Luigi Nono and Communism in the Post-World War II Avant-Garde

How the uncompromising Italian composer gave voice to liberation movements around the world

April 11, 2019

The word “nono” means “ninth” in Italian, but to an English speaker, it cannot help sounding like an insistent refusal: “no, no!” That fits the composer Luigi Nono with freaky aptness, given that his life and work turned around a double negation of the status quo. Nono was a fearless explorer of new techniques of composition with tape and electronics, first embracing them on his 1960 piece Omaggio a Emilio Vedova; he was also a ferocious, life-long opponent of injustice and exploitation.

In 1952, Nono joined the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista Italiano, or PCI). He was a vocal supporter of liberation movements throughout the developing world and gave many of his pieces dedications or titles in tribute to guerrilla leaders. “Y entonces comprendió,” for instance, bore a dedication to “Ernesto ‘Che’ Guavara and all his fellow combatants in the Sierra Maestras of the world” – a reference to the high mountains in which the Cuban revolution was hatched.

Speeches and texts by anti-colonialist icons such as Patrice Lumumba of the Congo make up the libretto of various Nono works. Others feature the actual voices of revolutionary leaders or anonymous crowds of protestors. The most striking example of the latter is “Non consumiamo marx,” a delirious audio-collage of fury and defiance that documents demonstrations against the 1968 Venice Biennale, regarded by student radicals as “a fortress of bourgeois art.” The piece was originally released in 1969 as one side of Musica-Manifesto N.1, an LP recently reissued on vinyl by Die Schachtel.

Nono saw works like “Non consumiamo Marx” and “Contrappunto dialettico alla mente” as sonic acts of solidarity with all those struggling for liberation, whether on the other side of globe (F.A.L.N. guerrillas in Venezuela, the Viet-Cong) or closer to home, like the workers from northern Italy’s industrial cities who inspired “La fabbrica illuminata.” In the 1968 essay “Music and Power,” Nono described composing as “something to which I am committed in a way that is no different from participating in a demonstration or a clash with the police, or, as could be the case tomorrow, in the armed struggle.”

Although the price he paid for his stance wasn’t anywhere near what happened to his friend, the Chilean protest singer Víctor Jara (murdered by Pinochet’s thugs in 1973), the strident statements that Nono made both in and around his work did meet resistance. In 1961, neo-fascists attempted to disrupt the premiere, in Nono’s hometown Venice, of “Intolleranza 1960,” using what the New York Times stiffly described as “stench bombs,” the shouting of “unprintable names” and whistles. The political content in Nono’s work also led to conflicts with his publishing company and disinvitations from institutions like the Prix Italia.

The Italian Left saw culture as a battle ground in a way that lent weight and edge to Nono’s interventions.

In response, Nono tried to bypass the official channels of high culture and engage directly with both student youth and the workers. He put out recordings via I dischi del Sole, a Milan imprint that specialized in folk and political song, and the popular music label Ricordi. And he staged performances and playbacks of his work in non-concert hall contexts like factories and union buildings.

Nono staked out his “militant modernist” path in a controversial lecture delivered in 1959 at Darmstadt in West Germany, during its renowned annual convocation of composers and students, the International Summer Courses for New Music. Titled “Historical Presence of Music Today,” the lecture breaks both with Nono’s erstwhile friends in the European avant-garde, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, and with the John Cage school of indeterminacy then taking hold in America. Stockhausen’s mystic exaltation of science and space, Cage’s embrace of Eastern spirituality and surrender to the operations of chance, were both evasions of the present and therefore ultimately complicit with capitalism and the post-colonial order. For Nono, the purity these composers sought was neither possible nor desirable: the conscious composer must respond to the historical moment in all its messy urgency. To do any less would be to fail the test of your time.

Nono’s own historical moment was a post-WW2 Italy emerging from the wreckage of a disastrous experiment with fascism. Buoyed partly by its unimpeachable role in the Resistance and by post-war hopes of renewal, the Communist party grew steadily in strength, expanding its electoral reach from 19% of the populace in 1946 to just shy of 35% in the 1976 general election. By that point, Nono was a member of the central committee of the PCI. For a sense of what that might mean at that time and in that place, try to imagine Steve Reich sitting around the same decision-making table as Howard Dean during the George W. Bush presidency. For the PCI wasn’t just the largest opposition party in Italy – it actually controlled local government in large swathes of the country, in particular the industrial cities of Northern regions like Emilia-Romagna. Thanks to the Italian style of coalition government, nearly 60% of the Italian population lived in areas where the local administration included Communists. As the narrowly still dominant Christian Democrats inched towards a “Historic Compromise” – the hitherto unthinkable idea of power-sharing with Communists at the level of national government – America grew deeply worried.

