MEDFORD — “[A]ll of the most significant of my contemporaries have traveled, lectured, and performed in America,” the Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono told the Boston Globe in 1965. “Only I have not.”
Nono was speaking of peers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio. His comments came shortly before a Boston staging of his opera “Intolleranza.” Nono planned on attending but had been denied a visa to enter the United States, presumably due to his communist affiliations.
The State Department eventually relented and Nono traveled here on that occasion. But his broader characterization of his own underexposure on this side of the Atlantic still rings true today, some 26 years after his death. Nono’s music is rarely performed in Boston, and his multifaceted but remarkably coherent oeuvre remains largely unknown in the United States as a whole.
There are at least initial signs, however, that this may finally be changing. The first English-language book of his writings is due out soon from the University of California Press, and last week, a landmark Nono conference, titled “Utopian Listening,” took place at Tufts University, in partnership with Harvard. Scholars and performers from across the United States and Europe assembled for the occasion, which culminated in two days of concerts and related events, beginning Friday night at Tufts’s Granoff Music Center.
That music could bear powerful witness to the injustices of a riven world was a core belief of Nono’s, even as its expression took on different forms over the course of his career. Friday’s concert emphasized this point, beginning with “Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz” (“Remember What They Did to You in Auschwitz”), an electronic piece from 1966 that deploys a vast array of manipulated sounds to create a nightmarish aural tapestry. Primo Levi once wrote that the sounds of the camps would be the last thing its survivors would ever forget. This work eschews naturalistic depictions — we are not “hearing” Auschwitz directly — but the score still seems intent on pointing the imagination directly toward an abyss the composer knows we can neither fully comprehend nor permit ourselves to forget. Alvise Vidolin, a computer music researcher who worked closely with Nono, oversaw the sound diffusion on Friday, and a crowd of over 100 experienced this potent score in a darkened room.
The work was followed by “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” (The Nostalgic, Utopian, Future Far-Distance”), written for solo violin and eight tapes. Violinist Miranda Cuckson played the sometimes spectral, sometimes harsh solo part at six stations placed around the audience, while a sound artist (Chris Burns) manipulated the eight pre-recorded tracks in real time. The tape materials included improvisations by violinist Gidon Kremer and myriad “non-musical” noise. At times, Cuckson also vocalized while she played, her singing lending a touching layer of human warmth to this austere yet effective theater piece. On Friday, the audience seemed swept into the violinist’s sense of discomfort as she wandered in tentative steps from station to station, sending up her own live music to intermingle with the echoes of past and present.
The concert’s second half featured Max Murray (tuba) and Joshua Fineberg (electronics) navigating the “Post-prae-ludium n. 1 per Donau,” a work from 1987 that creates a vital and surprisingly songful music out of shards of sound, subtle whispered phrases, and extended tuba techniques. But perhaps the most memorable work of the evening was “La fabbrica illuminata” (“The Illuminated Factory) of 1964, in which Nono creates a viscerally immediate dialogue between a live singer and prerecorded sources. The soprano stands alone onstage and sings impassioned denunciations of workers’ conditions into a maelstrom of violent industrial noise, a collage assembled from actual factory sounds including those of blast furnaces and workers’ voices.
This is the rare work of intensely political art that brooks no compromise in either its politics or its art, and soprano Stacey Mastrian (with Peter Plessas, tape) treated it in just that way. Singing with remarkable self-possession, Mastrian gave a manifestly courageous performance that was alert to the fierce protest behind every note of this score but also, near the end, conveyed the almost Mahlerian sense of human compassion in this music, as the soprano sings “non sarà così sempre” (“it will not always be like this”).
Friday’s relatively large audience absorbed these challenging scores with rapt attention. Nono’s music stands up to this kind of engagement, and in fact, as this conference forcefully suggested, it is long overdue.
Music of Luigi Nono. At Granoff Music Center, Tufts University, March 25
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.