Teatro dell'Ascolto

A short introduction to the book

See more at: https://borgerhoff-lamberigts.be/boeken/teatro-del-ascolto

The small bundle of paper in front of you contains a report on a personal search of what can happen in the brain of a performing musician.

My point of departure in this adventure is  ‘Prometeo’ by Luigi Nono (1924-1990). This composition for vocal and instrumental soloists, chorus, speakers, various instrumental groups, live electronics and two conductors in many ways reflects my attitude to listening and has given a decisive direction to playing music.  I cannot describe it better than by using the words of Nono himself who, when asked why would he write an opera about Prometheus in 1984, replied:  “My answer is that the character of Prometheus represents a continual searching, a continual discovering, transgressing, fixing and going beyond. Prometheus is in no way superhuman.  He is rather the incarnation of permanent concern, of anxiety about the unknown, the unuttered, for the other, for the unmoved concern of the other.  And I am not talking here about a newcomer as an aphorism of a neo avant-garde.  There is no struggle between new and old here. What captivates me is the sustained anxiety which is part of the continuity/discontinuity in a human life.” The libretto of ‘Prometeo’ (compiled by Massimo Cacciari and adapted by Nono himself) is a collage of various texts from our Western history (from Greek antiquity to Friedrich Hölderlin and Walter Benjamin) and deals with no less an issue than the emergence of human culture, as well as the history and the possible future thereof.  In other articles, Nono referred to his Prometheus (free from any connection with Schubert) as a “Wanderer’ – and yet, the afore-cited words of Nono apply to many a score of Schubert’s.  The “logic of the sleepwalker”  (and who can say it better than the legendary interpreter of Schubert, Alfred Brendel?) will be our unflinching guide throughout this report.  Reason and emotion, conscious experience (hearing, reading and looking), intuitive feeling and subconscious reaction:  different layers of our psyche are addressed, as if we were in a dream.  In Jungian terms we could also describe this search as “the individuation process of a performing musician:” a conscious interaction between our rational ego and our personal and collective unconscious that expresses itself in dreams, symbols and… myths… So we return regularly to the literary original versions of the myth of PROMHQEUS – that form a foundation for these pages as it were.

The subtitle of ‘Prometeo’ is ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’: a tragedy of listening.  The Western traditional purposive perception and thinking (the suffering of Prometheus and humanity) are in this tragedy confronted with new structures of concurrence and possibility (a  ‘new’ Prometheus) – a ‘universe’ becomes a ‘multi-universe,’ ‘seeing’ makes room for ‘hearing.” That explains why the space in which the live electronics are played is so important for a performance of ‘Prometeo’. For the premiere (1985 – San Lorenzo / Venice), Nono called on the services of the architect Renzo Piano, who built a wooden structure in the form of a ship in which musicians and spectators took their place.  ‘Prometeo’ is actually played out in a structure of islands (‘isole’), interludes and stasimons (as a reference to the choral songs of the Greek tragedies), where the islands are reminiscent of Luigi Nono’s already mentioned home base:  Venice.  Thanks to the intriguing labyrinth of alleyways and canals, the listening process in the city on the lagoon is a special experience:  some sounds seem to be propagating eternally along the water; others are broken off abruptly. And the jewel in the crown of the Serenissima is the Basilica San Marco, where AdriaenWillaert and both Gabrielis had their ‘cori spezzati’ perform – a historical metaphor for many a page from ‘Prometeo’.