Communism had become a sort of counter-mainstream in Italian life, a serious rival to Catholicism. The Party was a culture that enfolded its members’ lives – you might send your kids to Communist summer camps, for instance. At the same time, during the turbulent ’70s – a period known as the “Years of Lead” – a ferment of extra-parliamentary left-wing groups emerged. Some were workerist, some autonomist, and a few embraced outright terrorism, but all shared impatience with the PCI, which they found culturally staid and overly cautious.

Influenced by the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Left saw culture as a battle ground in a way that lent weight and edge to Nono’s interventions. “Hegemony,” Gramsci’s key concept, referred to the output of media and cultural institutions, but also a wider “common sense” of values and norms that conditioned a people’s sense of what was possible and “natural.” Before they won power, radicals had to conquer hegemony: changing minds and hearts, consciousness and desires, they could displace one consensus-reality with another. As Gramsci wrote, in a passage quoted in the liner notes to Nono’s Canti di vita e d’Amore LP, “one must speak of the struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new morality which must stand in close relation to a new concept of life, until a new way of seeing and feeling the truth arises and thus a world which is congenial to ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art.’”

Luigi Nono with his family Marka/UIG via Getty Images

Nono’s laboratory for the hatching of “possible musics” was the Studio di Fonologia, an experimental division established in Milan by Italy’s national radio station, RAI. Starting in 1960 with the tape composition “Omaggio a Emilio Vedova,” Nono formed a potent synergy and symbiosis with the engineer Marino Zuccheri. He would later hail Zuccheri as no mere technician but a virtuoso on a par with the great orchestral instrumentalists. Together, they plunged into what Nono later characterized as “a continuous deepening of possible and impossible-utopian musical ways of thinking and knowing.” Studio di Fonologia became “an original musical world” at once equal and different to its contemporaries in Paris and Cologne. Where the Groupe de Recherces Musicales at Radiodiffusion Française developed the possibilities of tape-based musique concrete, and West Germany’s Rundfunk’s radiophonic studio explored pure electronics, the Milan powerbase had its own special focus: the human voice.

Fonologia – phonology in English – is the experimental study of speech sounds. Nono’s great abiding interest was the emotional and timbral extremes of speech and singing, and it’s the vocal intensities scattered throughout his work that are so arresting and bracing to the ear. Nono’s work is characterized by a seemingly contrary pair of obsessions: on the one hand, a passion for words that speak the truth to and about power; on the other, with the force of a truth that can only be expressed by going to places where language fails and words are insufficient.

“For me, the freest and most powerful musical instrument is the human voice,” Nono declared in 1966, “extraordinary for its great technical, phonetic, and semantic richness.” The critic Enzo Restagno argues that even before Nono embraced electronics and tape, earlier vocal works like “Il canto sospeso” and “Cori di Didone” contain “potentialities that would be expressed… later with the help of electroacoustic instruments.” In his early writing for chorus, Nono was reaching towards spatially mobile sound-shapes and hovering clusters of texture that really required technological trickery – slicing and splicing tape into new patterns, filtering and processing, exploiting to the utmost the disorienting potential of stereo – to be fully realized.

Some of the work that Nono and Zuccheri did at the Milan studio really was a form of phonology. Completed in 1966, “A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida” was preceded by a long period of research, with the pair studying the melodic and rhythmic inflections of South Vietnamese and Cuban speech for particular “episodes” of the work. They also developed “technical procedures of processing and composition using the emission of phonemes and words by a number of actors and actresses: particular ways of using the microphone in recording, simultaneous intervention on the voice with the third-octave variable filter, the subsequent processing with a dynamic modulator, with variable speed control, with square-wave oscillators.”

If that wasn’t enough mayhem, in the fall of 1965 the Living Theatre – Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s New York experimental theatre troupe – arrived in Milan for rehearsals. “Every night for a week, the Living Theatre was unleashed,” Nono recalled. Zuccheri taped the actors’ screams and abstract vocalese as they ran along a path of microphones that he’d distributed across three recording studios. As Nono recalled, “one of their most violent expressions, which I used in ‘A Floresta,’ was the ‘reading of the dollar’… the numbers in the series, the name of the bank, and a few other things you can read on an American banknote, but [with] the different ways of saying the numbers, screaming them, whispering them, the sound of footsteps, the racing between the recording studios, the improvised and interrupted singing.”

