The Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924-1990) became well known in the late 1950s and 1960s for works that championed various antiwar, anti-Fascist, pro-Communist, and pro-labor positions within the world's political arena. The work that thrust Nono into international prominence, Il canto sospeso (The Suspended Song; 1955/56) for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, sets to music excerpts of letters written by captured European resistance fighters before their execution.1 This work was a natural extension of Nono's growing political and social concerns, which took an explicit form when he joined the Communist Party in 1952. Nono's musical sensibilities were never cut off from his sense of what the world should be.
A series of explicitly political works followed in the 1960s and early '70s, such as Intolleranza [End Page 182] 1960 (Intolerance 1960; 1961), La fabbrica illuminata (The Illuminated Factory; 1964), Ricorda cosi ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz (Remember What They Did to You in Auschwitz; 1965), A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida (The Forest Is Young and Full of Life; 1965/66), and Al gran sole carico d'amore (In the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love; 1972/74). And although Nono's commitment to social concerns never faded, the music from roughly 1955 to 1975 was most intensely targeted toward issues of the time. The repercussions of World War II, the ensuing tensions of the cold war and its threats of nuclear annihilation, the violent turbulence of the 1960s and early '70s, including the war in Vietnam—all established the context that focused Nono's social and political concerns on his artistic vision.
World events in the early years of the new millennium—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the genocide in Darfur, the escalating violence in Palestine and Israel, the nuclear posturing of Iran and North Korea—have generated anew a pressing sense of unease about the future of humanity. And once again, those in the arts turn to their craft as a way of focusing thought and feeling on the whole range of issues that attend war and violence, some creating new works, others turning to those of the past. Here, I address a recent performance by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) of Nono's A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida (hereafter, The Forest Is Young) from the mid 1960s, revisiting the issues surrounding art that addresses social and political concerns and reflecting on how ICE's performance of Nono's 40-year-old work might focus our anxieties about today's events.
ICE is an active consortium of performers and composers dedicated to the promotion of recently composed music (see www.iceorg.org for more information). With guest artists, ICE performed The Forest Is Young in three places: Chicago (13 December 2006), New York City (22-23 May 2007), and Morelia, Mexico (11 June 2007). I attended a New York performance at P.S. 122 and while it will be my focus here, I address issues that extend to the other ICE performances as well.
The Forest Is Young is scored for soprano, B-flat clarinet, five copper sheets played by five percussionists, three reciters, eight-track tape, ten loudspeakers, and a sound engineer. The performers were: Tony Arnold, soprano; Joshua Rubin, clarinet; Katey Parker, Wendy Richman, Peter Tsantsits, reciters; David Schotzko, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, David Bowlin, Russell Greenberg, Jacob Greenberg, percussionists; and Ryan Streber, sound engineer. The ICE performance was directed by Habib Azar, fulfilling a function that Nono did not explicitly specify in his working notes but had employed.2 The inclusion of a director realizes the intrinsic theatricality of The Forest Is Young; at the same time, Azar's particular shaping of the performance enhances those features that make its political and social focus effective. Before considering ICE's performance, Azar's directorial choices, and the specifics of how The Forest Is Young attains effectiveness as music-political theatre, some information on Nono's design of and intentions for the work are necessary.3
The Forest Is Young was first performed in 1966 after Nono worked...