Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prometeo (RFH)

Time's a funny thing; or the perception of it. Prometeo runs for over two hours, two hours in which not very much happens. And yet, in another sense, an awful lot happens, because by the end of it you're in a different space to the one you started out in.

It's a bit different for me perhaps; I've sat through the five hours of Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston*, so a couple of hours is peanuts in comparison. And Bruckner wrote 90-minute pieces in which, in a very profound sense, nothing really happens (and yet everything!). So there's plenty of precedent.

Not everyone can take this sort of thing: there were several people who walked out, some after less than half an hour. But it takes a half-hour or so to acclimatise yourself to this sort of music, and you need the patience to do that if you're going to get something out of it.

The spacial element of Prometeo is of course one of its main selling points. Stockhausen of course experimented with breaking down the traditional relationship between performers and audience in the 60s with Gruppen, and playing Strauss's Alpine Symphony recently, with its army of off-stage brass, reminds me that playing about with these things is nothing new in itself. But Prometeo takes these ideas and runs with them. There are clusters of musicians everywhere, even before you consider the sound field created by numerous speakers distributed all around. This creates a slight tension, as the Royal Festival Hall is clearly designed for the traditional layout of audience all pointing towards a stage, so our sitting position works against what Nono is trying to achieve. But in a strange way this only seems to point up how entrenched we are in our concert-going habits, the very thing Nono wants us to question.

The (excellent) programme contained the texts used in the piece, but this is really better studied later on, as Nono deliberately abstracts the words in his setting so that it's really incomprehensible in any conventional sense. Rather, he exploits the libretto as a source of sounds and timbres for the voices. There didn't seem to be any need to think about the text or the legend of Prometheus except in the most general, abstract way, and this is part of what it's about: it's not about comprehending, it's about the pure experience of listening.

Normally when you hear something involving a combination of instruments and electronics you expect the electric part to be superimposed on the acoustic, but what Nono does is much more subtle than that, and it's a credit to him that you hardly think about the presence of the sound system, so carefully are the two elements integrated; this is use of technology as a subtle enhancement rather than a bludgeoning club. The effect as you hear sounds from their original source drift across the room and transform into complex textures is serenely discorporating.

The actual music itself seems much more eclectic than I'd have expected, ranging from terrifying clusters to the sweetest of perfect fifths, and pretty much everything in between. Occasionally a roar emerges from the orchestras, but largely the music is a great drift.

Nono is classed as one of those nasty modernists we're all supposed to reject these days in favour of Golijov. But what's striking is that this music (as well as being far more immediate than the anti-modernists would have you believe) doesn't sound "modern" at all. It sounds extraordinarily, immensely ancient. We leave the hall at the end, and to return to the bustle of London after this feels like returning from a journey to an unimaginably distant world, perhaps even time. The world seems too fast. Nono gives our thoughts space to breathe. And time.

There's so much more to be said, and yet also nothing. I go about my day as before. But behind it somewhere there's the memory of this other place, and it'll be a while before it's absorbed. it's all a matter of time.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson has a good roundup of reviews of the performances.

*I've sat through the even bigger String Quartet No.2 (over six hours on the Flux Quartet's recording, helpfully available on DVD to avoid those annoying disc changes). But somehow it seems cheating, doing it in the comfort of your own living room.

1 comment:

Erin said...

Oh good, glad you enjoyed the performance and the programme... it nearly drove me mad, doing that thing.