LUIGI NONO: La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura – Miranda Cuckson, violin/ Christopher Burns, engineer – Urlicht AudioVisual audio-only Blu-ray + CD *****:
I wonder what was churning in avant-garde composer Luigi Nono’s head when he wrote the mystifying “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura” in 1989, a year before he died. One of his most challenging pieces, it is essentially a duet between a live violinist and recorded material to be manipulated as the engineer sees fit. The live violinist is Miranda Cuckson and the recorded material consists of improvised snippets from violinist Gidon Kremer, who premiered the work sixteen years ago. Ambient noises like talk and laughter appear (but never intrusively), born in the recording studio and expertly massaged by engineer-composer Christopher Burns. I wouldn’t call it a dialog between the live and the recorded, because that’s not really what’s going on here. It’s that clash between extremes of loud and quiet violin playing. Sometimes the quiet is a barely perceptible “ppppppppp” (nine degrees of piano). Most of the time, the notes are long singular quavers; the bursts of fortissimo usually occurring in doubles or triples.
Just before she plays, Cuckson enters from the back of the stage, then pauses at each of six (out of nine) music stands to play from 7-12 minutes, and then moves along to the next, soundlessly, on bare feet. How does one reproduce such shifting dynamics on a CD? Simple. Issue the work on a five-channel surround-sound Blu-ray disc as well. With impressive and extreme dynamic range, the Blu-ray has little trouble presenting the full pallet of tones from the various channels. Still, I would’ve preferred the disc to have contained a video of Cuckson moving around and performing, since it was so mesmerizing to see her do this live.
This well-done and pivotal piece of modernism is nervy, spooky and delusively calm– you’re not sure what mood is going to descend on you and when. Like a good magician, Nono never reveals. Perhaps he intended the work to be an analog of one day in a life, which may begin with one idea or a mental list of what to accomplish, but it may also be struck by a sudden phone call from an old friend or a surprise check in the mail. Or perhaps it’s an analog of his whole life, which began under a totalitarian government, with eruptions of erratic violence puncturing the anxious calm, and ended with the freedom to tell about it via conundrums of prickly intensity. Chief among them is the final, high-register, ninety-second note: longer, more haunting, and as searing as that final piano chord in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life.” Well, almost.