Homage to Luigi Nono
- Postlude: The Garden of Pythagoras
Most musicians are apolitical creatures: their allies call them idealists, while
their critics describe them as self-absorbed. They wish the world well, in a
detached sort of way, but avoid getting deeply involved - so long as the world
permits them to pursue the practice of their craft.
But in times of crisis even the artist has a duty to take a stand, or forever be
numbered among the cowardly and the foolish. The American presidential
election of 2016 is such a moment: summoned from the charms of his
imaginary landscapes,the musician stands blinking in the harsh light of day,
looking about for guidance.
And the first thing he sees is Luigi Nono. This avant-garde 20th c. Italian
composer demonstrated, in his life and in his work, a commitment to society
uniquely intense and sincere, but a fair appraisal of his politics is as difficult to
achieve as an appreciation of his music. Coming of age in the aftermath of
the Second World War, Nono joined the Communist party, hardly a sign of
political acumen, though it should be recalled that, at that time and in that
country, communism was embraced by liberal intellectuals as an antidote to
the tyranny of Fascism.
But Nono was more than a talented musician with a conscience: he contrived
to make his music political, using the letters of victims of war for his librettos,
employing the latest techniques and technologies of the modern world,
reinventing performance practice as an egalitarian, cooperative venture, firmly
grounding his utopian visions in the reality of the day.
Yet he was deluded by ruthless politicians, and he was overly credulous
about the efficacy of his art. Which is to say he paid the price a musician will
pay when he gets his hands dirty in the real world: he got everything wrong.
Did he begin, at a certain time, to see this, and would that explain the shift
found in his works from a public to a more intimate orientation? The music
turns inwards, so many muted fragments afloat in silence, like a vast and
austere archipelago. Glimpses, distant visions of utopia, islands of freedom,
of peace, of fuller being.
Now it's our turn to stand and be counted, as the spectacle of barbarism rises
in America. Alas, the country that I love is becoming a land of bigotry and
greed, a cultural desert and a spiritual wasteland. A land where hypocrites
like me enjoy the flattery of the young as we spout broad-minded euphemisms
from the comfort of our couches. We are all affected by the ills of this age,
yet it remains our task to find a way out. To be self-aware, at least, and
humbled in admitting our flaws, would be a beginning, from which dialogue
and compromise could emerge.
And here, perhaps, the musician might provide some insight, precisely
because of his naivete - not in the form of political advice, but through the
example of those values implicit in his art. For the musician understands from
experience that happiness is found not in the acquisition of things, but in the
actualization of the creative self, and that the dedication to art is a sacrifice -
call it an act of love - whose goal is to bind the world.
Which brings me to the present work, a homage to Luigi Nono, in which I
neither endorse his ideology nor adopt his practice of utilizing explicitly
political texts. Rather do I emulate what I see as his sublimated politicization
of art by seeking to create sonic symbols of utopia - soundscapes in which
felicitous freedoms are invisibly ordered, demonstrations in music of perfected
The Prelude is in that strictest form, the canon (beloved of Nono), but it's
disguised in a welter of melting colors, so that what the law requires becomes
what the heart desires.
The Aria, through a flux of music and noise, of sound and significance, hints
at a land of hope which the poet, in his plight, can't imagine.
In the Chorale, while serial procedures and Fibonacci proportions govern
pitch and rhythm respectively, exotic islands of color appear, so many
miraculous moments awash in a golden sea.
And in The Garden of Pythagoras, the tones are governed by the same
proportions that constitute their overtones, so that a natural harmony of
rhythm, pitch and timbre is restored.
But (as you must have observed) the idea that such music represents a
practical response to this crucial moment in history is as quixotic as Nono's
fond dreams!The forces that threaten our future are unlikely to be moved by
the songs of an unknown composer.
But what about a unicorn? What if I were to dig up that old plaster horn I
made and attached, so many years ago, to a backwards baseball batting
helmet, and place it on my head and become once again Tzhing, the symbol
of creative imagination? And what if Tzhing were to present a benefit concert
for the relief of starving angels (reasoning, as he does, that while plants are
nourished by sunlight and water, and animals are sustained by plants, that
higher forms of life - as mysterious to us as we must be to plants - would
depend for their existence not on corporeal food but on the life-giving acts of
man, both good and beautiful)?
Might such an event inspire a feeling for the mutual dependence of all life,
and might such a realization lead to greater tolerance and acceptance? Might
the clamor of voices cease, and in that silence might we hear, dimly,
imperfectly, an impossible music from a non-existent land that slumbers
among our numberless, nascent futures?