Although the human voice was a privileged form of raw material in Nono’s work, the Studio di Fonologia worked on many other sonic substances, from the chiming of the lowest-resonating bell in Venice’s St Mark’s church to a panoply of metallic noises generated from bronze pipes and copper plates. In a tender tribute to Zuccheri written in 1986, Nono describes the process as pulverization: breaking things down into particles or fragments, “almost like the tesserae of a mosaic that could be assembled in various ways.” Subjecting these disintegrated sources to treatments like filtering, different time ratios and modulations of amplitude, intensity and attack, Nono and Zuccheri deployed the studio as both “a fascinating ‘chaotic’ vortex” and a methodical test laboratory.

Nono focused on more pressing aspects of contemporary life: the war in Vietnam and America’s treatment of its black population as second-class citizens.

It must surely have been not just his socialistic concern for the working conditions of the proletariat, but a deeper feeling of affinity – as a worker in his own sound-factory – that led Nono to “La fabbrica illuminata,” the 1965 piece that’s among his most powerful works. The title translates as “The Illuminated Factory” and is probably meant to suggest the idea of an aural glimpse into the audio environment inhabited by the industrial working class. As such, it’s meant to be a savage enlightenment for the classical-music loving bourgeois, who enjoys all the mechanical conveniences afforded by this labor but has no real inkling of the hostile conditions in which they are manufactured.

“I spent three days with the workers of Italsider,” Nono recalled of his 1964 sound-foraging expedition to a metalworks plant in Genoa. “Discussing my work with them, recording their words and the acoustic environment in which they worked… It was not just a question of creating a work about a factory, but above all of seeing how… that particular work environment affected the private lives of the workers with all the problems of harmfulness it involved. So it was necessary to study the psycho-physical reactions of those workers rather than merely ‘photograph’ them while they worked in the factory.”

Nono captured “the noises in the blast furnaces with the pouring of molten steel, with workers giving rapid orders in very loud and exasperated voices.” The writer and dramatist Guiliano Scabia worked up a libretto for the mezzo-soprano Carla Henius to incant, using textual fragments derived from the workers’s own words, employment contracts and so forth. There was also a fragment of poetry by Cesare Pavese, an anti-fascist literati and contributor to the PCI’s newspaper L’Unità, but also a romantic whose 1950 suicide was caused by a combination of heartbreak and political disillusionment. All this material was subjected to processes of smelting and restructuring analogous to what went on in the infernal clangor of Italsider.

Later that year, a delegation of workers from the factory arrived to hear “La fabbrica illuminata’s” premiere at the 1964 Venice Biennale. A long, boozy night of discussion ensued that continued until dawn. “Full of turmoil and of stimulation for future enterprises,” is how Nono remembered it. Both during the concert’s aftermath, and on a later visit to the factory at the worker’s invitation and insistence, where he presented the work and further discussed it, Nono was impressed by the technical slant of enquiry and criticism. “Those workers were not interested in the ‘messages’ of my work, but… my technical choices in the use of particular kind of material rather than another. Very concrete questions… but also very serious and deep, and not ideological hot air.” Clearly, they recognized an affinity between their labor procedures and the particular form of “cultural work” undertaken by Nono and Zuccheri.

“They are subjected to the bombardment of escapist consumption through the radio and pop songs,” Nono observed in a 1966 interview. “But for their own lives and work they are required to be technically avant-garde: new technical means of production and labor… The process of work and composition in the electronic studio, and the phonetic and semantic analysis of the text in relation to its becoming music, is easily understood by them.”

Yet the workers also tuned into the deeper meaning of the work, Nono believed. “Here is a constant in their reactions: ‘listening to this music composed with our sound-noises and with our words, we become aware of our alienated state in the factory. We work like mechanized robots, almost no longer realizing the violence of the human sound situation. Now we are rediscovering it and recovering awareness of it even through music.’”

A different kind of factory was the inspiration for two related works of the mid-’60s: the death-factory of the Nazi concentration camps. First came Nono’s stage music for Peter Weiss’s Die Ermittlung, a 1965 play about the Auschwitz trials that were taking place in Frankfurt that year. Chorus material from that project then fed into 1966’s Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz, which translates as “remember what they did to you in Auschwitz.” The individualized title – in Italian, “ti” is the intimate form of second-person singular – means to emphasise the particularity of each precious life subjected to suffering and extinction. But the voices – wisps of anguish and desolation – merge into a ghastly wavering cloud, a gathering of wraiths wracked still by their memories. Sounds recycled from “La fabbrica” also appear in the work, which Nono described as “a reminder not of an isolated phenomenon but rather compelled by political conscience in the ongoing battle to eliminate all concentration camps and all racial ghettos.”

