Modern Music as a Political Statement

Maurizio Pollini, one of the last remaining legends of the piano world, is presenting a series of five-concert “Pollini Prospettive” here in Rome. Each concert consists of old and new pieces paired, sometimes convincingly, as in Bruno Maderna’s lush Aura with Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and sometimes unconvincingly as in an hour of preludes, ballades, and sonatas by Chopin followed by the haunting …sofferte onde serene… for tape and piano (written expressly for Pollini in 1976) and the massive, unrelenting, anti-American-imperialism A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida (1966)—both by Luigi Nono.

What struck me most was the intense reception given to the latter piece by Nono. Coming last on the second half of a 2 and 3/4 hour concert, I was amazed to see virtually the entire audience remain (it began as a packed house).

There was a reverent respect given and every cough or sneeze was met by angry “shhhs” and the more Italianate “tssssss.” I saw several people quietly stand up and leave after being scolded for coughing too much. It’s nice to see this kind of attitude, but it was all the more spectacular considering that (1) Pollini wasn’t even playing in A Floresta and (2) the work is incredibly unforgiving, dense, difficult, gray.

What is it about this music that is neither pretty nor beckoning, that lacks obvious formal structure, that has sung words that are all but comprehensible, that stacks layers upon layers of recordings of documentary material interspersed with ferocious beatings of large copper plates? Why is a Marxist composer, a friend of Massimo Cacciari, ex-communista, now mayor of Venice, lauded in southern Italy where Fascism still peeks its head every time and again?

Making it through an evening of Nono is not simply about listening to modern music, but rather making a political statement. Many Romans that I have spoken to prefer to think of their city as part of the North, symbolizing a strong work ethic, openness, liberalism, and a connection to the rest of the world. Perhaps Italy is changing.

6 thoughts on “Modern Music as a Political Statement

  1. JKG

    Dense and grey…
    Interesting choice of adjectives. Must be rough having the gift to appreciate music which shares such descriptives with say, concrete. Musique concrete. And as far as Nono is concerned (yes I have listened to his work, Colin, and find it to be completely pretentious and not worth ANY of my time – what in the world did Arnold’s daughter DO to him?). But I suppose some feel real art is merely the association of two previously unassociated objects, in which case the concert fare you mentioned must’ve been a real tour de force. The audience was being polite, trust me.

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  2. pgblu

    I wish you would elaborate on what makes listening to Nono itself a political statement. You seem to take it as a given that people could not possibly have enjoyed this music. Is that an accurate interpretation of your words? If so, how could such “reverent respect” and self-sacrifice be, politically speaking, anything except purely regressive? Or could it be that the people were actually interested in the music as such? I can’t tell whether you considered that possibility at all. Personally, I think A floresta is one of his most compelling and overlooked works.

    JKG does not know what he is talking about, which makes it all the more irritating that he projects his own tastes on people whom he doesn’t know. (But what else is new?)

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  3. JKG

    Knowing what I talk about…
    What an interesting comment. Of course that is absolutely true, if in fact you’re describing my disdain for artistic phonies who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag. Nono would never have even been as well-known as he is, had he not married Schoenberg’s daughter. What we have here in serious art music is veritable calvacade of ‘artists’ who confuse noteriety with true artistic contribution. Gee whiz… does that mean we have modern artists who are no more the equivalent of Britney Spears when it comes to garnering attention? Nono has positively NO business in the music history books, and I find his ‘contributions’ patently silly and uninspired. The folks who appreciate his “music” are still very, very much in the minority, and THEY KNOW IT. Trust me, those absorbed in believing mannerist approaches to music actually provided real tools for creating real music have deluded themselves for decades – and they are welcome to it. And as far as whether or not audiences enjoyed or didn’t enjoy the music – what if they were merely indifferent to it?

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  4. TimR-J

    Nono’s A floresta is “incredibly unforgiving, dense, difficult”?

    Sure, why not – politics is difficult; and music can be, too. Writing difficult music is very often a political act. But to describe this extraordinary piece – 40 years old yet still one of the most vital musical experiences I’ve ever heard – as “gray”?! Now I really have seen everything.

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