Preparing our upcoming performance of Nono’s “Quando stanno morendo” has been, as the piece is, a study in extremes. The work’s glacial tempi (down to quarter = 30) destroy the listener’s (and often the performer’s) sense of meter and time. If that weren’t enough, these tempos are coupled with a system of numbered fermatas wherein each digit indicates the duration of the note in quarter notes. This means even a sixteenth note quintuplet at quarter = 40, with a ‘5’ fermata, would last more than 7 seconds. This dilation of time has the paradoxical effect of heightening the intensity of its passing. Placing a note on the third triplet eighth of a beat in quarter = 120 is a simple matter of feel. Placing the same note at quarter = 40 puts the whole process under a magnifying glass. Any discrepancy between performers is thrown into relief.
The singers dealing with these broad tempos are also grappling with extremely wide ranging parts, marked pppp and quieter. Aside from these technical considerations, there is a deep political and emotional background to the work, which was written during the onset of martial law in Poland. These extreme emotions of both the context in which the piece was created, and the texts it sets are balanced by a dynamic restraint. With the difficult registers and dynamics bordering on silence, Nono very literally evokes the stifled voices of political dissidents.
This is a piece that on one hand appears simple, often consisting a single line shared between voices, or chords moving in rhythmic unison. These voices however, may be projected through a 10 speaker array, rotating around the audience both clockwise every 10 seconds, and counterclockwise every 7 seconds with 2 seconds of delay. The cellist plays only open strings in one large section of the work. These however, are open strings on one of three cellos string with 4 identical strings and tuned to 4 near-unison tones, played with two bows simultaneously. These amazing juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity, of technical virtuosity and emotional directness, are what allowed Nono to go to such extremes and still create a balanced and coherent masterpiece.