In the final two years of the ’60s, Nono’s militancy and modernism rose to a peak, as if keeping pace with the high fever of insurrection and conflict seething across the world.

Where Ricorda is harrowing and piteous, 1968’s “Contrappunto dialettico alla mente” is strident with voices of fury, scorn, defiance and accusation. Commissioned for the Prix Italia, an international music competition organized annually by Italian state radio, the work was rejected on the grounds that its content might be received as discourteous by American participants. The text was certainly on the nose, dealing with the assassination of Malcolm X and incorporating scathing snippets from the manifesto of “Black Women Enraged,” a division of the Harlem Progressive Labor Club, that sought to dissuade young African-American men from signing up for Vietnam. A disorienting stereophonic work, swirling with what Nono called “phonetic dust,” “Contrappunto” also harvested noises from the fish and vegetable market in the Rialto area of Venice, along with filtered and superimposed sounds generated by pipes of varying thickness and length. The idea seemed to be to evoke a groundswell of amorphous popular discontent being brought into ideological focus by the agit-prop texts, a sonic analogy perhaps for the relationship between the masses and the vanguard party.

Beneath its surface clamor, though, lay a seemingly whimsical structural conceit: the whole work was modelled parodically upon a 1608 suite of comic madrigals by Adriano Banchieri. In a letter to an official at Italian state radio, Nono explained his thinking: “Banchieri composes to contemporary texts that deal with life as it is in his epoch. Texts that are clever-humorous-lyrical-glimpses… from a celebratory toast to the assorted praise of various wines to the hawking of fishmongers and slipper and clothing pedlars at market. From entertainment and recreation (stories-games-pastimes) to phonetic games…” Nono’s aim was simply to do something similar to Banchieri but updated to “the context of today.” Rather than supermarkets and TV variety shows, which would have been the approximate modern equivalent to the subject matter that informed Banchieri’s madrigals, Nono focused on more pressing aspects of contemporary life: the war in Vietnam and America’s treatment of its black population as second-class citizens.

This explanatory pitch did not sway the authorities and Nono was promptly disinvited from that year’s Prix Italia. It wasn’t the first time, either: “La fabricca” had similarly been blocked. Furious, Nono railed against the servility of Italy’s cultural establishment to the United States and NATO, “while totally ignoring the vigorous existence of that complex protest movement within the US represented by the ‘new left.’ Could it be that the Italian Constitution defines the Italian radio as an adjunct to the Ministry of Defense? Could it be that a problem like the condition of blacks in the US must not upset us and cannot be a source of musical inspiration?”

In 1967, Nono had made his first trip to Latin America, visiting Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, and finally Cuba, meeting with radical artists and intellectuals, left-wing politicians, union leaders and ministers in revolutionary governments. In the final two years of the ’60s, Nono’s militancy and modernism rose to a peak, as if keeping pace with the high fever of insurrection and conflict seething across the world. The result was “Non consumiamo Marx,” an unprecedented hybrid of audio documentary and studio composition. “1968 had just exploded all over Europe and there were… a hundred and fifty of us students and workers against the Venice Biennale facing five thousand police who had militarily occupied the city,” Nono recalled in an interview nearly 20 years later.

Alongside its cut-and-mix clamor of kids clashing with cops in the historic squares of Venice, “Non consumiamo marx” bottles the spirit of ’68 in a more general and once-removed way. The piece is woven through with anarcho-utopian slogans from the Paris riots of May that same year – “I love you!!! Oh, say it with paving stones!!!,” “All power to the Imagination,” “Open the windows of your heart,” “under the pavement, lies the beach” and the title-inspiring “We will not consume Marx” – as recited by Edmonda Aldini. Refrains from revolutionary songs, subversive slogans and the speaking voices of radical leaders like Rudi Dutschke also feature, with further sonic grist supplied by the same Rialto market noises used on “Contrappunto dialettico.”

Nono premiered “Non consumiamo” at the 1969 Fête de l’Humanite, an annual socialist arts festival in France. That same year I dischi del Sole issued it as one side of Musica-Manifesto N.1. Nono would also create a similar work – San Vittore 1969, a document of a prison riot in Milan – in collaboration with singer-songwriter Mario Buffa Moncalvo for the popular music label Ricordi. This is a bit like Morton Feldman collaborating with Phil Ochs to make an album about Attica for Elektra.

