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Luigi Nono's Socialist Modernist Political Aesthetic: Transposing Sartre and Brecht

by Jackson Albert Mann


Luigi Nono (1924-1990) was one of the most important European composers of the 20th century. He was also a committed socialist and a life-long member of (and later leader in) the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Nono’s music was intrinsically bound to his political beliefs and his pieces were always thematically connected to left-wing liberation struggles of the time. However, much of the scholarship on Nono either ignores his politics completely or mentions it only in passing. That scholarship which does comprehensively engage with his political commitments almost always does so through either a neo-Marxist or Gramscian lens. I argue that neither of these approaches provide a satisfactory picture of Nono’s highly developed political aesthetic. Neo-Marxist aesthetics are ill-suited as a framework for understanding Nono’s materialist approach to music composition and, while making a connection between Nono and Gramsci is understandable as a result of his numerous references to the late Italian communist leader, Nono’s reading of Gramsci is mostly superficial. Rather, I believe a close reading of Nono’s writings reveals that his influences lie elsewhere, specifically the literary theory of Jean-Paul Sartre and the dramaturgy of Bertolt Brecht. It is by transposing progressive Modernist concepts from the work of these two figures to the discipline of music composition that Nono develops a left-wing political aesthetic distinct both the Socialist Realism of the communist East and the Adornian neo-Marxism of the capitalist West, a political aesthetic that I term Socialist Modernism.



Luigi Nono was a Venetian composer whose work was well known for its explicit leftist political content. Born in 1924, Nono grew up under Mussolini’s fascist government. He developed radical left-wing politics in his youth. As a young adult during WWII, he was able to avoid military conscription with the help of a socialist sympathizing doctor and enrolled in university as a law student, where he began secretly assisting the anti-fascist resistance movement.[1] Nono spent what free time he had studying music composition with Gian Francesco Malipiero, the director of the Venice Liceo Musicale.

After the war he was introduced to the child prodigy performer/composer Bruno Maderna and the renowned orchestral conductor Hermann Scherchen. Both men were committed socialists and their politics had an enormous impact on Nono.[2] It was through these connections that Nono was able to attend the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Summer Course for New Music) in Darmstadt, Germany, returning every summer between 1950 and 1959. During this period Nono officially joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and went on to become the so-called “political enfant terrible” of the “Darmstadt School,” a result of his experimental anti-fascist compositions (Il canto sospeso, 3 Epitaffi per Federico Garcia Lorca).[3] [4]

In 1959, Nono accused John Cage of “colonialist thinking” and denounced his method as “orientalisms that a certain Western culture employs to enhance the attractiveness of its aesthetic...” during a public lecture at Darmstadt.[5] [6] [7] Nono took issue with numerous elements of Cage’s practice but focused specifically on his appropriation of Zen Buddhism as simultaneously a manifestation of cultural imperialism and a conscious use of Zen's historical connection to imperialist ideology in Chinese antiquity.[8] The debate with Cage and others led to Nono’s subsequent break with the Darmstadt School, after which his music became even more politically charged. His pieces dealt with themes stretching from the everyday injustices faced by factory workers in Italy (La fabbrica illuminata), to the struggles of Communist freedom fighters during the Vietnam War (A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida), the Paris Commune, the 1905 Russian Revolution (Al gran sole carico d’amore), and the US Civil Rights Movement (Contrappunto dialettico alla mente).

Much of the commentary and scholarship on Nono’s music never engages with his politics directly, instead choosing to focus on the technical construction of his pieces. This approach is problematic given that Nono saw himself as a “totally committed musician... in the rich, diverse, multifaceted, and often contradictory struggle for socialism.”[9] However, even the scholarship which does seriously engage with his left-wing beliefs does so on shaky grounds, either retroactively applying a ready-made neo-Marxist aesthetic lens to his work or focusing on the influence that Antonio Gramsci had on his thought, viewing his corpus within a Gramscian framework. The former approach reveals the contradictory voices in Nono’s music and the explicit modernism of his method, yet understands this modernism as a conservative reaction against postmodernism. The latter sheds light on Nono’s use (and misuse) of Gramsci’s concepts of cultural hegemony and organic intellectualism as a justification for his artistic position. However, both fail to reveal the full picture of Nono’s highly developed political aesthetic.

Nono’s modernism is obvious, but this modernism is not a conservative allegiance to an interwar-period aesthetic. Rather, it is far more nuanced and progressive. It is also true that he repeatedly cited Gramscian concepts to justify his position as a revolutionary artist, which was often under scrutiny as a result of his upper-middle-class upbringing, as well as his education and participation in a style of modern classical music (Serialism) seen by many orthodox Marxists as bourgeois.[10] However, pointing out his work’s modernism does not tell us much about his complete aesthetic project and presents a blinkered view of Nono as a musical conservative and, additionally, as shown by Robert Adlington, if Nono was a Gramscian, he was “in fact a highly idiosyncratic” one.[11]

I argue two points: A) the reason for Nono’s awkward Gramscianism is that he is not, despite numerous claims to the contrary, a Gramscian at all and B) rather than being a conservative modernist, Nono’s political aesthetic is firmly rooted in specific progressive trends within Modernism. This paper will deal with two of them: the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht (a figure who is cited often and even paraphrased in Nono’s writings, interviews, and notes) and the literary theory of Jean-Paul Sartre.[12] In fact, it is upon this foundation that Nono builds a forward-looking political aesthetic that I term socialist modernism.

