Monday, May 26, 2008

Torn apart by a Tragedy of Listening

Well what can I say?

I've only really known Luigi Nono's Prometeo for about eighteen months, having discovered and immediately fallen in love with first the original 1985 release of the composer's final, triumphantly wonderful work and then late last year the new version recorded for the Col Legno label. Both of these remarkable recordings were overseen by André Richard, who worked closely with Nono on the music's original performance, and who also took the roles of artistic director and sound arranger for the UK premiere of Prometeo at the Royal Festival Hall two weekends ago.

I'd had tickets for this concert for nearly a year, such was my determination to not miss out on the event. As it was a few tickets remained on sale on the evening, though a considerable crowd of knowledgeable listeners still descended on the South Bank for this one. So again, what can I say? This concert completely blew me away. As it came to an end and a very long ovation rang out around from the audience I felt in a daze, as if coming out of a very beautiful, two-hour long trance. So yes, plenty of hyperbole, but what was so good about it?

Well for me Prometeo is far more than a collection of beautiful noises. It takes a small number of culturally loaded elements and brings them together into one perfectly constructed whole. At its heart are the remnants of assorted historic texts based on the Greek tragedy of Prometheus, but Nono pulls them apart, breaking up sentences into individual syllables, retaining the anguish of human despair through the overall crushing intensity of what remains. The structure of the work is everything for me though. Sounds come and go, sometimes electronically manipulated in the most subtle of ways, different elements of the piece, instrumental, vocal, electronic and the spaces in between them all are built up into a monolith of flowing sound, broken up frequently by sudden chasms in the music.

Prometeo is often described as an opera, but clearly it isn't. There is no story, no characters, no real narrative. It is possible to read a printed copy of the texts involved , but it is impossible to follow this through the work, even if you speak ancient Greek. Rather, Prometeo is the culmination of a career of Nono studying and understanding the human response to tragedy and injustice, and distilling all of this down into this one final work, that he himself gave the subtitle "A Tragedy of Listening"

Although obviously I had been anticipating this live performance of Prometeo for some time, I was totally unprepared for how different, how much greater the experience of the music was when witnessed in a concert hall compared to CD listening. This music has always felt like fine architecture to me, bringing together elements of the baroque, modernism, etc into something quite new. If then we consider Nono to be the architect then André Richard was very much the master-builder for these performances. Months of work went into the planning for Prometeo's UK debuts, (there were two performances at the RFH, one on the Friday, one on the Saturday) Every part of the massive hall was used to place musicians, singers, narrators or loudspeakers, so as to create a completely 360 degree surround sound environment, with the audience, plus Richard and his assistants sat behind a bank of computer screens at its centre.

Hearing sounds come from everywhere, above, below, behind etc... often from places out of view truly gave the work a third dimension, bringing the fine structure of the work even more to life, truly filling the enormous space. In this situation I found detail in the music that I just could never hear on the CDs. Spaces I considered to be silent before were filled with whispers and murmurs, instruments died away slower, sounds collided where they had merely sat adjacent to each other in my past experience. On CD you just hear voices and instruments. In the RFH this was confused as a chorus seemingly coming from one part of the hall would suddenly change as its sound would switch and appear from a loudspeaker elsewhere. All of this brought an incredible sense of being immersed in the middle of this music, caught in the centre of this tragedy of listening.

I rarely go to see fully composed music. This is a situation I would like to change in the near future, but as I am used to watching improvisation I guess I am rarely shocked to hear an arrangement of musicians sound quite different to how they appear on a CD. With this performance of Prometeo however, the added detail and depth within the room made this a completely different experience of what is essentially a fully composed piece of music. Even little things like hearing the work right the way through (rather than the forced break that happens on both CD versions as Prometeo will not fit onto a single disc) was a strange experience. The nine parts of the work felt like they belonged together here, as opposed to different tracks on album as I have subconsciously considered them in the past. There could be no getting up to make a cup of tea halfway through, there were no intervals, no coming up for air. An overwhelming experience that has made me stop and rethink my opinion of what is possible in a live music performance.

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