Module 1 presents basic data and historiographical information about the original piano piece. Taking the musical features of this work as the starting point, it relates to the broader compositional and aesthetic situation of Luigi Nono in those years, pointing to Nono’s renewed compositional strategies and understanding of the political implications of art.

M   O   D   U   L   E   1   |   H   I   S   T   O   R   I   O   G   R   A   P   H   Y

…suffered, serene waves…

One often hears that to understand a work of art one needs to know its historical context. Against this historicist commonplace, a Deleuzian counter-claim would be not only that too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art (i.e., that to enact this contact one should abstract from the work’s context), but also that it is, rather, the work of art itself that provides a context enabling us to understand properly a given historical situation.

Slavoj Žižek (2012: 13)

Luigi Nono’s …..sofferte onde serene… for piano and tape (1975–77) was composed in a period of intense reflection and self-criticism that would lead Nono to new modes of composing and to renewed perspectives on the arts, aesthetics, and, crucially, on the political implications of art. Contrary to Nono’s pieces of the previous fifteen years …..sofferte onde serene… has no direct political message or contents. Its main foci are the study of Maurizio Pollini’s piano sonority and playing techniques, as well as the study of diverse compositional techniques and strategies. To a certain extent the piece is a renewed exploration of some constructive principles that Nono had learned in the late 1940s from his teachers Hermann Scherchen and Bruno Maderna (see Assis 2006: 150–55). In this sense, …..sofferte onde serene… may be seen as the beginning of a new path, as a piece that opened the door to a new ‘style’ – a style that would produce works such as Prometeo. Tragedia dell’ascolto (1981/84), Caminantes … Ayacucho (1986/87), or La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. Madrigale per più caminantes con Gidon Kremer (1988/89).

The simple aural comparison of …..sofferte onde serene… with Nono’s works that immediately preceded it, such as Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1971/72), Al gran sole carico d’amore (1972–74), or Für Paul Dessau (1975), makes the shift from his ‘second style’ (1960–1975) to his ‘late style’ the more obvious. Nono himself stated that:

Immediately after Al gran sole carico d’amore there was silence, an unutterable silence […] I felt an urgent need to study – not only regarding my musical language but also my mental categories, and I restarted composing again with …sofferte onde serene…, a piece that demanded a lot of work. (Nono 2001 [1979–80]: 2:245; my translation)

Nevertheless, this aesthetic and ideological shifting process does not mean that Nono became apolitical or somehow indifferent to political issues of the day. On the contrary, in 1975 he became a member of the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party. What Nono more and more realised was that his previous works, with all their explicit political engagement, had been easily misunderstood as bare ‘pamphlet art’, their political contents shadowing their intrinsic musical features, so that the latter were not properly perceived by the listener. Starting with …..sofferte onde serene… Nono’s late works bring the inner musical structures and features to the foreground, focusing on small instrumental forces, on subtle harmonic fields and clearly differentiable vertical sound-aggregates, on extreme soft dynamics and fine articulation markings, on fragmented successions of sections, and on a highly elaborated dialogue with old historical forms. The act of listening to these works becomes a highly demanding process – the listener being confronted with his/her own capacity of listening. Or with his/her incapacity.

The making and the reception of music gains here a new dimension: that of enabling a redistribution of the sensible – other possibilities for things to be arranged, configured, assembled, and exposed. Following Jacques Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics (and quoting Gabriel Rockhill’s ‘Glossary of Technical Terms’ in that book), the term sensible as I am using it here does not refer to what shows good sense or judgement but to what is aisthēton or capable of being apprehended by the senses (Rockhill in Rancière 2004: 85). This broader conception of ‘the political’ opens up wider avenues for artistic practices and activities, pointing to subtle nuances and differences that might function as explosive detonators, first for individual subjectivities, later for assemblages or groups of individuals. There is then a politics of aesthetics that goes beyond Benjamin’s issue of the ‘aestheticisation of politics’, or Brecht’s outspoken ‘experimental forms’. In Rancières words, there is ‘a system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it’ (Rancière 2004: 12). Therefore, challenging such systems, destabilising them, and proposing new aesthetic assemblages has an intrinsic political dimension.