Any interpretation of Nono’s work which does not take into account these connections misunderstands and misrepresents it. It is only by placing Nono’s work within the framework of Brechtian dramaturgy and Sartrean literary theory that it can be understood.

Nono & Gramsci

Like most Italian left-wing artists and intellectuals after World War II, Nono often cited Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which were enormously popular after their first publication in the1950s.[13] In his 2016 article ‘Whose Voices? The Fate of Luigi Nono’s Voci destroying muros,’ Adlington introduces us to Nono in the 1960s, a decade after his famous public denunciation of John Cage in 1959 and his subsequent break with the Darmstadt School.[14] Adlington presents Nono as a committed, albeit confused, Gramscian under attack intellectually by the “folk-ethnology” aesthetic of the then popular Workerist movement and the Dutch anarchist group Provo[15] during the 1970 Amsterdam production of his eventually-redacted piece Voci destroying muros (Voices destroying walls).[16] [17] But this Gramscian frame only provides tenuous rationales for Nono’s aesthetic ideas, imagining them to be a direct result of his supposed misreading of Gramsci.

Adlington points out that Nono consistently “misrepresented his compatriot’s arguments” and that he accepted at face value the PCI’s conflation of Gramsci’s concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ with any intellectual whose politics aligned with those of the working class.[18] [19] Nono also seemed to misunderstand Gramsci’s notion of culture as being made up of already established artistic mediums.[20]

It is difficult to take Nono’s Gramscianism seriously in light of these misunderstandings, particularly his misinterpretation of the concept of the organic intellectual, about which Gramsci is incredibly clear. According to Gramsci, the organic intellectual’s claim to this status is bound up in their actual labour. It is an intellectualism constructed on the basis of their experiential technical knowledge of the capitalist method of production within their specific industry.[21]

Interestingly, despite his misapplication of this concept when used in reference to himself, Nono did seem to understand it when discussing the working class. He explained, on more than one occasion, how his 1964 piece for soprano voice and magnetic tape, La fabbrica illuminata, was well-received by working class audiences because its status as a factory soundscape, rather than an autonomous musical piece, appealed to their technical intellectualism, an organic intellectualism constructed experientially.[22] [23]

According to Adlington, it is Nono’s simultaneous paradoxical applications of Gramsci that led to his lifelong obsession with technology. Nono “drew from Gramsci’s statement [on Organic Intellectualism] a different conclusion,” analogizing the act of musical research into electronics to the experiential knowledge of the working class and ignoring Gramsci’s emphasis on “locating organicity in indigeneity...”[24] [25]

Luckily, Gramsci provides Nono with a possible exit from the conundrum of his class background: “One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle... to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals.”[26] Nono, as a member of the traditional intellectual category of composer, could conceive of himself as a conquered intellectual, won over to the cause of the working class. Unfortunately, no such conception of his intellectual position appears in his writings.

Adlington does mention that Nono, like other post-War European composers, “wished to heed the Sartrean call to throw off the chains of oppression of creative... domains... specifically addressing the kinds of modernism that fascism had suppressed.”[27] But he does not pursue this Sartrean connection any further, instead continuing to discuss Nono and his work within a Gramscian frame.

It is regrettable that Adlington does not explore Nono’s reading of Sartre, as this would clarify Nono’s artistic approach. Though drawing a line from Gramsci to Nono is understandable, Adlington shows throughout his article that this leaves us more confused than before regarding Nono’s aesthetic choices and intentions. It is on the basis of this incomplete picture that Adlington attempts to piece together a causal connection between Nono’s more direct (i.e. less avant-garde) forms of representation for working class voices in Voci destroying muros and the folk-ethnology critiques of the Workerist movement, even though such criticism was never leveled at Nono publicly and there is “no concrete evidence for a direct influence.”[28] [29] [30]

Nono & Neo-Marxist Aesthetics

In his 2014 doctoral dissertation, Nono and Marxist Aesthetics, Joshua Cody attempts to interpret Nono’s 1980 string quartet Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma through the framework of what he calls “the four major Marxist approaches to art.”[31] [32] He comes to two key conclusions. The first regards what Cody terms Nono’s ‘conservative late-modernism.’ This is most clearly articulated in the following quote:

Far from the mystical/naive poetic visionary in the fashion of a Rothko, Scelsi, or Tarkovsky... Nono is revealed via a narratological analytic approach as a wily, canny dramatist armed with a conservative, late-modernist and even, in a sense, neoromantic (if never regressive) technique, one always consciously resisting the true postmodernity of [John]Cage...[33]

Cody places Nono on a political spectrum from conservatism to progressivism, positioning him as the reactionary modernist to Cage’s progressive postmodernism.

His second conclusion regards the proper Marxist interpretation of Nono’s pieces. Cody infers that only Bloch/Jameson’s neo-Marxist literary theory can sufficiently interpret Nono’s music. Within this aesthetic framework Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma is interpreted as a subversive fairy-tale that narrates the conflicts of late-capitalism and provides a fantastical resolution to its schisms: “The ‘neutrality’ of the major second dyad that opens the piece, the ‘hostility’ of the alla punto aperiodico material, the ‘enigmatic’ nature of the tritones throughout, and the “transcendent” harmonies that close the work are the semantic content...” that make up the narrative of this insurgent fairy tale, one which chronicles the struggle between “different voices” on the late-capitalist battlefield and the eventual imagined victory of the subaltern.[34] [35] [36]

Cody’s conclusions are correct on two points. Nono is indeed working within a modernist framework and his pieces do present numerous contradictory voices. However, his accusation of musical conservatism and his narrative interpretation misrepresent both the context and function of Nono’s work. This is a direct result of the absence of Nono’s voice in Cody’s paper, in which he is directly quoted only once.

