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Conversation with Nuria Schoenberg Nono

At the Luigi Nono Archives, Venice, 6 September 1999.

The Luigi Nono Archive was established in Venice in 1993 through the efforts of Nuria Schoenberg Nono for the purpose of housing and conserving the Luigi Nono legacy, which includes: manuscripts of Nono’s compositions, in particular sketches and preparatory studies; a collection of tapes and audio cassettes consisting of recordings of Nono’s works as well as preliminary studies and material for his electronic compositions, and several interviews; manuscripts of essays, articles, lectures and lessons; Nono’s correspondence; Nono’s library comprising over 10,000 volumes (many with marginalia), reflecting the breadth of his interests (music, literature, politics, philosophy, fine arts and sciences); concert programs, reviews and magazine articles; video tapes documenting his life and works; a collection of photographs and slides; and Nono’s record collection of more than 1200 records.

The Luigi Nono Archive promotes the work of the Venetian composer through various educational and musicological activities. At the Incontri con la musica di Luigi Nono (Conferences on Luigi Nono’s Music, four times a year) scholars introduce the work of Nono to a public of students and amateurs. Interpretation courses around his works (annually since 2000) are given by historical performers of the composer’s music. The courses are intended for professional musicians who wish to study Nono's poetics and the interpretation of his works in depth and usually consist of two parts: individual studies (instruments, voice, sound projection/audio design), and ensemble work, including sound projection/audio design. At the end of the courses a concert of the participants is presented. Additionally, the Archive organizes conferences and exhibitions, and collaborates with editors, interpreters and in the organization of festivals, concerts featuring Nono's works. The Archive also organises video interviews with people who collaborated and worked with Nono as well as with members of his family and friends.

The Foundation Luigi Nono Archive ONLUS is located in La Guidecca, Venice, and is open to scholars, musicians and the general public year-round. Monday to Friday 10–13:00 / 15–19:00.

The Schoenbergs

[John Palmer] First of all, I want to thank you very much for taking the time for this conversation. I am here primarily as a composer, rather than musicologist: I need to stress that difference, because it is more the artistic aspect that I would like to bring out in our discussion. As I mentioned to you earlier on, when I interview someone I usually have a precise set of questions and themes I want to focus on. In your case, however, there is so much I’d like to talk about that it is not easy to find the exact point of departure. But let’s try to proceed biographically: can you tell me a little bit about your life? You have been directly involved with two great personalities, two very important composers in the history of 20th century music, first of all your father Arnold Schoenberg and then your husband Luigi Nono. For this reason, I am interested to hear how you have perceived both musicians from your, indeed, very unique position. Perhaps later on we could talk more specifically about the Luigi Nono Archives here in Venice, and how the work you have undertaken can be promoted further.

[Nuria Schoenberg Nono] Well, as you said, I have been very lucky in my life because I was born to a great composer, Arnold Schoenberg, and then I had the great fortune to be married to Luigi Nono. Often people have asked me if these circumstances have limited my possibilities for “realization”, for “having a life of my own”. But I cannot imagine a finer life! I was so lucky to grow up in a family of European intellectuals, in spite of the pain and difficulties my father had in having to live in exile in the United States. For us children it was a wonderful life and our parents never complained to us about their situation. My father was such a positive person! He was constantly engaged in intellectual — and sometimes physical — activities, innovating existing things or inventing new ones, based on the question: is there a better way of doing this? And this applied to everything from household objects to freeway overpasses. (You can see some of his inventions on the Arnold Schoenberg Center website at Our father spent more than a little time with us, made toys for us and took the time to help with school and personal problems. His methods were rather more creative than orthodox, and when I brought him a simple mathematical problem, for instance, he solved it by thinking about and analyzing the problem at great lengths and finally, having reinvented the mathematical process, coming up with the correct answer. Of course, when I showed the papers to my teachers, they were surprised at the lengthy and convoluted procedure, when the problem could have been solved without much thought by applying a simple formula. But it certainly taught you to think things out for yourself! People always ask me whether Schoenberg was strict or authoritarian with his children. The answer is: yes and no. He had a very rigid sense of ethics, but on the other hand, he was very loving, kind and forgiving. But there were some things you just did not do. His authority was based not on power but on knowledge and experience. So even when we did not like it, we had to admit that he was right most of the time.

How many children were you?