Every doctoral candidate – just like every musician – must practice the art of rhetoric.  And here, coincidentally (for an elaboration on this “coincide” please refer to my ‘confutatio’…) Venice provides a fine backdrop.  In 1523, a friend of Erasmus named Viglius Zuichemus visited Giulio Camillo’s ‘Teatro della Memoria’ in Venice. The ‘ars memoriae’ had since antiquity been the undisputed foundation of all eloquence.  The orator Camillo was in his time venerated almost like a god, sometimes even referred to as a distant forerunner of our Internet… What we know about this theatre (which no longer stands) can be summarised briefly:  it was an entirely wooden structure built as an amphitheatre, with the visitor on the podium, looking onto the semi-circle of the auditorium.  The hemispherical construction of that auditorium was particularly suitable for the well arranged storage of remembrances  in seven sections, each with seven arches over rising rows.  The seven sections were divided into the then seven known planets – they represented the divine macrocosm of alchemist astrology.  The seven rows that rose from them – coded with motifs from ancient mythology (Prometheus reigned over the seventh row…) were representative of the seven spheres from mortal life to the elementary microcosm.  There were emblematic images and signs everywhere next to openings for scrolls.  An associative combination of the emblematically coded classification of knowledge was purportedly capable of reproducing all conceivable micro- and macro-cosmic relations in one’s own memory.  In this way, this theatre assumed an important place in the hermetic occult sciences which would expand enormously later in the 16th century in the work of Giordano Bruno:  “the Wanderer’ through ‘l’infinito, universi e mondi’, through ‘de magia e de la causa, principio e una’ (…), free thinker with an open mind that delved into the deepest secrets of life and nature – is now alive in me,” Luigi Nono said in 1987.

Memoriae, memories:  Who knows them better than a musician? And weren’t the Muses the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory? From two tones in a melody, the phenomenon is already heard, and the memories of previous masterworks, a previous performing tradition, and own experiences prop up the contemporary listening and the ‘Promethean’ listening’ to the future.  Another master of remembrance in our Western culture was Marcel Proust, whose famous “Questionnaire” was also completed by Nono:

“What natural gift would you like to have?”

“To fly and roam in infinite space.”

“How would you like to die?”

“In seventh heaven.”

“What’s your main character trait?”

“Nostalgia for the future.”

“Who or what would you have liked to be?”

“The tower of Tübingen to listen to Hölderlin …”

Which brings us to another protagonist from ‘Prometeo’: the early romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who spent his last years in his “Tower” as a completely marginal manifestation (what we as ‘normal’ people refer to as a “madman”), has proved one of the most influential figures for many composers.  And although he did not set any of Hölderlin’s texts to music, we can perhaps raise Robert Schumann as his musical peer in the ‘tragedia dell’ascolto’: Nono reworked, in an extremely subtle manner, two measures from Schumann’s ‘Manfred Ouverture’ (each time when it has to do with ‘breaking with the old,” and ‘Hyperions Schiksaalslied’ by Holderlin holds a key function in the total structure of ‘Prometeo’:

“ Doch

uns ist gegeben

auf keiner Stätte

zu ruhn…

es schwinden

es fallen

die leidenden Menschen


wie Wasser

von Klippe

zu Klippe

ins Ungewisse hinab…

[Yet there is granted us

no place to rest;

we vanish, we fall –

the suffering humans –

blind from one

hour to another,

like water thrown from

cliff  to cliff

for years into unknown depths]

“Perhaps the composer from our age who comes closest to Hölderlin (and Schumann) is a Promethean figure par excellence:  Heinz Holliger as performer, composer and conductor, working at the very highest level.

These are some angles that lie at the foundation of a proprietary ‘teatro’ – not in wood, but on paper and above all, with sound. Seven concert programmes form the gallery of pillars of the theatre – processed in seven mandalas, inspired by the mandalas that the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung exchanged with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli in one of the most fascinating correspondences of the twentieth century.  Furthermore, James Dillon’s contemporary Western musical settings of the ‘five elements’ may also refer to the Orient (was Venice not the crossroads between East and West for centuries?).  For this ‘teatro dell’ascolto’, the structure of ‘Prometeo’ and the idea of Camillo’s ‘Teatro della Memoria’, set the tone, as it were, as did the Prometheus trilogy (which has not survived complete) and the town plan of La Serenissima. The search through this theatre is intermingled with the Venetian labyrinth:  it has become a mosaic of proprietary texts that have accompanied my own activities as a performing musician for the last seventeen years, interspersed with words of others – words which turn out to be important for my psyche.  And, as befits a dreamer, I do not limit myself to one language or colour.  This theatre also becomes decorated and supported by inspiring manuscripts by various composers and by symbolic images.  The work by Paul Klee (‘Ohne Titel. Gleichgewicht und Schiff’ [Untitled:  Balance and Boat] which decorates the entrance of this theatre, has been hanging for seventeen years in my study, and can also serve as a symbol of my search (in Jungian terms:  the ship of my ego that tries to find balance with the mysterious background or abyss?  And yes, I was born under the sign of ‘Libra’…).