Luigi Nono’s music after 1975 is an example of such a politics: an aesthetic and a politics of the smallest differences, of the finest details, of the barely audible; an invitation to question one’s identity and find courage for a change. In the effort to listen one feels the urgency of finding new balances, new arrangements, new distributions of the sensible. Through listening one discovers new worlds – one might even rediscover oneself. The crucial question is therefore: What is it to listen?


Listening is very difficult.

Very difficult to listen to others in the silence.

Other thoughts, other noises, other sounds, other ideas. When one comes to listen, one often tries to rediscover oneself in others. To rediscover one’s own mechanisms, system, rationalism in the others.

And this is a violence of the utmost conservative nature.

Instead of hearing the silence, instead of hearing the others, one often hopes to hear oneself once again. That is an academic, conservative, and reactionary repetition. It is a wall against ideas, against what is not yet possible to explain today.

[…] To listen to music.

That is very difficult.

I think it is a rare phenomenon today.


Perhaps one can change the rituals; perhaps it is possible to try to wake up the ear. To wake up the ear, the eyes, human thinking, intelligence, the most exposed inwardness.

This is now what is crucial.

(Nono 2001 [1983]: 1:522)

In September 1971, Luigi Nono began working with Maurizio Pollini (1942–) at the Studio di Fonologia della RAI, Milan, on the composition of Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1971/72) for piano, soprano, orchestra, and tape. Recently returned from an extensive South American tour, Nono was excited about the idea of creatively collaborating with both Pollini and Claudio Abbado (1933–2014), with whom Como una ola de fuerza y luz would be premiered almost two years later, on 28 June 1972: Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini: their new musical activity is the development of an artistic partnership into the acquisition and adoption of musical responsibilities that result from the human necessities of our time (Nono in Stenzl 1975: 143; my translation). As this quotation makes evident, Nono was fascinated not only by Pollini’s and Abbado’s impressive musical and technical qualities, but also by their strong commitment to society, their engagement in sociopolitical causes, and their strong, outspoken political positions. Before and beyond the mere making of music was a human component that proved to be quintessential to Nono’s creative collaboration with them. Four years later, starting in December 1975 and continuing during several diverse shorter recording sessions during the year in 1976, Nono and Pollini collaborated on …..sofferte onde serene….

The working sessions with Pollini at the Studio di Fonologia della RAI in Milan for both pieces (Como una ola de fuerza y luz and …..sofferte onde serene…) are extensively documented through working tapes and sketches preserved at the Foundation Archivio Luigi Nono, Venice.

The study of these materials opens up illuminating avenues for the understanding of creative collaborative practices in the third part of the twentieth century – a period in which the electronic medium (first through magnetic tape, later through live electronics) became increasingly important for composers. A detailed description and analysis of the concrete modalities of the collaboration between Nono and Pollini would be beyond the scope of this paper and formed an extensive part of my research work of nearly a decade ago (see Assis 2006). Here, however, I wish solely to focus on …..sofferte onde serene… and to point out that in this work several new elements emerge in Luigi Nonos musical language, namely a new understanding of the use of vertical sound-aggregates (chords), the exploration of complex variational and canonical procedures, and, crucially, new modes of organising multi-temporalities, with the piano and the tape following different paths in the same landscape.