Without a clear understanding of Nono’s influences and the highly-developed political aesthetic to which these influences contributed, Cody comes to a conclusion that directly contradicts Nono’s own statements regarding Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma. Rather than engaging with Nono on his own terms, Cody reads into Nono’s corpus a reactionary tendency based on his own assumptions, and into the specific sound-clusters of Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma a pointillistic narrative that is absent in Nono’s writings on the piece.[37]

This is not to say that Cody’s subjective interpretation is entirely incorrect, but rather that there is no evidence to support this reading as a critical and objective view on Nono’s work. A further consequence of this is Cody’s quick dismissal of the ‘Marx/Engels’ aesthetic approach in favor of the ‘Bloch/Jameson’ framework. A direct precursor to Brechtian aesthetics, Engels’ predilection for anti-parabolic realism, exemplified for him by the novels of Honoré de Balzac, is significantly more useful in analyzing Nono’s music.[38] [39] His simple desire for art that truthfully reproduces “typical characters under typical circumstances” is far more suited to Nono’s materialist approach, which I will subsequently describe.[40] \

Nono, Sartre, & Committed Writing

If neither a neo-Marxist nor a Gramscian approach to understanding Nono’s work can reveal his political aesthetic, what approach can? In order to develop a complete picture of Nono’s aesthetic we must trace the genealogy of his ideas to the literary theory of Jean-Paul Satre and the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht. It is on the foundations laid by these two figures that Nono built a progressive modernism that integrated their ideas.

The most founda-tional concept in Nono’s aesthetic is commitment. In his article on Nono’s 1974 piece Für Paul Desau, Luis Velasco-Pufleau traces Nono’s concept of commitment to the influence of Gramsci, stating that “seeing composers as organic intellectuals, Nono granted them the hegemonic function of struggling against... the world of the ruling class (bourgeoisie) by musical creation and by promoting a revolutionary and socialist imaginary.”[41]

According to Velasco-Pufleau, Nono believed it was the position of the composer as an organic intellectual which inevitably led to the necessity of political commitment in their work. However, this is an inversion of Nono’s idea regarding commitment, which he borrows directly from Sartrean literary theory.

For Sartre, the nature of writing prose is inherently semiotic as “the words are first of all not objects but designations for objects.”[42] This is the result of the communicative attitude of the prose writer (Sartre contrasts this with the attitude of the poetic writer) whose writing is purely communicative in function.[43] Therefore, from the very beginning, prose-writing is inherently committed to communicating something, even if that something is mundane. Commitment is not something that is given to prose writing by an author, rather, it is intrinsic to prose-writing itself. And the best writing knows what it is communicating, why, and to whom.

Nono, actively breaking with Sartre’s own conception of music as similar to poetry in attitude and function, transposes the concept of commitment as inherent in prose-writing to the process of musical composition.[44] [45] In reply to a 1966 questionnaire from the French journalist, novelist, and music critic Martine Cadieu, Nono stated the following and presented an altered version of Sartre’s what, why, and to whom configuration:

Each musician chooses his own position in the contemporary world, and each choice is also a partisan political choice, that is, he does not act in an aristocratic or autonomous fashion but rather in a manner connected to the context of his current society, whether he is spiritualized in metaphysical abstractions, whether he is exalted by the beauty or purity of sounds, whether he considers having fulfilled his own commit- ment moralistically, whether he proclaims the uniqueness of the technological moment or process, or whether he identifies himself pragmatically within the musical act, whether he chooses Zen, cocaine, or irreverent anger. Already implicit in this choice are the answers to the three questions that J.P. Sartre poses regarding literature: what is writing (music)? why write (music)? For whom does one write (music)? [46] [47]

Rather than commitment being the result of a decision to politicize music, the choice to write music is already, intrinsically, committed. Even if there is no explicit political content within a piece there is always “latent in them a precise ideological and practical interest.”[48] In other words, the sounds of music are semiotic and, like Sartrean literature, they designate something. In Nono’s conception, the music of an apolitical musician, no matter what they may say about it, is a sign which points to a political ideology in harmony with the status-quo.

Within this Sartrean frame, Nono’s famous distinction between the postmodernist method of collage and his own use of pre-existing materials gains a new clarity.[49] While a piece by John Cage may employ collage materials merely to “enhance the attractiveness of its aesthetic...”[50] Nono understood these borrowed materials as signs that always pointed to something else, whether the composer wanted them to or not. For Nono, this semiotic quality of musical materials made all musical composition politically-committed.

This also brings into question the problems of working class representation that Adlington attributes to Nono during the composition of Voci destroying muros. Within the Sartrean framework, the entire issue of representation becomes nonsensical. From this perspective, Nono was never concerned with representing anything. Though Workerist folk-ethnology may have superficially influenced that particular piece, it is unlikely that questions of the authenticity of subaltern representation ever had any real meaning for Nono. Rather, his main concern was the use of musical signs to designate and communicate situations and concepts to an audience. Indeed, Nono was not content to merely reveal something to an audience, they needed to be engaged, and the question of how to engage them was answered by the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht.

