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Nuria Schönberg-Nono: around music

Music has always been part of her life. At her parent’s house, Nuria Schönberg Nono (Barcelona, 1932) realized that her future wouldn’t involve a career as a musician or as a composer. With Luigi Nono, she remained connected with the circle of musical creation and sharing. Her connection with the world has worked, throughout the years, has a demystifying link to the the art of music.  
On occasion of the UK Première of Prometeo – tragedia dell’ascolto, which concluded the festival Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice (held at the Southbank Centre), Arte no Tempo talked to the founder of the Archivio Luigi Nono.
The 2013 edition of Música & Revolução at Casa da Música made us revisit our archive and bring this conversation to daylight.


Interview conducted by Dinis Pais e Sousa in May 2008

[AnT] When you were born, your parents were in Barcelona. Do you have any special connection with Spain?
[NSN] Well, I love Spain, but I don’t really have a connection with it. I was only there for something like six weeks when I was born, so I didn’t learn the language.
So you never went back…
I’ve just gone back much later to visit. I went back there when they did Moses und Aron (my father’s opera) at the Liceu [a theatre in Barcelona]. But I always enjoy going to Spain. We’ve shown our Schönberg exhibition there in many cities and, well I love Spain, but I don’t think it has anything with my being born there! [laughs]
How is it to be an American, born in Spain, with Austrian roots, living in Venice?
[laughs] I don’t know!, I’ve been in Venice now for over 50 years, so that’s more than two thirds of my life. I belong where my friends are, I belong where I can work and where something exciting is going on and I don’t feel any particular belonging to any particular nation.
How long did you spend in America before moving to Venice?
23 years.
Do you still go there often?
I have lots of family there. I have brothers who have children who have children, so there’s quite a big family there, yes.
So how was your first contact with music? I guess through your father…
It would probably surprise people how little music we heard when we were children because in Los Angeles, in the 30’s and 40’s, there wasn’t a very great cultural life, except for film. So we didn’t go to many concerts, and the ones we heard were usually just special concerts – very few of them, but very special – of contemporary music at that time.
Did you not use to listen to music at home?
We listened to the radio. They had a very good radio programme which was 08:00 pm – 10:00 pm every evening, in which they played classical music, and we did listen to that very often. Also there weren’t so many recordings around and they were quite expensive, so we didn’t even have many records.
Did you used to listen to contemporary music in the same way as to “classical” music, since you started listening to music?
Yes, yes.
Did you used to make music with your father?
Well my father always said that the 3 of us (I have two younger brothers) were wunderkinder [child prodigy] – because we all gave up music very early (laughs). We liked it but none of us was that talented and, luckily, we all recognized that. We were also lazy and didn’t want to practice.
But did you study any instruments?
Yeah, I studied a little violin, a little piano, but it was hopeless.
So never thought of following a career…
No, it was absolutely hopeless!
You studied biology…

