Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

Luigi Nono (1924-1990) spent his career as the political activist among the Darmstadt serialist composers. He joined the Italian Communist Party in 1952, and many of his works have titles and texts of political significance. The piece with which he first came to public attention was Il Canto sospeso (The Suspended Song, 1955-56), a setting of final letters from resistance fighters who died during the Nazi invasions. (In 1992, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Berlin Philharmonic recorded and toured the piece as a political gesture, to counter the growing xenophobia of the German public.) Nono’s a floresta e jovem e cheja de vida (The Forest Young and Full of Life, 1965-66) is an anti-Vietnam War protest, with a collage of texts from Vietnamese victims, American unionists, Fidel Castro, and various revolutionary workers. Y entonces comprendio (And then he understood, 1969-70) sets letters written by Che Guevara to Castro and the Tricontinental. Como una ola de fuerza y luz (Like a wave of power and light, 1971-2) is a lament for the death of a Chilean revolutionary leader, Luciano Cruz. And on and on, though his works became less specifically political in the latter part of his career.

However, unlike Cardew and Rzewski, Nono became and remained a 12-tone composer (and even married Schoenberg‘s daughter). Like some other Continental composers who have followed in his footsteps, he believed in writing difficult, ambiguous, often opaque music to express his political points. A work like Como una ola de fuerza y luz inhabits basically the same soundworld as Boulez‘s Pli Selon Pli or Stockhausen‘s Gruppen: similar discontinuities, masses of sound, pointillism, and dense clusters. While Nono’s use of 12-tone technique is generally more “lyrical” and melodically continuous than that of the other prominent Darmstadt serialists, he places little weight on the intelligibility of his texts; in Il Canto sospeso, for instance, the heart-wrenching words are split up among parts of the chorus in a way that denies semantic listening. Criticized for this, Nono countered (in the words of Joachim Noller) that “the meaning of the texts was transferred to other, musical, means of expression. Whereas in certain forms of political aesthetics, music is degraded, as it were, to a mere handmaid of the text, with the spoken language as the standard by which all communication is judged, Nono prefers to set greater store by the variety and autonomy of musical expression.”

For me, and perhaps for many of us who discovered his music at an impressionable age, the question of the political impact of Nono’s music may be permanently confused by program notes like that one, and like the following, for the Wergo recording of his Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz:


“By reducing the name Auschwitz to its real dimension, namely that of the one human being delivered up at any one moment to the murder industry, …Nono makes implicit criticisms of bourgeois ideology, which simulates extreme horror, but at the same time keeps its distance, so as to avoid having to consider rendering any practical assistance in all future ages… Not only is the text integrated into music, it is transformed by electronic means. Nono is not concerned with stipulating precisely what he is recalling to mind. Instead he has conceived his work, which is pure music free from any literary ambitions, as a catalyst serving solely the extremely difficult purpose of recalling Auschwitz to mind at all. The text… is preserved there as a signal, not as an obelisk…. Within the piece, …musical proportions are evolved which take the place of all that neither musical illustration nor literary discussion could adequately transmit,” and so on and so on, by Konrad Boehmer.

The would-be enthusiast quails before the onslaught of these vague sentences—and I could have quoted from almost any of Nono’s recordings to similar effect. What do they mean? Is it Nono himself who “makes implicit criticisms of bourgeois ideology” in his conversation or writings, or does the music somehow do so? Can it all be boiled down to, “Nono tried to create a more generalized and visceral emotional impact than a verbal description of Auschwitz would”? If so, does that differentiate the piece from most music in general? Are the program notes necessary for the music? Do they draw on some insider knowledge of the score, or even from Nono’s own musings? Or is Boehmer simply listening blind as you or I would, and, unable to decode this dense music in any detail, filling the page with poetry? Eventually he gets down to one concretely descriptive sentence that I can imagine writing in response to this music: “Thanks to electronic transformations [the human voice] is extended in places to become an anonymous chorus, which is overwhelmed at unexpected moments by a torrent of harsh electronic noises.” That I get, and it seems relevant to Auschwitz. But then: “The music tells no story—what has to be remembered has entered into its structural functions.”

Somebody please listen to Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz and tell me what its structural functions are?

Nono may or may not have been responsible for his liner notes, and who cares? The point is that his music is opaque, mysterious, lacking in surface logic, and therefore invites explanation. There is a problem in general with the reception of serialist music: its apologists took (and still do take) its opacity and complexity as an opportunity to write about it in portentously vague, almost tautological ways that assume a priori a profundity that a piece of music should be left to prove to the listener. With abstract music like Boulez’s, or grandiose and mystical music like Stockhausen’s, one can take such writing with a grain of salt. But in the case of political music, the case is too urgent. Nono, as a political composer, wants to change our ideas and behavior, and the purpose and direction of those changes demand clarity, or at the very least humility.

Next to perhaps Luc Ferrari, Nono wrote my favorite electronic music from post-war Europe. The electronic piece Contrappunto dailettico alla mente (Dialectic Counterpoint for the Mind, 1968), in particular, is one of the loveliest and most sensuous electronic pieces of that otherwise squeakfarty era. But the soothing, somewhat disjointed way in which, at the end, a soprano croons the words of a pamphlet directed toward African-Americans by the Harlem Progressive Labor Club—


You cause too much trouble in your ghetto
Uncle Sam wants you to die in Vietnam
The “Whitey’s” plan is to let you die in Vietnam
Stay here and fight for your human dignity

—doesn’t seem calculated to change anyone’s mind, or spur anyone into action. Nono pays homage to his texts, but given his serialist context doesn’t particularly use them less abstractly than Palestrina uses “Credo in unum Deum.” Likewise, Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz is a strange and lovely piece, with occasional outbursts of violent sound, but more often languorously gliding echoes of reverberant female voices. What text there is is not audible as such, nor is it given in the liner notes. Call the piece Night on the Moors, or The Ghost of Annabel Lee, and its affective and political significance change entirely. It is, in fact, exactly in the same position as the 1960 string orchestra piece by Krzysztof Penderecki that he originally intended to title 8’37″, but that he changed at the last minute to Threnody (for the Victims of Hiroshima). With that external alteration, the string glissandos changed from abstract lines to screams and falling bombs (even though only one bomb fell at Hiroshima). By changing a title, one becomes a political composer.

And perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. It seems very Continental. In the 1980s, I found that Germans considered me a political composer because I used Native American melodies and drumbeats in my music, even though there was usually no deliberate protest or political point: the very fact of drawing attention to an oppressed people was enough for them. You give a piece a title that refers to an event, or rather a location linked to an event—Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Sabra and Chatilla, My Lai, there are no end of atrocities—and while listening to the piece, the cultured new-music audience thinks about the event, influenced by the atmosphere and twistings and turnings of the music. For Cardew, I suspect that would have meant doing precisely what Nono’s apologists fear: allowing the bourgeois to “simulate horror but keep their distance.” For many composers, that’s what political music amounts to. For those of us whose work is ghettoized in new-music festivals, perhaps that’s all it can be.

From Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics
by Kyle Gann
© 2003 NewMusicBox

2 thoughts on “Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

  1. Pingback: Kyle Gann on “political music” | Phil Thomson, Composer

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