Nono, Brecht, & Epic Theatre

Like Sartre, Brecht also believed in the inherent commitment of his artistic medium and prefigured both Sartre and Nono when he stated that “for art to be ‘unpolitical’ means only to ally itself with the ‘ruling’ group.”[51] It was Brecht’s belief in a committed art that led him to develop a dramaturgical practice that he termed epic theatre, a practice that was highly influential for Nono.

Brecht contrasted his theatre with what he called “Aristotelian theatre,” which focused on engaging an audience “by means of hypnosis” in order to achieve “what he [Aristotle] calls catharsis,” where “everyone (including every spectator) is then carried away by the momentum of the events portrayed.”[52] [53] [54] [55] [56] Brecht saw theatre as a communicative, rather than empathetic, medium and believed that it should engage the audience in a different way. He came to the conclusion that in order to break the hypnosis of Aristotelian theatre a psychological distance needed to be created between the work of art and the audience. The formation of this distance is what he famously called the alienation effect.[57] The alienation effect severed the empathetic connection between the spectators and the characters so that, instead of being carried away, the spectators saw the characters and situations as objects of contemplation.

According to Brecht, the alienation effect has significant consequences for the way an audience engages with the play itself. Because they are no longer being pulled along by an empathetic identification with the characters, the audience is presented with choices. For example, audience members now have to choose whether they like a character or whether they agree with the characters’ actions. Sometimes, in the case of scenes that present conflicts, the audience members even need to choose whose side they are on. The theatre becomes a democratic space where “illusion is sacrificed to free discussion, and once the spectator, instead of being enabled to have an experience, is forced as it were to cast his vote... a change has been launched which goes far beyond formal matters and begins for the first time to affect the theatre’s social function.”[58]

Throughout his career Brecht would experiment with numerous methods of creating the alienation effect. The use of peculiar scenographic elements such as projected text, images, and interchangeably maximalist and minimalist staging, a mime-like style of acting that often broke the fourth wall, scenes intentionally written to seem narratively disconnected, exaggerated demarcations between acted scenes, sung scenes, and instrumental musical interludes, and a commitment to historical realism were some of the most important methods that Brecht explored in his attempt to create the kind of critical (and political) audience that he imagined.[59] [60] [61] [62] [63] Much of Brecht’s method was an intentional deconstruction of the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk (or the total work of art), a concept popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that valorized the complete integration of all artistic mediums into the ideal operatic performance.[64] By deconstructing the elements of gesamtkunstwerk in a myriad of ways, Brecht hoped to engender a critically-engaged audience, create a democratic performance space and, finally, reveal to the audience what he called the Gest (defined by Brecht as the social implications) contained within his theatrical situations.[65] [66]

Nono was highly influenced by epic theatre’s goal of creating a critical (and political) audience engaged in democratic debate with a dynamic work of art. In addition to Brecht, Nono’s writings often mentioned Brecht’s friend and contemporary, the dramaturg Erwin Piscator.[67] Piscator was also associated with epic theatre and was known for his outrageous stage design, which exceeded Brecht’s own idiosyncratic approach to the set.[68] It was the stage design element of epic theatre that had the most profound effect on Nono. Just as he had done with Sartrean literary theory, Nono would transpose this method of set design from its origin in epic theatre to the new context of a music-based practice.[69]

Littered throughout Nono’s writings are echoes of Brecht’s obsession with using the performance space as a way to arouse critical engagement by the audience. In two articles written during the 1960s, Nono makes statements to this point. For example:

Theatre of consciousness, with a new social function: the audience is not limited to observe a ‘rite’ passively, involved and entranced by it for mystical-religious, escapist-gastronomic,[70] or emotional motives, but, faced with clear choices - the same ones that have made possible the expressive theatrical result is compelled to become aware of and also actively to put into effect its own choices...[71] On the one hand, the relationship with the audience, the communication with it, its integration and participation, no longer as a spectator, within the stage action... as a result of the consideration of the audience, that formative and fundamental quality of Marxist culture is emerging, human and social commitment, precisely in the musical circles in which it had encountered the greatest opposition.[72] [73]

Nono continued to express his dedication to creating art that pushed his audience to engage with his work in this way until the end of his career. For instance, in 1987 he stated:

...these wandering sounds, varied in quality, transformed and composed, must also be connected to one another by the listener, not simply to pass through him. The composition will not be given to you, dropped from Sirius. But you yourself become situated within the compositional possibilities, spatial combinatorics in constant motion, often purposefully confused - at least for me - so that a process is triggered which goes far beyond the function of a transistor.[74] [75]

For Nono, the result was a lifelong experiment in how best to construct a performance space that would engender a politically-engaged audience and a democratic aesthetic experience. Nono’s fixation on the exploitation of new technology can also be traced to these goals. As we have seen, Adlington attributes the technological aspect of Nono’s work to a misinterpretation of Gramsci. However, it is almost certainly a result of the influence of epic theatre, particularly that of Piscator. The use of projected images and film, the placement of musicians on all sides of the audience, the concentric arrangement of speakers to project the sounds of the performance in an often acousmatic fashion, the use of pre-recorded sounds played on magnetic tape, and the live alteration of performance sounds using electronics are all common aspects of Nono’s pieces.[76] This “variety of ‘Brechtian’ techniques” was always directed at developing the Brechtian subject that Nono desired: the critically- and politically-engaged audience.[77] For example, in the Opera Company of Boston’s 1964 production of Intolleranza1960, Nono, working with scenographer Josef Svoboda, was able to use CCTV to project live footage of both the protests happening outside the performance and the audience members themselves.[78] [79] In this way, in the words of sound artist Andrea Santini, “the audience was visually forced to become involved.”[80]