There are important roles in store in this “tragedy of listening” (in addition to those already mentioned) for Ludwig van Beethoven (and his ‘Geschöpfe des Prometheus’), Arnold Schönberg (Nono concludes ‘Prometeo’ with a citation from ‘Moses und Aaron’), Helmut Lachenmann (Nono’s rebellious- obedient disciple and friend), Béla Bartók, Johannes Brahms, Ferruccio Busoni, Claude Debussy, Joseph Haydn, Leos Janácek, György Kurtág, György Ligeti, Igor Stravinsky (who rests in Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele), Anton Webern and, naturally, Franz Liszt – the godfather of all pianists,  who mourns the fate of Richard Wagner in his Venetian ‘lugubre gondola’.

My first word of thanks goes to all these composers – and many others (there can be no performing musician without composers; I am thinking in particular of György Kurtág, Helmut Lachenmann and Heinz Holliger, with whom I have been able to engage in intensive work personally).  I would like to thank the late Professor Christiaan de Lannoy, who as a teacher, and later as a colleague and friend, was at the base of this individuation process. A warm word of thanks must also go to my inspiring supervisor Kathleen Coessens, as well as to my piano teachers Abel Matthys and Hans Leygraf, to all my friends on the concert stage and to all my colleagues at the Brussels Royal Conservatory – not least to Department Head Peter Swinnen (also my co-supervisor) and research coordinator Kristin Van Den Buys.  A special word of thanks is also in order to all students whom I have been able to supervise for two decades:  I think that they did not really realise how much I learnt from them.  And the last “grazie” is for my soul mate, Inge Spinette, my yin and yang, without whom this dream would never have been dreamt.

May I now invite you to this adventure?  The proposed course is not unidimensional – more than one way is possible, even desirable.  Even if we are thrown “into unknown depths.” You will find a ground plan of this labyrinth at the end of this small bundle of paper…

‘In conclusion …’: the hectic pace nowadays may not after all be conducive to real listening; or, in this adventure, we have perhaps reached a point where, together with ‘Prometeo’, we can ask:  “Do you call truth that narrow opening that lets light in for a single moment only?” There was a faded photo of antique ruins with a self-inscribed motto on it: ‘Ascolta!’ on Nono’s desk.  That is our challenge.  But I hear the musician in me ask:  Why write about it?

Perhaps because art in our society is endangered when it is burdened with a label such as ‘ornament,’ ‘nice and entertaining’ or even ‘academic’?  Art, and certainly its fragile muse, music, has a vital function in each human life.  Perhaps an artist writes also because he, if he does compose himself, wants to make a “compendium” of his activity of sorts (as a small grain of sand in the Art of the Fugue of our (music) history)?  Reflecting on what music actually means for us seems to me to have become a necessity in this society – perhaps “la musica” will then become once again one of the seven ‘artes liberales’?  A real “liberal art?” And perhaps such a personal reflection may inspire others.  The poet-composer long ago said: “Tones are higher words”…. Ascolta!

(Dutch-speaking) Free University of Brussels – Faculty of Arts and Philosophy /  Academic year 2010-11

Dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Arts in supplement to the art portfolio

Supervisor: Professor Kathleen Coessens

Co-supervisor: Professor Peter Swinnen

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