Como una ola de fuerza y luz, Luigi Nono

Como una ola de fuerza y luz is a nightmarish labyrinth of shadowy dissonance and tactile timbres punctuated with violent emotive outbursts. Composed in 1972 and scored for orchestra, solo soprano, piano and tape, this piece is the fearsome pinnacle of Italian composer Luigi Nono’s middle period: politically charged, furiously expressive and sonically uncompromising. With its title roughly translating as “like a wave of strength and light”, Como una ola de fuerza y luz was composed in memory of Nono’s friend and fellow Communist activist Luciano Cruz, the leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left in Chile who died the previous year. Fusing searing anger and heartfelt lament into a warped, volatile elegy, Como una ola de fuerza y luz stretches and contorts the very fabric of the aural space in which it is so precariously confined with wild gestures of passion and despair.

As with so many of Nono’s works, the human voice provides a focal point amidst the stormy chaos of Como una ola de fuerza y luz. Considering the voice to be the most potent medium of expression, Nono often used vocal parts to act as an emotive centre to his music. In this piece the solo soprano takes the role almost of a narrator, contextualising the vast, abstract expanse of colliding sound with anguished cries of “Luciano!”. This work began its life as a piano concerto before Nono decided to include a part for soprano and, as such, the music revolves perilously around two distinct and contrasting nuclei: the stirring articulations of the voice sit uneasily against the almost mechanical pounding of the piano.

Como una ola de fuerza y luz exemplifies Nono’s pioneering work in electro-acoustic composition, seamlessly integrating pre-recorded sounds and noises into the music. Often hovering furtively on the edge of the audibility, Nono’s tape collage of distant voices and pianos cloaks the entire space in an effervescent cloud of half-remembered sounds: as if the music, having been played, is lingering on, still reverberating around the aural space. The tape is heard most prominently when accompanying the solo parts of the soprano, creating an illusion of the singer imprinting herself on the passage of time, overlapping and coalescing with her previous incarnations in a sustained cry of sorrow.

Nono himself described the use of pre-recorded sounds in Como una ola de fuerza y luz as “resembling the opening and closing of a space upon itself, like the extending and receding of a life”. This beautiful and eloquent description is particularly pertinent in illustrating Nono’s striking humanism as a composer; in a time when the classical avant-garde was becoming increasingly intellectualised and esoteric, Nono continued to put his faith in music as a performance art, emphasising it as something to be heard, not simply to be theorised about. It is from this foundation that Nono could create such communicative and brutally visceral aural experiences as this.

Below is a recording of Como una ola de fuerza y luz followed by a brief listening guide.

The piece opens as the orchestra tentatively fades in from silence, subtly coloured by the pre-recorded voices. The soprano enters at 2:29, backed by the recordings of piano and voices, and gains intensity in a series of impassioned outbursts. The next section begins at 6:34 and sees the piano (and its pre-recorded counterpart) battling against interjections from the orchestra. The soprano is reintroduced at 13:30, this time exploring more overtly melodic territory than the earlier angular section. By 14:40 both piano and soprano have dropped out, leaving only their vague memory in the haunting tape part. The orchestra is brought back at 15:21, first with clusters of brass and then, at 17:10, with shivering chords on the strings and the harp. The music then begins an inexorable rise in pitch until it has reached a piercing white noise at 24:48. The orchestra and piano begin the final section at 25:41 which concludes with a tape solo from 28:04, shrouding glimpses of the soprano’s earlier music in waves of noise.

The electrifying performance above is conducted by Claudio Abbado, with stunning performances from soprano Slavka Taskova and pianist Maurizio Pollini, and is available on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

For another of Nono’s politically charged works try his 1975 opera Al gran sole carico d’amore. As a fine example of his latter, more contemplative style, the colossal Prometeo of 1984 is essential listening (if something of a daunting prospect). The music of Giacinto Scelsi, a fellow Italian, shares many aspects of Nono’s sound-world; his 1965 piece Anahit is an enigmatic masterpiece of mysterious, static tension.

Artwork: Untitled (Bacchus), Cy Twombly

by Thomas May