Nono’s Political Aesthetic, Voci Destroying Muros, & Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma

Nono’s political aesthetic is undeniably a transposition and integration of Sartrean literary theory and the dramaturgy associated with ‘epic theater.’ In his conception, music is, like Sartrean prose, semiotic, inherently “impure,” and intrinsically political as a result. To realize the full communicative potential, the composition and performance of these pieces needed to be based on the stage design practices developed in epic theatre.

The construction and performance of Voci destroying muros (the eventually-redacted piece which is the focus of Adlington’s article) is firmly situated within the Sarte-Brechtian framework outlined above. While Adlington understands Nono’s use of proletarian materials (such as the writings of Italian factory workers) as a means of representing the working-class in order to build its cultural hegemony, Nono was in fact never interested in representation. His use of pre- existing materials is semiotic in function. Rather than asserting “the possibility of expressing reality using experimental means,” Nono’s political aesthetic turns this structure on its head: it imbues music with an intrinsic political meaning that points to and reveals reality.[81]

Voci destroying muros’ more direct use of Nono’s usual type of materials was one more study in a long line of experiments in how to best organise those signs musically and spatially in the tradition of epic theatre, i.e. in order to excite the critical and political interests of its audience.[82] As a result of numerous technical problems, this particular piece failed spectacularly in its goals of revealing oppression and initiating “political discussion and action among the audience.”[83] [84] This was the reason Nono eventually redacted it from his official list of compositions.

Fragmente, Stille - An Diatoma, the piece which serves as the focus of Cody’s neo-Marxist interpretation, is different from much of Nono’s work in that it is instrumental and makes use of a traditional ensemble, the string quartet. However, Cody’s narrative reading of the piece is in contradiction with Nono’s writings during his later period, which Fragmente, Stille - An Diatoma is often said to have initiated.[85] Cody correctly interprets the title and the text[86] that Nono placed on the score as “elaborate and ambiguous”[87] signs that pointed in numerous directions. Yet without reference to Nono’s writings he is unable to correctly interpret the music itself.

In a 1983 interview, Nono stated that he had composed Fragmente, Stille - An Diatoma “wishing to verify certain ideas with a totally traditional ensemble.”[88] But what were these ideas that needed verification and why was this necessary? Nono admits that this piece was the initial work in a series of related pieces from the early 1980s.[89] Therefore, if Fragmente, Stille - An Diatoma’s function was to clarify Nono’s thoughts, it may be understood as a rehearsal for ideas that would be revealed more openly later on.

One year after this interview, Prometeo. Tragedia dell’ascolto (Prometheus. Tragedy of Listening), Nono’s final major operatic work, premiered at the San Lorenzo Church in Venice. When describing the development of the stage design, Nono stated that by using a Halaphone he could create what he called “acoustic dramaturgy” and abandon “the visual projects that had been developed in collaboration with Vedova.”[90] [91] [92] Nono believed he had found a way to transpose the spatial design of epic theatre, a design which relied heavily on visual media, into music itself. With this in mind, Fragmente, Stille - An Diatoma can be interpreted as an exploration of methods for designing music conceived of as a physical thing, akin to a structural part integrated within a given space, rather than something which occurs in space in an abstracted, autonomous way. This reveals the piece as a materialist exploration of sound as space rather than the pointillistic narrative structure that Cody believes it to be, existing within a postmodern pluriverse that rejects modernist grand narratives.

The transposition of Brechtian stage design practice from the layout of the theatre to the construction of a musical composition in physical terms was present in Nono’s work for years. However, he always relied on either visual or textual media in his performances. Beginning with Fragmente, Stille - An Diatoma, Nono attempts to realize these design techniques in music alone.


By the end of his career, Nono had developed a highly distinctive political aesthetic through his transposition of Sartrean literary theory and Brechtian epic theatre to music. According to Nono, musical material was both semiotic (like words, phrases, and sentences in Sartrean prose) and physical (like spaces and text in epic theatre).

Because music always pointed to something, it was inherently political and therefore the choice to compose or make music was already committed. A composer who denied this was either cowardly or actively assisting the ruling class. Nono, as a result of having grown up under a fascist regime, knew that he was on the side of the oppressed, particularly the working class. His music was created as a sign that revealed capitalist exploitation and, by adopting techniques associated with the epic theater of Brecht and Piscator, pointed to its solution: socialism.

The communication of this message necessitated that the actual moment of performance be organised in a way that engaged the audience critically and politically. At first, this meant approaching his work from a scenographic perspective, seeing himself as a musician-dramaturg hybrid. But, as the last section of this paper revealed, he eventually totally transposed Brechtian epic theatre techniques to music composition alone. Therefore, Nono transformed the relation between music and space: music was no longer a semiotic sound occurring in space, but a physical semiotic object that existed as a part of the space.