Three. Nowadays many parents feel that they can never say “no” to their children, nor put limits to what they allow them to do. I think that if a child respects you and believes in your good judgement, it is a great help for the child to have a parent decide for him. I think that some children nowadays have problems because they are forced to decide on things that are bigger than they are. They decide at what time they go to bed, what they want to eat or to wear; it puts a lot of pressure on a two- or three-year-old. Well, this is a digression, but it does come up sometimes because people say: “Oh, your father must have been very strict because of the way he composed with the 12-tone-method; he must have kept you all in a 12-tone-row!” [Laughter] Actually, he didn’t always adhere strictly to the 12-tone-method even in his compositions. As a matter of fact there is a very interesting exchange of letters between my father and Rudolf Kolisch (the leader of the Kolisch Quartet and later in the USA, of the Pro Arte Quartet, who premiered many important quartets by Berg, Bartók, Schoenberg and other contemporary composers). Kolisch writes that he has analyzed Schoenberg’s Third (or Fourth?) Quartet, tracing all the tone rows and their permutations. He has found several “mistakes” and wants Schoenberg to confirm his findings. My father answers Kolisch, appreciating his diligence, but wondering whether it was worth the effort, since the alleged mistake might have simply sounded better to him. In the letter Schoenberg points out that when he speaks of the twelve-tone method he emphasizes: composition with twelve tones, not composition with twelve tones. I think one should remember that a composer is a human being who expresses himself in music. Sometimes my father composed tonal music and at other times he preferred to use the method of composition with 12 tones related only to one another. It was not the method, which expressed the music; it was the composer using that particular method which best enabled him to express a certain musical idea.

I assume that music was in your home.

We didn’t attend many concerts. There were different reasons for this: first, there were very few occasions in Los Angeles in those days for hearing good performances of classical music; second, the concert hall was almost an hour away and there was no direct public transportation to the venue. Recordings were still very expensive and not of excellent quality. Fortunately there was a radio broadcast every night for two hours without commercials dedicated solely to classical music. Often we sat together and listened to these broadcasts, following the music with the score. This is one of my best musical memories of my childhood. Otherwise, my life was normal. I went to State schools, later on to the University of California at Los Angeles to study biology. I wanted to be a doctor, but then I came to Europe and met my husband, and that was the end of my studies! I had only a bachelor’s degree, which is nothing nowadays. In those days you had to study quite a lot for a bachelor’s degree. Now if you don’t have a Master or a Ph.D. it doesn’t sound very good. [Laughter]

There is a question that I have always asked myself: must your father not have suffered a great deal by leaving cultural cities such as Vienna and Berlin for the rather different reality of American cities in those days?

First of all, my father was living in Berlin before Hitler came to power and he probably had the most prestigious musical position in the world. He taught the masterclass at the Prussian Academy for the Arts and was the successor to Ferruccio Busoni. Composers came from all over the world to study with him. His contract provided for a period of six months of teaching and six months off for composing. During this time he could go wherever he wanted to. So he was on the top of the world at that time. His first position in the United States was at the Malkin Conservatory, a small music school in Boston, where they had trouble finding someone who would study with him. Finally, a young woman was found who had once played one of his piano pieces. In the seventies she wrote an article about her recollections of the time she studied with Schoenberg, which is very revealing. She relates that “Schoenberg was very arrogant! He complained because in the room next to where he was teaching there was somebody practicing the trombone… and who did he think he was?” (I’m paraphrasing.) He suffered from asthma attacks and the winters in New York and Boston were too cold for him, so he moved to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles the cultural life was of a very low standard compared even to New York and more so to Europe. He first taught at the University of Southern California and later at UCLA. His pupils were certainly not at masterclass level. He was teaching classes in harmony and counterpoint at different levels and his students were mostly not interested in becoming composers, though he did have a few talented ones. There again, his nature, his way of looking at things and his interest in teaching and in his students, kept him from utter despair. He was interested in the people themselves and he would spend a lot of time trying to think of ways of teaching something to these people. He always said, “even if I can’t teach them to become composers, they can learn something from me.” In the Schoenberg exhibition which has been travelling around Europe for the past four years, I included a page from a test he gave in a counterpoint class, in which he had prepared a different dux, a different theme, let’s say, for each of the eight students enrolled in the course, according to the potential of each particular student. He actually treated each person individually, which is just incredible! I can personally remember him coming home and talking about some students and saying for example, “She doesn’t really understand anything, but I managed to get her to do something, to understand one thing” or “Well, I’ll give her a C because otherwise it will ruin her average.” He was interested in what was going on in the world: in science, in music, in the arts, everything! It was, of course, a very difficult situation for him. People didn’t know who he was. There is a story which has been told in many different versions: once he was at a tennis club and a man came up to him and said, “Oh, Mr. Schoenberg, I know who you are”. My father said, “Oh yes?” and then this man said, “You are Ronny’s father” (Ronny is my brother who was about fifteen at the time and was very good junior tennis player). My father was of course very proud to be Ronny’s father [laughter], but it rarely happened that people stopped him and said “Oh, you are Arnold Schoenberg, the composer!”

