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ascolta: irrompono angeli a volte

The South Bank redeemed itself less than 4 hours after Ms. Redgrave.

I meant to go and hear it on Friday, but I noticed, grabbing a post-Didion coffee, that there was a second performance of Luigi Nono‘s Prometeo at the RFH.

I love contemporary music. The wilder and more disconcerting the better. I like music that stretches the ears. And Prometeo is definitely that.

Two and a quarter hours without a break, it’s the last great work of Nono, one of Italy’s most famous modernist composers. Often bracketted together with other big names like Boulez, Stockhausen and fellow Italian Berio, Nono was a pretty austere, politically engaged composer and I have to say I don’t really know his music so well.

But a piece with four orchestras, several choirs and instrumental groups scattered in a 360 degree array around the audience – with text in ancient Greek and particulated Italian – pondering the myth of Prometheus and entitled ‘A Tragedy of Listening’. How could I resist? I mean, it was a hot, delicious early summer evening in London – what better way to spent 2 and half hours?

I was a little upset not to be right in the middle of the surround sound but there were no tickets left for that aurally-elevated space, so I was on the edge – which meant I didn’t get the full 360 effect which was sometimes frustrating – but even off-centre, the whole experience was amazing.

British people don’t as a rule take kindly to high-modernist experiments that quote Hölderlin and Walter Benjamin in a plotless, largely meditative exploration of human suffering. But the hall was full and apart from a couple of flakey walk-outs 20 minutes in, everyone sat in rapt attention.

Weirdly, it wasn’t at all boring. From the beginning I treated it like a meditation – as indeed Nono suggests. It was the perfect environment for the ‘mindfulness of listening’ practice I teach. Resting in a state of open awareness and letting each new sound happen on the ear without reaching forward for the next or dwelling on the last. And this work offered a huge palette of sounds and aural experiences.

There was the almost constant shimmer of high strings and voices shifting in and out of harmonies. Narrators speaking in a fractured, odd style, like broken deep brass instruments. Sudden ear-crunching volumes of sound that then skittered into nothingness. There was a long section held together with a comforting-distressing pulse from one of the string ensembles up in the balcony. Everything was blended and mutated with a huge barrage of electro-acoustics which swept the sound round in circles and little vortices.

Nono doesn’t really do melody. There were hardly any consective patterns within voices – the whole movement of the piece came from the juxtoposition of sounds from different directions. So, so for example, there would be a pulsing back and forth from one choir on stage and the soloists up on the balcony.

The experience of listening to Prometeo was quite radical. Its immense length and sometimes glacial pace worked together with the constant fractures and often quite violent changes on a moment-to-moment level. Nono’s very engaged left-wing politics are suspicious of visuals. He saw the visual field as the most susceptible to dictatorial manipulations. By forcing his audience to surrender the logical and visual field and dwell entirely on the aural, Nono does push us towards that more mystical state where the ear not the eye is the gateway to the soul.

Rachel Holmes from the Southbank puts it like this:

In Prometeo, Nono asks us to be attentive to the democratic , radical impulses in our sense of hearing, rather than seeing. […] It’s overwhelmingly quiet music revealing the boundaries and faultlines of power at the limits of the audible and inaudible. This is the place where Nono takes us and offers up a meditation on opening up another dimension, the space of a different intervention in the flow of time. What does democracy and freedom feel and sound like? It sounds and feels like this.

That’s far too many words already to describe an experience which dissolves words and lifts you out of that wordy universe, but it was fascinating how the audience was transported by the music.

It reminded me of those epic 5 hour performances I used to go and see at the Volksbühne in Berlin, the communial experience of being together inside a theatre for that length of time was very liberating. It took you to another space. Here in the Royal Festival Hall we were literally insidethe music for two and half hours. It happened all around us and I, for one, dissolved into it for long stretches.

There was a beautiful long section in the middle, about an hour and half in, when three soloists dazzled their way through the following beautiful text, wrapped up in circling eddies of electroacoustics. Nono’s word setting makes the text all but inaudible – he dissolves syllables and has his singer sing all syllable simultaneously – but weirdly the sense of the text was there:

ascolta, cogli quest’attimo balena un instante un batter del ciglio un instante, non dire dell’ieri oggi il sole lancia il laccio dell’alba […] irrompono angeli a volte angeli cristallo del mattino battono ali di porpora, la misura del tempo si colma ascolta, ascolta, ascolta listen, seize this moment an instant flashes, a blink of an eye an instant, don’t speak of yesterday today the sun lassoes you with the dawn […] sometimes angels burst in angels crystal of the morning beating purple wings the measure of time peaks listen, listen, listen
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