By integrating and building upon the aesthetics of Sarte and Brecht to create his conception of acoustic dramaturgy, Nono was able to construct an original and effective political aesthetic and a socialist modernist music that was distinct in his time.


1 Nielinger-Vakil, Carola. Luigi Nono: A Composer in Context. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 8. 2 Bruno Maderna had fought for the partisans during the war. He later joined the Italian Communist Party with Nono, but left after the party failed to condemn the USSR’s crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Hermann Scherchen was a lifelong member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He was forced into exile after the Nazis came to power in 1933 as a result of his committed socialist beliefs. 3 Spangemacher, Friedrich. “Nono’s Prometeo.”Tempo, 1 no. 151 (1984): 51-52. 4 The term “Darmstadt School” was used as a short-hand for the group of young serialist composers that attended the summer courses at Darmstadt during the 1950s. However, it is also often used to refer specifically to three of these composers: Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. In fact, the term was coined by Nono himself. 5 Cage began attending the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in the late 50s. His aesthetic views eventually came to dominate the Darmstadt School. See: Iddon, Martin. New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage, and Boulez . (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 6 Nono, Luigi. “Historical Presence of Music Today.” Nostalgia for the Future: Luigi Nono’s Selected Writings and Interviews. Ed. by Angela Ida de Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018), 270. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid, 267. 9 Nono, “Music and Resistance.” 275. 10 For example, in 1958 the Union of Soviet Composers denounced Nono’s music as irreconcilable to Socialist Realism. See: Kwiatkowski, Krzysztof. ‘The Polish Diaries: Nono and the Countries of Real Socialism.’ The Master of Sound and Silence: Luigi Nono. Trans. by Agata Klichowska. (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2015). 11 Adlington, Robert. “Whose Voices? The Fate of Luigi Nono’s Voci destroying muros. ” Journal of the American Musicological Society. 69, no. 1 (2016): 181.

12 In most cases it is not clear whether Nono is paraphrasing Brecht consciously. However, the similarities are striking enough to be taken seriously as Nono was very open regarding the influence that ‘epic theatre’ had on his political aesthetic. 13 Adlington, 189. 14 Nono, “Historical Presence of Music Today.” 267-268. 15 For information on Provo see: Kempton, Richard.Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2007). 16 Workerism, known as operaismo in Italy, was largely a reaction by Italian left-wing intellectuals against a perceived archaism of the PCI. For an overview of Workerist ideology from the perspective of Antonio Negri, one of the movement’s principal intellectuals, see Michael Ryan’s epilogue to: Negri, Antonio. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. Trans. by Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, Maurizio Viano. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1991), 191-220. 17 As pointed out by Adlington, many of the movement’s leaders advocated ethnological co-research (called co-reserca in Italian, meaning interview-based ethnology) which would lead the movement to develop an aesthetic frame of folk-authenticity regarding the representation of the working class. However, the concept of ‘folk art’ and the ethnological research stemming from it has its own strained history. See: Cole, Ross. “On the Politics of Folk-Song Theory in Edwardian England.” Ethnomusicology. 63 no. 1 (2019): 19. 18 Adlington, 181. 19 Ibid, 191. 20 Ibid, 192-193. 21 Gramsci, Antonio. “The Intellectuals.” Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. (New York City, NY: International Publishers, 1971), 9. 22 Nono, “Replies to Seven Questions by Martine Cadieu.” 280-281.

23 Nono, “Interview with Renato Garavaglia.” 256-257. 24 Adlington, 196.

25 Ibid, 191.

26 Gramsci, 10.

27 Adlington, 195.

28 Voci destroying muros was notable for Nono’s more explicit presentation of revolutionary songs. Nono almost always used pieces of revolutionary songs/chants/slogans as building blocks for his music but usually submerged these materials so deep in the texture of his pieces that they became inaudible. Additionally, Voci was only performed once at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam. The performance was marred by technical difficulties and was ridiculed by both the left- and right-wing press in the Netherlands. The left-wing criticism echoed that which was leveled against Nono’s 1956 piece Il canto sospeso by Karlheinz Stockhausen. See: Stockhausen, Karlheinz. “Music and Speech.” Die Reihe. 6 no. 1 (1964): 40-64. 29 Adlington, 202-203. 30 Ibid, 221. 31 Cody, Joshua. Nono and Marxist Aesthetics. (New York City, NY: Columbia University, 2014) 30. 32 Cody lists these as follows: the Marx/Engels approach, the Walter Benjamin approach, the Theodor Adorno approach, and the Bloch/Jameson approach.

33 Cody, 29-30. 34 Alla punto aperiodico means to periodically play phrases on a string instrument with the tip of a bow.

35 According to Bloch/Jameson the “fairy-tale” is a subversion of the oppressive realism of the bourgeois epic. 36 Cody, 47. 37 In music parlance, Pointillism is a term used to describe music in which the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material is presented in isolated fragments i.e. there is no linear melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic structure. The relation between pointillism in music and the painting technique is not straightforward. Some composers use the word Punctualism to avoid being misinterpreted. 38 Anti-parabolic realism is realism where the author’s opinions are unknown. 39 Engels, Friedrich. Marx and Engels on Literature and Art. Ed. by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski. (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 1973), 115. 40 Ibid, 114. 41 Velasco-Pufleau, Luis. “On Luigi Nono’s Political Thought: Emancipation Struggles, Socialist Hege- mony, and the Ethic Behind the Composition of Für Paul Dessau.” Music & Politics. 12 no. 2 (2018): 8.