What you are saying is that he managed to turn calamities into something more positive.

Because he suffered very much from asthma, living in Southern California was ideal for him. He was very happy with the family. But I do think he was very lonely intellectually, yes!

Did he have any friends?

He did have friends and they were mostly his students and other musicians living in the Los Angeles area. People often ask why he did not have a closer relationship with Stravinsky, Thomas Mann or Feuchtwanger, for example. But just because people live in the same city, doesn’t mean that they have the same interests, values or the same way of life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all these people are going to be friends. [Laughter] He had some very good friends who were perhaps minor composers, or students of his. He also had to work so much that he didn’t have very much time for a social life, because he taught sixteen hours a week at UCLA, prepared his courses and gave private lessons. Even after he retired, as you know, he didn’t receive the Guggenheim Fellowship that he applied for in order to be able to finish composing Moses and Aron and Jakobsleiter and some theoretical works he wanted to write. He was refused that help, and so he continued right to the end giving private lessons at home. When he was not working, he was engaged in bookbinding and other hobbies. He liked to make little models of his inventions. For example, long before Scotch tape dispensers existed; he made one out of wood. He bound many of his books and scores. In Europe he used to buy books unbound (because they cost less) bound them himself. He had constructed special frame for bookbinding. Of course, they are now all conserved in Vienna, in the new archives at the Schoenberg Center.

This could link to a very personal question I would like to ask you: In retrospect, how did you experience the spirit of your father, the meaning of your father in your life and later on in your new life with Luigi Nono? Is there any connection between the way you perceived the two men and musicians?

I think, as I said before, the most important thing I learned from my father was his ethics and that one should try to do whatever one does as well as one can. And I remember even before I went to college and was trying to decide what I wanted to study, that my father said: “Anything you really want to do so long as it is useful and that you can do it really well.” Sometimes he was [laughter] overly rigid; for instance, on his 75th birthday there was to be a big party in his honour and on that same day I had to sign up for university (that was my first year in college). So I went to UCLA and found two thousand people in front of me in a queue and I knew I would not be able to get back in time for my father’s party. My father had taught for eight years at this university and I knew some of the professors so I went to the administrator’s office and found a very nice professor whom I knew. I said, “I’m so upset! I am not going to be home in time for my father’s party and I feel terrible about this. Is there anything I can do about it?” And he immediately gave me a pass to go to the front of the line so that I could sign up in ten minutes. So I went home and was beaming with joy and said “Daddy, can you imagine how nice! Professor Lazier gave me this pass!” But my father was furious! He said, “What? You used my name to get an advantage? You should never use my name to get ahead in life, you have to earn whatever you get!” That was too much, because I did it for him and he should have been glad that I was there! But it was a lesson for life.

Luigi Nono

And then you met Luigi Nono.

Yes. I met Gigi in Europe at the first performance of Moses and Aron in Hamburg. He was studying with Hermann Scherchen who had written out the orchestra score from Schoenberg’s short score (Particell). Gigi had helped to write out the orchestra parts. That was in 1954. Scherchen had expected to give the first performance of this work. For years he had written to my father urging him to complete this work. Scherchen was the logical person to conduct the premiere, but in the last moment there were problems at the German radio station in Hamburg because the house conductor of the radio orchestra wanted to perform it himself. But when he saw the score he decided he didn’t want to do it after all, and ultimately they called Hans Rosbaud who was a Schoenberg expert. (Of course, Scherchen was very bitter about this!) Nono wanted to hear this performance because he had gained familiarity with the work while writing out the parts. So he had traveled to Hamburg and attended the premiere. After the performance he wanted to meet my mother and I was standing next to her. [Laughter] That was it! My mother and I stayed in Europe for two weeks. We went to Rome where there was an ISCM Festival and Gigi. The flautist, Severino Gazzelloni, with Scherchen conducting, premiered Epitaffio for Garcia Lorca. It was fantastic! We spent a lot of time together in the week I was in Rome. Then we wrote to each other for a year! After that I came back to Darmstadt where Gigi was teaching a course and we became engaged.

So, a friendship was born almost immediately.