Nono described the escalating sequence of compositions that included “La fabbrica illuminata, “A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida” and “Non consumiamo Marx” as “works in which traditional language does not work anymore… The fusion of electronic material and natural material is analyzed and composed so as to make it impossible to distinguish where one begins and the other ends.” Unlike other avant-garde composers – such as Milton Babbitt or Toru Takemitsu – who embraced tape and electronics during the ’60s, only to abandon the approach and return to traditional orchestral resources in the following decades, Nono continued to experiment. While he composed non-electronic works and developed radicalized forms of opera, he also became excited by the scope for meshing acoustic instrumentation and live electronics, exploring these possibilities at the Heinrich Strobel Foundation in Freiburg, Germany – RAI having refused to modernize the Studio di Fonologia. Nor did Nono’s political commitments dim: themes of injustice and class struggle recurred in his compositions right up to his death in 1990. But he also wrote from a more “civilian” place, with works that were introspective, spiritual, and approaching the threshold of silence.

Of course, Nono is not the only 20th century avant-garde figure whose music was as politically radical as it was formally challenging. Similar works from the late ’60s and ’70s include recordings like Ilhan Mimaroglu’s Tract: A Composition Of Agitprop Music For Electromagnetic Tape, Salvatore Martirano’s L's GA For Gassed-Masked Politico, Helium Bomb, And Two-Channel Tape, and Trevor Wishart’s Red Bird (A Political Prisoner’s Dream). Cornelius Cardew is arguably an approximate British counterpart to Nono. But while Cardew also vehemently renounced the avant-garde with which he’d once been associated, but which he now regarded as culpably apolitical and decadent, in his 1974 tract Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, his own attempts to engage directly with the masses were clumsy and condescending: folk songs with blunt lyrics and titles like “Smash the Social Contract” (a reference to a pay-freeze agreement in 1970s Britain). And whereas Nono had a place on the central committee of Italy’s main opposition party, Cardew was affiliated to a fringe left sect, the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain.

One of Cardew’s better known pieces is titled “We Sing for the Future.” Interviewed for a 1986 questionnaire, Nono was asked what his main character trait was and answered simply “nostalgia for the future.” That evocative phrase for dreams of a better world yet to come is now the title of a collection of Nono’s writings and interviews, published for the first time in English by the University of California Press. Leafing through Nostalgia for the Future, what struck me was the passionate and lyrical tenor of Nono’s turn of phrase. His Romantic utopianism and his belief that radical content demanded an equivalent radicalism of form reminded me of nothing so much as post-punk era outfits like the Pop Group, Gang of Four and Scritti Politti.

The latter connection is easy to make, given that Scritti named themselves after a Gramsci essay collection, while their debut single “Skank Bloc Bologna” fused Gramsci’s concept of the revolutionary “historic bloc” with a namecheck for the industrial city in Northern Italy. Singer Green Gartside had read about the city in the 1977 book Red Bologna, a study of its highly efficient Communist government – a widely admired model for left-wing success throughout Western Europe. But what strikes me more is the parallel between the way that Nono repeatedly talked about his surges of enthusiasm for new ideas (political, artistic, technical) as “falling in love,” and the way Mark Stewart described his lyrics in the Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” as a celebration of “the idea of unconditional love as a revolutionary force – the way it kind of switches on a light, makes you hope for a better world, gives you this idealism and energy."

Nono anticipated this very same idea on Musica-Manifesto N.1, which pairs the angry tumult of “Non consumiamo marx” with the outwardly utterly different in mood flipside “Un volto, e del mare” (“A face, and of the sea”). An ethereal and wavering voicescape that aches with oceanic feeling, “Un volto” is based around a poem by Cesare Pavese, to which the soprano Liliana Poli and the actress Kadigia Bove improvised melody under the guidance of Nono, who then later edited and resequenced the material.

Commenting on the wedding of “a modern madrigal amoroso” to a chaotic cine-collage of popular disorder on a single slab of vinyl, Nono scholar Venerio Rizzardi argues that “this music can be considered a proper ‘manifesto,’ because of the coexistence of two – only apparently contradictory – expressions: the representation of revolt is in fact complementary to the amorous contemplation, at the same time ecstatic and nostalgic.”

In fact, Nono did actually attempt to mesh “Non consumiamo Marx” and “Un volto, e del mare” into a single work. Toiling with Zuccheri in the Studio di Fonologia, he “tried many times to superimpose the two parts… I wanted to… interweave two different types of falling in love.” It’s as if he wanted to fuse into one unified and indivisible expression both his public-facing self and the private Nono: the husband and father who took his family with him on his 1967 pilgrimage through revolutionary Latin America and who named one of his works after his new born daughter Bastiana. The merger did not, on this occasion, take and hold, however. And so the two sides of Luigi Nono – the lover and the fighter - remain opposite, yet inseparable, sides of the same remarkable record.

Header image © Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images

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