42 Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What Is Literature?” And Other Essays. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 35. 43 Ibid. 44 Ibid, 25-27. 45 Though Sartre works within the frame of hard demarcations between the attitude and function of different literary (and, generally, artistic) mediums, he also admits that these hard categories are, in fact, more diffuse than he suggests and that his rigid classifications are meant to better present general differences between mediums. See: Sartre, 335. 46 Nono, “Replies to Seven Questions by Martine Cadieu.” 279. 47 The specific question in the questionnaire to which Nono was replying was “What is the musician’s place in contemporary society? To what extent can music contribute to the evolution of this society? What action do you expect from the modern composer?” See: Nono, “Replies to Seven Questions by Martine Cadieu.” 277. 48 Nono, 278. 49 Nono was notorious for his constant use of pre-existing left-wing material to build his pieces. For example, the melodies of labour songs, the writings of left-wing intellectuals, speeches by left-wing and labour leaders/politicians, and recordings from picket lines and protests. 50 Nono, “Historical Presence of Music Today.” 270. 51 Brecht, Bertolt. “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre. Ed. by John Willett. (New York City, NY: Hill and Wang, 1964), 196. 52 Brecht, “Indirect Impact of the Epic Theatre.” 57.

53 Brecht, “A Dialogue About Acting.” 26. 54 Brecht, “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theatre.” 87. 55 Ibid. 56 Brecht often called this type of theatre and audience empathetic. See: Brecht, “Conversation About Being Forced into Empathy.” 270-271. 57 For a brief description of the a-effect see: Jameson, Fredric. 1998. Brecht and Method. London, UK: Ver- so. 35-42. 58 Brecht, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre.” 39. 59 Brecht, Bertolt. “Notes to The Threepenny Opera.” The Threepenny Opera. Trans. by Desmond Vessey and Eric Bentley. (New York City, NY: Grove Press, 1960), 98-99. 60 Ibid. 103-106. 61 Brecht, “The Literarization of the Theatre.”Brecht on Theatre. 45 62 Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre.”Brecht on Theatre. 203. 63 Ibid. 190. 64 For an introduction to the most well-known inter- pretation the concept of gesamtkunstwerk, that of Richard Wagner, see: Meldrum Brown, Helda. The Quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk and Richard Wagner. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-13.

65 Brecht, “On Gestic Music.” 104-105. 66 An additional aspect of Brecht’s aesthetic is his focus on “entertainment.” He often made sure to point out that the theatre needed to be fun. In fact, throughout his life he consistently described his ideal audience as similar to the audience at a sporting event: critically engaged with the game while also be- ing relaxed and jovial. See: Brecht, “Emphasis on Sport.” 6-9. 67 Nono was actually able to work with Piscator during the 1960s. He also mentions in his 1987 interview with Enzo Restagno that in the 60s he had searched high and low for Piscator’s book The Political Theatre which had been mostly unavailable since the 1940s, when many copies were burned by the Nazis. 68 Brecht, “On Experimental Theatre.” 130-131.

69 In a number of articles from the 1960s, Nono refers to some of his work (specifically Intolleranza1960) as “music theater” as opposed to simply music. For Nono, scenography (i.e. the construction of the performance space) was a pivotal aspect of his music composition. It was the necessity of a scenographically oriented musical practice that led Nono to un- derstand his pieces as music theatre and see himself as a composer/dramaturg hybrid. For example see: Nono, “Possibility and Necessity of a New Music Theater.” 209-219. 70 Nono is describing the empathetic effects of opera. Brecht often describes opera as culinary, in a similar manner as Nono is doing here when he describes opera as gastronomic. See: Brecht, “The Modern Theatre is Epic Theatre.” 33-42. 71 Nono, “Possibility and Necessity of a New Music Theatre.” 213. 72 Nono goes on to list examples of the experiments in audience engagement, a list that includes Brecht.

73 Nono, “Play and Truth in the New Music Theatre.” 226. 74 This is in response to a question regarding Stockhausen’s concept of the audience as a radio transistor. See: Stockhausen, Karlheinz. Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings. Ed. by Josiah Fisk. (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997), 450. 75 Nono, “Autobiography Recounted by Enzo Restagno.” 90. 76 Acousmatic sound is defined as sound for which one cannot see the immediate source. This concept was first articulated by the originator of the musique concrete style of electronic music, Pierre Schaeffer. Nono mentions Schaeffer’s Paris electronic studio, where he apparently spent some time, twice in his 1983 interview with Walter Prati and Roberto Masotti and two more times in his 1987 interview with Enzo Restagno. An English translation of Schaeffer’s essay on acousmatic music is available. See: Schaeffer, Pierre. Treatise on Musical Objects: An Essay across Disciplines. Trans. by Christine North and John Dack. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017). 77 Wilcox, Dean. “Political Allegory or Multimedia Extravaganza? A Historical Reconstruction of the Opera Company of Boston’s Intolleranza.” Theatre Survey. 37 no. 2 (1996): 117. 78 Wilcox. 125. 79 Santini, Andrea. “Multiplicity - Fragmentation - Simultaneity: Sound-Space as a Conveyor of Meaning, and Theatrical Roots in Luigi Nono’s Early Spatial Practice.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association. 137 no. 1 (2012), 82.