And then, later on your life, how did you meet Luigi Nono?
I met him in Hamburg, at the first performance of Moses und Aron, 3 years after my father’s death. There was a concert performance at which Herman Scherchen expected to conduct the work, because he had always encouraged my father to finish it (which he did not). Scherchen had written out the score from the particella – the short score that my father had left – and my husband was studying with Scherchen and had helped to copy out the parts for this performance in Hamburg. And therefore he went there to listen to the work and I came there with my mother (for the first time back to Europe after the war), so there we met Luigi Nono.
After you got married with him, what was your main occupation? …Apart from being a mother…
Well, most of the time being a composer’s wife is a pretty full-time job, especially in Venice, because our house was very open to colleagues of my husband. Sometimes whole orchestras came to lunch. And during the periods of the Biennale – the Music Biennale was very important in those days, people would come from all over the world to hear the new music – we always had lots of people staying with us. And then, of course, being a mother – I have two children – took up a lot of time as well. I’ve always done some translations and worked quite a bit  at correcting transcriptions and translations of my father’s writings, so I had some side work, but nothing official.
In 1993, with two raised children, how did you decide to create the Archive [Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono]?
I worked in the Archive in Los Angeles [Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC] from the end of the 80’s to 1991, when I published a large picture– biography of my father, so I knew how archives work and I had a lot of experience in that. When he [Nono] passed away, I felt that I should do the same with his archive and there were some musicologists, who were studying his works and wanted to see his manuscripts, who helped me with it. It seemed to be the best idea to organize things in the same way that they were organized in LA for my father.
Did Nono ever show any interest in creating an archive with his writings and books?
Not specifically. He certainly conserved his preparatory sketches and projects and he knew that people would be interested in them, so I think he would be pleased.
Can you talk to us a bit through the Archive’s history and aims?
We opened, as you said, in 1993. We brought his entire legacy – which means thirteen thousand volumes of his personal library, twenty seven thousand pages of sketches for his works, and thousands of pages of his writings and correspondence – and our main job at first was to catalogue all these things (and we’ve catalogued almost everything) and to make laser colour copies of all the sketches, so that they can be available to anyone who is interested in consulting them (not only musicologists but any musician or music lover, or whoever). The library has been quite a surprise for us: since we’ve put all our catalogues on the internet, we’ve had people coming who, sometimes, have nothing to do with music, because my husband’s library has fantastic books, some of which are very rare and hard to find. So you get people from any area – literature, philosophy, architecture, all different languages – coming to consult books from the library. And, of course, we have many young people who are writing dissertations on Nono’s works and come to work there. Some people come for long periods, even six months sometimes… Some prepare themselves on the internet, knowing exactly what sketches and materials we have in the Archive, so they can be prepared when they come, and say “I want to see this, this and this…” We also have a series of, at least, a hundred videos – biographical and of performances – and hundreds of CDs which are not only recordings of performances (some of which are historical and non-commercial recordings), but many of them are the same thing that the sketches on paper are for the works which were written on a normal score: they are the preparatory works to the electronic music, so that you can follow the whole genesis of an electronic work just like it was done in a studio. For instance, for …Sofferte onde serene… we have all the tapes – which have been now digitalized – of Pollini playing just single notes on the piano that my husband used to develop the tape for the performance, so you can really hear how these things were composed… It’s very interesting.

Do you pay much attention to young musicians and composers nowadays?
Personally I’m very interested in knowing what’s going on. It would be crazy to just block oneself and we don’t want to be that kind of institution. We do encourage people to send us their tapes and their CD’s, but there aren’t so many concerts in Venice that we can hear. But we’re all, of course, interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Another thing that we organize, which is not related to that, is something that we call “Incontri”, when we meet the public four times a year, and talk about Nono’s work – sometimes a specific work or specific aspect of his work – to a general audience. I started this because there were young musicologists who studied one work so profoundly, so well, knowing everything about it, who then wrote a fantastic dissertation and then nobody would read it! It doesn’t ever get to the public or to the musicians. So I decided to ask them, once they finish their studies, to present all these very complex things in a very simple way to a normal audience and it works very well. We have a nice audience of all kinds of people, from tourists to musicologists and students who come to these talks and after the talks we usually play a historical recording or a video, if we have one, that shows how a work was performed in Nono’s day.
Are there any young composers or performers that you particularly admire?
I don’t think I could mention any particular names. Certainly the performers who worked with Gigi [Luigi Nono] were extraordinary. And here, in this performance of Prometeo [London – Southbank Centre: Fragments of Venice] we’re very lucky to have Roberto Fabbriciani, who worked with my husband for the last ten years of his life, which resulted in a wonderful collaboration. He developed the technology that made it possible for my husband to realize his projects. And, of course, the Freiburg Experimental Studio was something fantastic for my husband, because he could realize the things that he’d imagined – he would go there and say “Wouldn’t it be nice if one could…?” and then the next time he would go there, they would have already developed the new equipment to do so. And André Richard is fantastic in interpreting these works.
Apart from the Archive, what are the main activities that you like to do?
I’m also President of the Arnold Schönberg Centre in Vienna, which is a huge center, and I’ve made several exhibitions on my father and on Nono. We have several traveling exhibitions.
Yes, there was one in Lisbon some years ago… [1995]
Yes, at the Gulbenkian Foundation. That exhibition has already gone to 55 different places and it’s now in Canada, but there’s a new one in Vienna at the Schönberg Center and you can see a video of it on YouTube [Video 1] [Video 2].
How much space do you have for the other arts since you’ve been always so surrounded by music?
Very much for painting, modern painting… I was introduced to it when I was a child and I’m very much interested in that. My husband was very close to a lot of painters – Vedova, Burri, in Italy and, of course, all the great ones were an inspiration to him. We also knew the father of Diego Masson [conductor at the UK Première of Prometeo], André Masson, who also made some very beautiful sketches dedicated to my husband, very beautiful drawings… So, yes, I’m very interested in art but I don’t do anything, I only go to exhibitions! (laughs).
In a way you said this already, but how regularly do you go to concerts?
Of course I try to go to important events of Schoenberg or Nono – I’m here for this one [Prometeo…] and, as often as I can, I go to important performances because it’s such a good chance to hear these works! …And the more you hear them, the more you love them! In Venice, during the Biennale, they do have contemporary music concerts and I try to listen to as many as I can so I can be informed about what’s going on.
Do you follow the CD market and “trends” within the industry?
Not so much… It’s very difficult, Venice is not a place that has very good music stores. On the other hand, I do receive a lot of things, people send me a lot of CD’s and I certainly listen to them. I’m not an expert, I can’t tell people if they’re great or not, but I do try to, at least, listen to people’s works and answer them. Certainly not in a judgmental way because I cannot do that.

