PROMETEO Tragedia dell’ascolto (Prometheus, a tragedy of listening) the masterpiece by Luigi Nono with libretto by the philosopher Massimo Cacciari based on texts by Aeschylus, Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Hölderlin and others, is slated to be performed on May 26 at Parma’s Teatro Farnese (repeat performances May 27 and 28). This production, realized by Teatro Regio di Parma, will be using the recently published new edition, edited by André Richard and Marco Mazzolini.
Thirty-three years have passed since the world premiere of Prometeo, which was held at the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice on September 25, 1984, and 27 years have passed since the composer’s death. The original manuscript that Nono submitted to Ricordi is void of numerous indications regarding important aspects for the piece’s execution (vocal, instrumental and electronic), which were added after intense analysis by a group of interpreters and technicians. The more than 60 performances of Prometeo since 1990 were made possible thanks to the contributions of musicians that worked with Nono.
André Richard’s participation in the early performances, attended by Nono, his work as director of sound for Prometeo, and his long experience made possible the creation of an electronic score, which is a fundamental part of Prometeo. This new edition provides a final solution to problems the score has always presented for performers, and proposes “a tragedy of listening” as Luigi Nono conceived it.
We recently had the opportunity to interview Maestro André Richard.
Maestro Richard, you took part in the first performances in Venice and Milano. Can you tell us something about the context and the atmosphere?
The preparations for the premiere in 1984 in Venice were really exciting. I don’t think any of the participants could imagine how such a visionary musical project would turn out. The project was already extraordinary for the lone fact almost everything that was usual in the way of intending and making music had to become “something else”. In his interviews on Prometeo, Nono would always go into deep illustrations of his concept known as spazio sentito (“space heard”) and how he imagined placing individual groups of musicians within a given space. In a short note to architect Renzo Piano dated December 6, 1983, he wrote: “No opera/ no director/ no set designer/ no traditional characters/ but/ dramaturgy-tragedy with mobile sounds that/ read discover/ empty fill up space.” (1)
Based on those indications, Renzo Piano designed a wooden auditorium, called “the Structure” by Nono’s collaborators, which was built inside the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice. Massimo Cacciari wrote and assembled the texts for the libretto. Live electronics were designed at SWR’s Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung experimental studio, as was the acoustic infrastructure for “the Structure”. The painter Emilio Vedova did studies entitled “Image-signs in movement for Prometeo“ for the “lighting interventions.” Nono composed his electronic music based on the lengthy acoustic experiments he conducted with his musicians in the experimental studio.
All this was going on in 1983-84, before the premiere of Prometeo, and was immensely intense and stimulating! Of course, the closer we came to rehearsals, the more pressure there was on Nono. The score for the chorus would come in pieces, that sort of thing.
In late August, when the musicians came to Venice for the rehearsals, Nono grew even more tense. “The Structure” was still under construction, which meant rehearsals had to be held in the Arsenal. You could see how oppressed Nono was by the huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders. This was something that, musically speaking, had mostly “never been heard” before, which could be experimented and listened to only when all the details and parameters were put in place. Many musical details for the performance could be worked out only after doing sound checks with live electronics in the completed performance space. But the construction of “the Structure” was at least 15 days behind schedule. Nono and Hans Peter Haller, who at the time was director of the experimental studio, started getting nervous. During the short breaks that the workers took, they were only able to try a couple different positions for the speakers, to get just a basic idea of the sound inside that space. Once “the Structure” was completed, rehearsals with the musicians began, and gradually we were able to listen and get a better understanding of how Nono had conceived his music. Whenever a premiere draws near, there’s always lots of tension. But with Prometeo in Venice, there was also lots of material that was completely new and unrehearsed.
How did audiences react?
For the audience at that premiere, listening to the music was a challenge. Only a small part of the audience was actually competent. As the performance went on, the audience began to grow restless, you could hear the chairs moving on the wooden floor of the auditorium. Many people were simply overwhelmed by the spatialized music and left the concert without being overly discreet about it, showing their disappointment. But for those whose ears had been “reawakened”, that performance was an unforgettable musical event.
Today, after all this time, we can say with certainty that Nono’s work and the first performances of Prometeo in Venice (1984) and Milano (1985) were a milestone in the history of 20th-century music.
You have performed this piece and have worked on it for more than 30 years. What are the new aspects of it which you have discovered? What kind of new experiences have come out of it?
My musical training began with singing. After that, I studied composition, and later did advanced studies in live electronics at IRCAM in Paris and at SWR’s experimental studio in Freiburg im Breisgau. And thanks to Luigi Nono, I also began conducting.
I began taking part in the production of Prometeo in 1981, for which I did various musical jobs. It started during the creation of the work, and continued through all the rehearsal phases and performances, in all the venues where Prometeo was performed, up until 2015.
In 1981 I began creating the Solistenchor Freiburg for the realization of Das atmende Klarsein, for a small choir, bass flute and live electronics. Nono had considered that to be the finale for Prometeo. Based on those experiences, in 1983 Nono asked me to create and prepare a new choir for the performance of Prometeo, following specific tonal guidelines. After the first shows and beginning in 1987, I was involved with the Solistenchor and also helped in the preparation of the soloists, besides working on sound direction.
After Nono’s death (May 8, 1990), the first performance in Gibellina, Sicily, in 1991 was a real challenge. As the new artistic director of SWR’s experimental studio, I suddenly had to make decisions that up till then had been made by Nono and Hans-Peter Haller. Here I got help from the musicians who had worked closely with Nono and Alvise Vidolin. Knowing how to handle the work involved using an oral tradition we’d developed, in which everyone had to contribute in order to make the whole performance work. This process was extremely important, because Nono left behind no indications regarding the interpretation and the variations of the score that emerged during rehearsals and performances.