80 Ibid. 81 Adlington, 182. 82 In footnote 14 of his article, Adlington briefly mentions the influence of “Brecht, Piscator, and Meyerhold” on Nono and cites an article by Oxford Professor, Harriet Boyd. In her article, Boyd mentions the influence of Brecht, Piscator, and Sartre on Nono (as well as his interest in Arnold Schoenberg’s spatio-musical experiments, which Nono believed prefigured the direction of his own work). However, neither Adlington nor Boyd explore these influences on Nono’s political aesthetic beyond these brief mentions. Additionally, like Adlington, Boyd also misinterprets Nono’s work as representational. See: Boyd, Harriet. “Remaking Reality: Echoes, noise, and modernist realism in Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 .” Cambridge Opera Journal. 24 no. 2, (2012): 177-200. 83 Adlington, 183. 84 Nono hoped that the end of the piece, which featured a pre-recorded agitational speech, would prompt the audience to literally stand up and walk out with the performers. Because of technical problems during the performance, the speech was not played over the loudspeakers and the audience was left silent and confused, watching the performers hurry out of the hall. See: Adlington, 185-186. 85 The phrase turning point is often used to describe how this piece initiated the final part of Nono’s career. See: Metzger, Heinz-Klaus. “Wendepunkt Quartett.” Musik-Konzepte. No. 20 (1981): 93-112.

86 The text was taken from the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. However, as stated before, the piece was instrumental. This text was to be seen and read silently by the performers alone. 87 Cody, 4-5. 88 Nono, “Interview with Walter Prati and Roberto Masotti.” 314. 89 Nono, “Autobiography Recounted by Enzo Restagno.” 103-108. 90 A halaphone is a microphone that, in addition to picking up audio signals, is able to alter and send these signals to multiple channels. For a brief description of its use see: Schonberg, Harold C. “Music: Now We Have The Halaphone.” The New York Times, January 7, 1973. the-halaphone-the-program.html (Accessed August 3rd, 2019). 91 Nono, “Autobiography Recounted by Enzo Restagno.” 119. 92 Emilio Vedova was a Venetian painter who had known Nono since childhood. They collaborated often.


Adlington, Robert. “Whose Voices? The Fate of Luigi Nono’s Voci destroying muros.” Journal of the American Musicological Society. 69 no. 1 (2016): 179-236.

Boyd, Harriet. “Remaking Reality: Echoes, noise, and modernist realism in Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza1960 .” Cambridge Opera Journal. 24 no. 2 (2012): 177-200.

Brecht, Bertolt. The Threepenny Opera. Trans. by Desmond Vessey and Eric Bentley. (New York City, NY: Grove Press, 1960).

— — — . Brecht on Theatre. Ed. by John Willett. (New York City, NY: Hill and Wang, 1964). Cody, Joshua. “Nono and Marxist Aesthetics.” (New York City, NY: Columbia University, 2014).

Cole, Ross. “On the Politics of Folk-Song Theory in Edwardian England.” Ethnomusicology. 63 no. 1 (2019): 19-42.

Engels, Friedrich. Marx and Engels on Literature and Art. Ed. by Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski. (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 1973).

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. (New York City, NY: International Publishers, 1971).

21 Iddon, Martin. New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage, and Boulez. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Jameson, Fredric. Brecht and Method. (London, UK: Verso, 1998).

Kempton, Richard. Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2007).

Kwiatkowski, Krzysztof. ‘The Polish Diaries: Nono and the Countries of Real Socialism.’ The Master of Sound and Silence: Luigi Nono. Trans. by Agata Klichowska. (Warsaw, Poland: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2015). the-master-of-sound-and-silence-luigi-nono-book-excerpt/sdfootnote2sym (Accessed September 7th 2019).

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Negri, Antonio. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. Trans. by Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, Maurizio Viano. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1991).

Nielinger-Vakil, Carola. Luigi Nono: A Composer in Context. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Nono, Luigi. Nostalgia for the Future: Luigi Nono’s Selected Writings and Interviews. Ed. by Angela Ida de Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018).

Santini, Andrea. “Multiplicity - Fragmentation - Si- multaneity: Sound-Space as a Conveyor of Meaning, and Theatrical Roots in Luigi Nono’s Early Spatial Practice.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association. 137 no. 1 (2012): 71-106

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What Is Literature?” And Other Essays. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Schaeffer, Pierre. Treatise on Musical Objects: An Essay across Disciplines. Trans. By Christine North and John Dack. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017).

Schonberg, Harold C. “Music: Now We Have The Halaphone.” The New York Times, January 7th, 1973 archives/music-now-we-have-the-halaphone-the- program.html (Accessed August 3rd, 2019).

Spangemacher, Friedrich. “Nono’s Prometeo. ” Tempo. 1 no. 151 (1984): 51-52 Stockhausen, Karl-heinz. “Music and Speech.” Die Reihe. 6 no. 1 (1964): 40-64.

— — — . Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings. Ed. by Josiah Fisk. (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1997) 22.

Velasco-Pufleau, Luis. “On Luigi Nono’s Political Thought: Emancipation Struggles, Socialist Hegemony, and the Ethic Behind the Composition of Für Paul Dessau. ” Music & Politics. 12 no. 2 (2018).

Wilcox, Dean. “Political Allegory or Multimedia Extravaganza? A Historical Reconstruction of the Opera Company of Boston’s Intolleranza. ” Theatre Survey. 37 no. 2 (1996): 115-134..


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