Is there anyone else in your family involved with the Archive?
They’re involved in the sense that they’re on the Board of the Foundation and so we discuss any changes or any important things with them. If we organize something I usually discuss it with my daughters, but they have their own lives… Serena is a painter and Silvia lives in Rome and is now working for a company that makes audio books in Italian… and she has a son. They have enough to deal with.
Do you feel that, in the Archive, there is anything still missing?
There’s always a lot to do!
But anything in particular?
Well, we’re trying to collect letters that Nono wrote to others. We also make video interviews with people who knew him or worked with him, and we’re developing quite a nice archive of those interviews, which is extremely important, especially for the techniques of performance, and that’s one of our major interests right now. And then we also have interpretation courses almost every year and we have conferences on different subjects – the next one is going to be on drama in Nono’s works, which means not only the three so-called operas but also in his use of space in other pieces. That is going to be a very interesting conference, they’ve just sent out a call for papers  for that. Incidentally our internet address is, and we have all the information there, everything about how to come to the Archive, when we’re open and all kinds of other information.
How different do you think your life would have been if you weren’t daughter of the composer that changed the course of music and then married later with another so important composer, if that’s possible to know?
That’s hard to know. I might have been a good doctor, that’s what I wanted to be! [laughs]

Now, Prometeo… It’s a work very much related to space. Do you think that that is connected to Nono’s Venetian roots?
Definitely. The Basilica of San Marco in Venice was, from his early creative days, a great influence – the idea that music should come from all different directions and that you were in the centre, instead of having all the sound coming to you just from one single source. There are some wonderful films that we have in which he explains these things about how in Venice, when you walk around, you hear so many things coming from different places and he believes that the capacity to hear all these things is in us, but that it has been shut out and it needs to be developed. There are also all the bell towers in Venice and, as there is no traffic, you can, at certain times of the day, hear all the different bell towers ringing. It’s a lot about listening to simultaneous happenings and sounds and he was always very interested in this type of listening or spacialization.
How much does each performance vary from each other?
Well, they differ depending on the acoustics and the shape of the space in which they take place; the piece has to be adapted to that space. We’ve seen here, in the rehearsals, that this hall is totally different from anything that it has been in before. The placement of the performers varies and, with the electronics, the sound is moved around in space, so the placement of the loudspeakers needs to be adapted as well. This is like surround sound – everything comes out from everywhere – so it has to be practically re-planed in every different space in order to have the effect that it’s supposed to have. In the first performance – in S. Lorenzo church with Renzo Piano’s “Ark”– the church was divided in two parts. There was a huge altar in the centre and, if you sat on one side on one day and on the other side the other day, you would hear a different work, practically. But that’s all part of it and I suppose that that makes it even more interesting.
Is there such a thing as the ideal place for this work?
I don’t know… Yesterday I was saying to Andre Richard that it sounded different from what I remembered from the first performance and he said that, because of the wooden structure by Renzo Piano, there was a certain kind of resonance, which is different in a different hall, so that may have been the ideal place. But not necessarily, because I think that it was in my husband’s idea to be able to make it sound different in every different place and, of course, that depends a lot on the sound designer as well. So you have to have a great deal of knowledge and know the… I almost want to say style, because in other kinds of music we always say “the style of Bach” or “the style of Mozart”, and I think that this also applies to modern music – you have to learn how the composer wanted these things to be played and to be perceived. This is one of the reasons why we do these interpretation courses, because it’s a lot about how you sing, how you play the flute or the different instruments… And the same with the electronics… It’s very interesting because nowadays, many years have gone by since a lot of these works were composed and the technology has changed a lot. The loudspeakers are much better now and, therefore, what happens is that, for instance, when we hear La Fabbrica Illuminata we – who heard it in my husband’s day – say: “This is too mild, it’s too soft, it was much louder!”