Yes. It was really one of those “love at first sight” experiences. It was particularly nice because we got engaged in Darmstadt and all our friends, all the young composers and many of my father’s pupils were there. We were married here in Venice just a few months later. I actually recognized in him many of the same personality traits that my father had: a truly ethical person who is completely sincere in everything he does and makes no compromises. And besides, he was such a loving person and had a good sense of humor. I really saw a lot of the same characteristics that I appreciated in my father.

How did he relate to your father?

First of all, they never met. This was in 1954 and Gigi had never come to the United States. My father died in 1951. Gigi had a great respect and love for my father’s music. His first work, the Canonic Variations is based on the tone row of Schoenberg’s opus 41.

We could obviously talk for hours on these interesting matters, but I notice that time is running very fast. Let’s talk about the Nono Archives here in Venice. How would you like to see the archives developing in the future? Yesterday you told me many interesting and indeed beautiful things about the fact that the Archives should keep the spirit of Luigi Nono alive by promoting study and research on Nono’s works within a friendly and open-minded atmosphere that reflects the personality of the composer.

Yes, that’s right! The Archives were founded in 1993.

You have put together this most interesting centre from scratch.

Well, thanks to all the existing materials! Because if we didn’t have 10,000 books, 20,000 pages of sketches and thousands of letters and photographs there would be no archives. It’s always the quality and the quantity of the resources and the greatness of the person who produced them, which makes the archive great. We can, I guess, take credit for organising it and trying to keep a very user-friendly atmosphere. This is something that the Schoenberg family has always stressed in the Schoenberg Archive in Los Angeles and now in Vienna. Our first and most important condition is always openness and accessibility for all people, not just for a certain clique or a certain group of people who can access the documents or the manuscripts. It is the same here. We have people walking in from the street, even tourists who notice the name on the door and ask whether they can come in and listen to some music. They are welcome to listen to a tape, or to a CD, or a recorded interview with Nono, or to watch a video of a of one of his works. That, to me, is quite as important as when a musicologist works in the Archive on a scholarly project. It is important to expose people to Nono’s works, and basically to do things that will lead to better performances and better understanding of his music.

You are keeping a significant amount of tapes in the Archives. How are you dealing with the problem of technology changes from the analogue to the digital era?

We are fortunate in having a large number of his tapes dating back to the sixties. Shortly after Gigi’s death in 1990, we transferred all of the analogue tapes to digital tapes — and recently we have received a grant from the Siemens Foundation in Germany, so that we can now transfer them all to CDs. This week we received a set of CDs which have been remastered in Freiburg at the Experimental Studio [Ed.: now the ExperimentalStudio für akustische Kunst] of the Südwestfunk. This process of digitalisation will enable us to keep a very high level of audio quality.

Will any of this digital technology be made available for the performance of Nono’s works? I mean, will it be possible to provide performers with updated digital and computerised settings of the electronics to be used for live performances? We recently had this problem In England and you can’t always rely on the Freiburg’s studio.

Yes, that is a problem. We can rely upon Freiburg, because they have both very good technology and the musical know-how that goes with it, (sometimes you get a wonderful engineer who has no idea of what the music is about!). In these pieces, fortunately or unfortunately, the technician is also a performer. Of course there are also violinists who play almost mechanically, bringing nothing of their own to the music, but usually you would want a violinist who is also a real musician and who knows the style of the music and the same is true for electoacoustic performers. They need to know what the composer’s “style” is, just the same as in traditional music.

That’s right. We are talking about performance and interpretation skills, aren’t we? Often the musical indications in an electroacoustic score are reduced to the minimum or not present at all. This causes a big problem to the electroacoustic performer who ultimately has to make music out of few technical indications… and this is impossible to do without an in-depth knowledge of the idiom of the composer.

Yes. There is nothing in the score which says what you are supposed to “feel” while you are playing it, and this is something which in the music of our own time has not been “codified”.

We are really talking about the aural electroacoustic tradition of the 20th century, which as any other aural tradition of the past presents many practical problems when it comes to put it down on paper. On the other hand, as we have seen in previous phases of music history, this is a fascinating aspect of such traditions particularly if you think of all the novelties that such evolution may bring about.

That’s right. Take Mozart, for instance: when somebody plays Mozart, he knows the style of the music and knows how to interpret that particular style accordingly. For the music of today, instead, there is no code as such, and with many different composers, if you were not fortunate enough to have worked with them personally, you would have problems in interpreting their music by merely following the printed score.