Over time I’ve managed to gather together and reassemble people’s knowledge about arrangements, parameters and musical decisions for the performance of Prometeo. It was a drawn-out process that took years.
My work on the composition and my experience with the performances have led me to a deeper understanding of music. Today, I can’t say what it was precisely that created such a strong impression on me at the beginning. It must have been Nono’s creative power in having conceived and realized such a work. It was the production of sound combined with live electronics, the composition of sound in space. It was also the challenge each of the musicians faced in attaining a new understanding of what it is to make music.
What advice would you have for a conductor doing Prometeo for the first time?
The question itself contains part of the answer. Contrary to what one might commonly think, the performance of Prometeo doesn’t require a lone conductor giving directions to the members of the orchestra. That idea belongs to a traditional conception of making music, where it is the conductor who by himself decides on the overall esthetic result of the sound. For the performance of Prometeo, Nono envisioned two conductors. On the one hand, this arises from the need to manage tempo indications, which can be different and divergent at the same time, as we see in the Prologue. On the other hand, you’ve got to keep the various musical groups in synch. This also means thinking out and hearing the piece in a different way. We’re not dealing with standardization, but with accepting the differentiation generated by different people, and the idea of teamwork that Nono stressed.
As I’ve already said, it’s not one conductor relying on the help of an assistant. What’s more, the decisions regarding sound within the space are mostly up to the sound director. The whole performance depends on the decisions made in collaboration with the two conductors. Nono listened and gave indications for the overall final sound, because only from the center of the performance space could the various sounds of the musicians be combined and represented transparently, what we hear in the actual performance. That wasn’t possible from where the two conductors were positioned, which meant it was necessary for the two conductors and the sound director to work together. With this piece, even the conductors learned a new way to conceive making music.
Can you tell us something about the new edition?
For more than 25 years, Marco Mazzolini of Ricordi, in Milano, and I worked on the publication of Nono’s later works. We began with Omaggio a György Kurtag and finished three years ago with Risonanze erranti. In each work, we always had to go back to the approach Nono himself used. This was mainly because the interpretation of the score, the way it’s articulated and having to play in combination with electronic sounds, was not written in the original manuscript. They were the results of long experimental phases in the SWR studio, and thus form part of the oral tradition among the players.
Lots of times I have described in detail how we proceeded, so I’ll try to cut it short here. What should be pointed out, though, is that our editing work quickly led us to the conclusion that there were limits to what written notation could do. Here’s a very simple example: A Pierre. Dell'azzurro silenzio, inquieto from 1985. The score contains notes that have very little to do with what you hear acoustically. The question is: Where do the other sounds we hear come from, and how are they actually to be played? Digging deeper, we inevitably encounter the material, technical dimension. For example, most clarinetists who play this work use a metal bass clarinet. But clarinetist Ciro Scarponi did acoustic experiments with Nono on a wooden clarinet made of rosewood, a rarity indeed, whose sound is very different from the metal bass clarinet. Analog electronics have a strong effect on tone as well. Without taking these things into consideration, Nono’s original creative approaches flatten and vanish. This simple example shows how the acoustic result and its realization can no longer be expressed and channeled solely through written instructions.
For the new edition of Prometeo, we had to integrate the way to “play live electronics” and the relative parameters, which was much more difficult and complex. This is a pure composition of sound and space, whose score needed the most comprehensible notes possible. The sound that comes out, in the end, depends a lot on the acoustics of the venue, as well as satisfying numerous parameters, varying from performance to performance. Some indications for parameters – such as the duration of reverb and the percentage of transposition of the original sound, the density of stratifications, the speed of movements of sound in space, and so on – may turn out to be unusable in some other venue, appearing wrong from the start. These were processes that couldn’t be laid down in mere formulas, acoustically speaking. Here we were seeking to come as close as possible to what we thought was what Nono wanted. I think we came up with the solution.
In dealing with these issues, I came to understand why Nono never explained or annotated the electronics. The inclusion of live electronics data in the score is a huge consumption of time. Which he instead dedicated to his last pieces.
What does Nono mean by the subtitle a "tragedia dell'ascolto" (tragedy of listening)? How do you feel about it?
Nono developed his ideas for “a tragedy of listening” based on his years of work with the philosopher Massimo Cacciari. In his essay "Verso Prometeo" (Toward Prometheus), Cacciari writes, “… everything rigorously for the purposes of listening, no embellishing, no effects. A place where listening is not distracted” (2). In Prometeo there are no stage directions for the singers. But using live electronics, Nono staged defined parts of his composition in terms of musical outcome, whose correlations are often closely tied to the content of the libretto.
With the use of technology, the performance takes shape not only through the people on stage, but as a whole comprised of musicians, the especially designed performance space and the interpretation of the live electronics, and there emerge unexpected qualities in terms of aura. This is one of the visionary aspects of “a tragedy of listening” and this music. It’s music you can listen to and understand only within a space created especially for it. Prometeo is the refusal of a kind of perception conditioned by the daily routine and mass media. “A tragedy of listening” is what is happening within a given space, an authentic encounter in which communication between interpreters and listeners is reborn. It brings us back to a genuine listening experience that is unique and unrepeatable.
A.R., May 1, 2017
(1) Umberto Allemandi & C.: Nono Vedova, Diario di bordo, 2005, S. 102
(2) Massimo Cacciari: Verso Prometeo, RICORDI 1984, pag. 21
Photo: André Richard con Luigi Nono (Prometeo 1985, Stabilimento Ansaldo Milano)