. But it seems that this is not possible because the loudspeakers in my husband’s days, in the 60’s and 70’s, could not play as loudly as these ones do now, but the ones now do not distort and so it seems that, since he went to the distortion point of those loudspeakers, it was the distortion that made it sound so unbearable and nowadays they play the same thing (and maybe even louder), but it doesn’t bother us at all. There’s something missing because at that time you reached almost a painful threshold, and now some of those things just sound pleasant! [laughs] So it’s an interesting problem and we’re going to have, sooner or later, a symposium on this problem, with people who are working in acoustics because it makes it different, the works are not the same as they were… So what should you do? Do you put the distortion back in? Or do you figure that, just like the piano of Beethoven’s time is not the same as a modern piano, the same happens with the loudspeakers? It’s an interesting problem. Of course there’s also the very lyrical side of Nono which has always been there and that’s…
… still there…

Lachenmann once described this piece as a huge madrigal. To what extent do you agree with that?
Maybe… Because he’s probably thinking of the polyphony – the many things going on – and the singing, so yes… If he says so he’s probably right. I admire Lachenmann enormously and I think he is a fantastic composer and a great friend so anything he says is definitely right, at least I think! [laughs] But I’m not an expert…
Does this UK premiere have any special meaning? It’s kind of strange that such an important work took almost 25 years to come here, given that everything happens in London.
Well, it’s a very complex work and it’s very expensive to do. I think that the extraordinary thing about this performance is that it has been done also with students and with people who have never done it before, whereas most of the times they always used at least the original soloists and often the wonderful choir of Andre Richard, the Freiburg Solisten Chor. This time we have new people, which is very important because a work cannot live if it’s tied to the same people, because they get older (laughs)… Up until a certain moment, one didn’t think that it was possible to do this, and so I think that this is a very very interesting and important development.
So what do you expect from the performances?
They’ve had relatively little time to rehearse because it is an extremely difficult work. There are so many details that need to be fixed in the new space and I was noticing yesterday that just about every measure has problems (laughs) and has to be fixed. And then, of course, the electronics part is in real time and the people actually work as it’s going but they need to know exactly what’s going to happen in advance, so a lot of things have to be very carefully prepared. And there are a lot of people involved, it’s a big work… I’m sure it will be a good performance because everyone seems to be very dedicated and really wanting to do their best. I’m hoping that it will be a great performance and that it will have… success!

How do you think that one can attract a  “common” person, someone who doesn’t normally go to concerts, to Nono’s work or maybe to contemporary music in general?
Well, the first thing you have to do is to explain them that they don’t have to “understand” because most people do not “understand” any music. They don’t understand the music of the 16th century, they don’t understand Bach or Mozart, I mean they don’t really understand in the sense of how it is made, so don’t go and tell them “this is one kind or another kind of music”. And don’t make it sound inaccessible, don’t say “this is problematic” or “it’s hard to understand” or “it’s controversial”, this are all words that usually critics and other people tell you before you listen to a new work… They tell you that you’re not going to understand it and I think that, on the contrary, you should tell people: “this is something that you just have to listen to… Just be there and listen to it, and notice what’s happening and relax”… It’s a funny thing because it’s “relax and pay attention”, which are almost opposites but it’s how it works and I think that there should be nothing that distracts you, because any other action would keep you from really actively listening. And then I think most people would find it beautiful if they were not influenced by people telling them that they won’t like it in advance.
By preconceived ideas…
Yeah, preconceived ideas.
Does the Archive try to attract people from other areas, not only musicians or musicologists…?
Well, we don’t try to attract, we just put out what we have and people come, except for these meetings that we have with the explanations of the works which is always interesting to people. And then, of course, we have conferences and we get people from all over the world wanting to discuss things together, and that’s very important – it’s exchanging ideas. But we don’t really do promotion, that’s the publishers’ job, but they don’t do it either! [laughs]