Many of your husband’s works use live-electronics which means that, for instance, as the instruments are being processed through a computer, the technician himself must be a real musician, a performer who knows the music of Nono as well as any other musician of the ensemble.

Yes, I think that’s a big problem nowadays. We are actually going to have a seminar here in December, in conjunction with the Cini Foundation in which André Richard and Hans-Peter Haller will discuss these problems with performers and musicologists, to try to define the possibilities of interpreting an electroacoustic score, based on three of Nono’s works that have recently been published by Ricordi. There is a special committee working for Ricordi. They study the manuscripts and the tapes and attempt to include a great deal of information for the performer in the score as well as in introductory notes written by musicians who actually played the works with Nono. They felt very satisfied with their work; yet, when they heard performances based on these scores, they realised that what they had done was not enough! Many people complain that Nono left too many things to the interpreter and did not write everything in his scores. But while Nono was alive, he was almost always present during the performances and often made changes during rehearsals. He worked with a group of musicians who became very familiar with his music and needed only a sign or a word to understand what he wanted. But now that other musicians are playing the works, they need to have more precise indications.

Do you think that the use of live-electronics in Nono’ s music is related to a sense of space? I personally think that space is an extremely important musical element for Luigi Nono.

Yes, definitely! He was interested in the antiphonal techniques and the spatial distribution of instruments used in the Basilica of San Marco in the 16th century. The wonderful Venetian tradition (you know, the Gabrieli’s, etc…) always fascinated him enormously. Already in his early orchestral pieces he divided the orchestra into groups.

And you can see the movement of sound within different orchestral groups already at this early stage of his compositional output.

Yes. Spatialisation of the music was very important to him from the beginning. Of course, later on thanks to the possibilities that were offered by the Freiburg experimental studio, he could explore new ways of projecting sound in a given space. But this also presented a problem because, as we said earlier, the sound projectionist has a lot of power since he must adapt the work to the space, and in so doing he can make changes and each performance differs from the next one. In a way, the technician-performer actually composes a little, sometimes a lot. [Laughter] But this was a kind of freedom which my husband gave to the people who worked regularly with him and had a great familiarity with his music. Nono didn’t really think so much about the future… he was interested in communicating with people in his own time. There is a problem for the future, because unless there is some sort of oral transmission of these ideas or styles (and it is a style!) to the musicians themselves, it will hardly be possible to have authentic performances. I recently heard a performance of A Floresta eí cheja de vida for the first time since Nono had done it, and although all the performers studied the score very conscientiously, the result was a totally different piece. You know, this is very problematic. For someone like me, who was there when it was first performed, that was the piece and that’s it! It is of course possible to interpret a piece in a different way and of course, in the future people will play it differently, but to me, it’s like looking at a picture which had certain colours and then someone has changed the colours and it seems like a different work of art. On the other hand, I think the works have to live their own lives and I don’t believe in forbidding anything, or not allowing people to play the works. I think you have to give performers a certain amount of freedom, even if I don’t like it! [Laughter] It’s not for me to say, anyway, because I am not a musician.

Did your husband ever talk to you about his music?

He would talk mostly about the text, about the ideas he had in mind, but not as a musician, because I am not a musician.

I have got two more questions. How would you briefly describe the spirit of Luigi Nono as a composer? What do you think was the urge, what drove him to write music?

Gigi expressed certain ideas, musical and otherwise… He was a real composer! I mean he had to compose! I see a lot of people nowadays who only compose when they get a commission, but he wasn’t like that!! If nobody had asked him to do anything he would have done it anyway, because it was in him and it needed to come out! And he was also very interested in new technology because it gave him greater possibilities for expressing his ideas in new ways; moving on, moving forward and reaching people with new technology. He believed very much that nowadays we have a greater capacity for listening, for example, for hearing several things simultaneously, because we are constantly bombarded by all kinds of sounds from all sides. So he felt that music originating from many sources in a given space was related to the perceptive experiences in our lives. Especially during the last years of his life, he stressed the importance of really listening intensely, actively, to music, so a lot of his late pieces have a particular… [hesitating]…

… challenge?

Yes, maybe, challenge. Because you really must concentrate on the music. I mean, you have to want to listen to it, you don’t just sit back and let it flow.

And the final question: what would you like the readers of this interview to know about the archives?

Well, I’d like them to know that they are very open (I’ve said this before), that we make everything we have as accessible as possible, that we have an extremely friendly atmosphere, while at the same time being very rigorous with all the scholarly work. I think that just about sums it up.

Thank you so much!

Thank you.

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