scelsi’s mysticism.

Louise Bessette definitely gets Scelsi. She brings heat and intensity when required, and a flatness of expression when that’s required too. This may seem contradictory, but you don’t play Scelsi to demonstrate virtuosity or pyrotechnics, you play Scelsi to express the music and get at Scelsi’s vision. Reread Scelsi’s admonition above. Yes, it’s goofy, but Scelsi connects with performers in a way most contemporary music never can. Bessette is merely a vehicle, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way: Scelsi’s music is very bland on the page, and except for prefatory aphorisms, there’s often not much to go on. The Suite is the best example of Bessette’s brilliance as she takes the static movements in a very pure style, and in the more elaborate or emotive movements there are surprising and welcome flashes of color. Even in the sonatas, where a sappy and cloying Rachmaninoff sound would work, Bessette goes for a straightforward and clear approach.

And yes, I’m greedily looking forward to more from this series too.

For further (required) listening:

A mid-price DG reissue features Maurizio Pollini in Nono’s …sofferte onde serene… (1976) for Piano and Tape (DG 423 248-2), Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1971-72) for Soprano, Piano, Orchestra and Tape and Contrappunto dialettico alla mente (1968) for Tape (but using the sounds of voices and chorus). These are raucous works, dynamic and expressive. …sofferte onde serene… has unusual piano writing with wide stretches and clusters, the thumb often having to play two notes which double the 4th and 5th fingers in a different octave. Como una ola opens with massed choirs playing desnse clusters, and is a dark and reverberating.

Reissued on Naïve (the original was Astree E 8741) come three purely orchestral works from both ends of Nono’s career: Variazioni canoniche sur la serie de l’opus 41 de Schonberg (1950), A Carlo Scarpa, architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili (1984) and No hay caminos, hay que caminar… Andrei Tarkovskij (1987). Nono’s mastery of the twelve-tone idiom is evident from the first work on the disc, the Canonic Variations (he married Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria). Right from the start Nono breaks from twelve-tone tradition by introducing stretches of silence, percussion, duplicated octaves, and unexpected colors such as saxophone and piano. A Carlo Scarpa organizes sounds and silence and uses but two pitches (C and E-flat, the German equivalents of the C and S in the dedicatee’s name) with extensive microtonal inflection across a full orchestra.

No hay caminos also organizes monoliths of sound and silence across seven orchestral groups, so that spatialization is part of the work. As in A Carlo Scarpa, pitched and non-pitches masses of sounds rebound among solo instruments and full orchestra, with prominent sections for trumpets, massed contrabasses, very high string, and low brass. My original interest in the work was completely absorbed by Nono’s extreme use of silence and antiphonal sound, and how, despite almost exact repetition, the work is still unfathomable after repeated hearings. The listener’s perception of passing time is very important to this work (but what else would you expect in a work dedicated to Tarkovsky). Abrupt asynchronous percussion gestures and short repeated figures alternate with very long held chords and long stretches of silence. The tempo comes to a standstill and there seems to be no beat, then comes a raucous gesture repeated at left, right and center. On studying a score, I was amazed to realize that the entire work uses but one pitch spread through every octave constantly colored by microtones, and that in some places the tempo is quarter note equal to 30!

There is a great 3 CD boxed set from Accord (Accord 201 692) calling itself Scelsi’s Complete works for Chorus and Orchestra. Bundled together and separately, the discs are hard to find. One disc offers quintessential Scelsi, the Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra, Anahit, and Uaxuctum, Accord 200612. If you’ve never heard the Four Pieces, then you are missing out on some of the strangest, yet best music for orchestra ever. Scelsi takes a pitch and instruments play it in differing octaves, each instrument’s natural timbre emphasizing overtones and harmonics creating a dense carpet of color. Some instruments play fast, some slow creating varied senses of motion. Frequent microtones, glissandos, mutes and subtle variations with the single pitch combined with vigorous percussion create some of the most terrifying and remarkable music ever. Anahit is a violin concerto for scordatura (differently tuned) violin and is rich with glissandos and the dense monophonic texture of an orchestra following the violin around on one note. Uaxuctum is for chorus and orchestra and is loud and brash. Five movements of dark music, very other worldly and mysterious, and there’s an Ondes Martenot too. These works were recorded in a church in Poland, and the effect of the reverb and the live church space enhances these works with an unforgettable aura.

Also tough to find is a 2CD set with the complete String Quartets: Salabert Actuels SCD 8904-5 (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) presents the Arditti Quartet with Michiko Hirayama, Frank Lloyd, Maurizio Ben Omar, Aldo Brizzi in the 5 String Quartets, the String Trio and Khoom for soprano and six instruments. String Quartet No. 4 is also on Arditti Quartet’s the “from italy” set on Montaigne (MO 782042). Another hard to find disc of chamber music is on Accord 200622, with works for solo violin, solo viola, viola and cello duo, and string trio.