Ok, and is it for you very different to talk about your father’s music from your husband’s? Do you think that the public reacts better to one of them in particular?
Well, that’s a hard question… a lot of my father’s music is considered classical already, and people talk about “that twelve-tone music…” The other day I met a man and he said “you know, when I was young I sang in a choir and we sang this choral of your father’s, it was so difficult, you know, this twelve-tone music” and it was Friede auf Erden which is the least twelve-tone piece, it’s a tonal composition! [laughs] But a lot of pieces of his are certainly played a great deal and accepted and even presented in the most horrible ways, by people who think they can change them completely, use them. Like Pierrot Lunaire, which everyone thinks that they have to do something else with, with his operas as well, but they’re performed very often. We wish that people would perform some of this works the way they were written, which would be nice (laughs) but that’s still a problem… Becomes more and more a problem, because there’s this tendency to do everything as far away from the way the composer wanted it and to “modernize”, according to them – and I’m saying that in a sarcastic way, because it’s not necessary… I just think of it all as music – it doesn’t really make a difference whether it’s my father’s or my husband’s – they are not really different to me because it comes naturally to listen to any of them, but I certainly don’t go around promoting my father’s or my husband’s music. I like to do these lecture-recitals because we reach people who don’t know very much about the lives and the person, which has so much to do with the music and often, if you make an exhibition or a lecture about the person, people suddenly realize that there is a great human element which comes out of the music. A lot of times people forget that writing music is not just about mathematics or technicalities and that, behind every music, there is emotion and so when you talk about a person’s life and what they’re interested in and what they did in their lives, people suddenly listen to the music in a different way. So I like to do that and I do that a lot – we’ve given over 30 or 40 of these lectures on my husband and on my father (many more on my father than on Nono) and Stefan Litwin always plays works in the piano so that people can hear the music, and it makes quite a difference. People come to you afterwards telling you that they are quite surprised. The exhibitions have been very successful in that way as well, because they give a global idea about the person and his interests and make it easier to understand the music… Well, I don’t like the term “understand”, but to perceive, to…
Yes, enjoy.

Do you remember much of the Portuguese première of Prometeo in Lisbon?
I wasn’t there. I think I was in the hospital! [laughs]
Do you know much about the Portuguese music or artistic scene?
Not a great deal. Every once in a while we’ve been in contact, but I don’t know very much and I’m not very good at names. But I have some contacts always, for instance with musicologists who were friends with my husband. We had this fantastic visit in Portugal, right after the revolution, when everyone was going around with the red carnations, and it was fantastic, so exciting, and we spent, at least, a couple of weeks there. We met lots of people, went to lots of places and we have recordings that we made of miners’choruses and interesting discussions. We went to Porto… We’re very good friends with Paulo de Assis, the pianist, and he is very often in the Nono Archive. He has written a fantastic dissertation on …Sofferte onde serene… which is very thorough and something lasting, a very important work. He comes very often to the Archive and we have a close friendship with him.
Was that the only time you went to Portugal, after the revolution?
I then went to the Schoenberg exhibition, the multi-media exhibition, at the Gulbenkian Foundation, and that was wonderful because they have all the means to make everything perfect! That’s actually the place where I first gave a lecture-recital with Stefan Litwin and it was quite by chance. I was being interviewed and they also asked him to play Schoenberg pieces during this interview and there we got the idea that we could do it together and so that was our first encounter, at the Gulbenkian Foundation [19th Gulbenkian Contemporary Music Encounters, Lisbon – 1995].

Interview conducted by Dinis Pais e Sousa in May 2008