This piece – written in a moment of personal and artistic crisis for Nono – marks the beginning of his late creative period. It was not only conceived experimentally (especially the tape production) – its concert rendering involves various degrees of uncertainty and unpredictability of sonic combinations. Nono achieves this, in the first instance, through the use of shadow sounds, similar sonorities that come sometimes from the piano, sometimes from the tape, and that generate a perceptual (con)fusion for the listener. This (con)fusion is enhanced by relatively free time-relations between live-piano and tape, allowing the performer on the piano and the performer controlling the sound-projection to intertwine a great variety of sonic affinities. From an analytical perspective (see Assis 2006: especially pp. 208–37; and, for a different reading, Linden 1989) the piece might be seen as a succession of five units, each with its own specific sound material, which employs different compositional tools and strategies. Taking into account the durations in the tape and the bars in the score, the five sections of .....sofferte onde serene... appear as follows:



Bars in the Score


0'00''–2'32'' [2'32''–2'45'']



2'45''4'50'' [4'50''5'00'']











 Table 1. …..sofferte onde serene… form synopsis

To provide an example, let us briefly consider the first section. It consists of five different presentations (‘variations) of the basic sonic material – a transparent constellation of twelve pitches (see Module 3). Following the sketches pertaining to the recording sessions (ALN 42.01 and ALN 42.02), Nono asked Pollini to play these pitches in diverse combinations and successions. The results were recorded almost as a basic sample of sounds, which would be mixed and assembled later by Nono at the mixing desk. This meant that during the studio recordings there was no score in front of Pollini from which he played. On the contrary, it was the concrete recorded sounds that slowly, in a constructive way, defined more and more precisely the sequence of sonic events – that is, the score for the pianist playing the piano part of the piece. And, if it is very clear that Nono was completely responsible for the score and the writing of it (he remains the composer in an orthodox sense), it is also true that Pollini's sonic input was of the utmost importance for the definition of the music.


Beyond the creative collaborative practice between Nono and Pollini, another aspect of collaboration must be mentioned, namely the collaborative performance practice between them. Pollini not only premiered …..sofferte onde serene…, for some years he was its only performer, normally with Nono taking care of the tape sonic projection. There has been much discussion (among performers and sound technicians who play this piece) about how far one might go in the acoustic level of the tape. In recent years the tendency has been to overemphasise the tape, to make it as equally important a part as the live piano. This tendency seems to contradict early recordings of the piece, including the world premiere, whose recording is preserved in Salzburg at the Luigi Nono Archiv Jürg Stenzl, and where the tape plays the role of a soft background, a shadow of a shadow. Independent of that important question, a major feature of the piece is the correspondence between tape and live piano – the problem of synchronisation.

Luigi Nono, liberating the music from strict prefixed temporal grids (which he still used in Como una ola de fuerza y luz), created for this piece an extremely flexible system based in eight reference numbers for the tape (see Nono 1977: 4 (or Ricordi ed. 132564)). If we consider that between these reference points there are time slots of up to two minutes, it becomes clear that there is room for flexibility in terms of vertical coordination. This aspect is extremely relevant, since it creates the basic structure for a concrete multi-temporality where the ‘live’ part (the piano) gains a new dimension – that of being able to generate real differential repetition from one performance to the next. Piano and tape, both built around the same sonic materials (pitches, rhythms, and timbre), enter a dialogue full of echoes and resonances but also of announcements and foreshadowings. That these relations should not be fixed once and for all is a consequence of Nono’s (contemporaneous) new orientation, both aesthetically and politically. 

Almost four decades after the premiere of …..sofferte onde serene… this work is well established in the broad concert repertoire. Many pianists performing it, however, do not reflect the profound component of multi-temporality that pervades this music. Moreover, the question of reconsidering the piece, of critically rethinking the unpredictability of sonic combinations for every new performance, remains widely unaddressed. Most of the performers simply aim at reproducing Maurizio Pollinis timings by following his recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Crucially, however, the issue around the original stereo tape remains unsolved, as far as the tape distributed with the comercialised score is monophonic. To this end, my ongoing research produced a replica of the original stereo tape. This replica of the tape was produced by João Rafael (Freiburg im Breisgau) under my supervision and direction, and it is this tape that I use for concert renderings and for my recording(s) of the piece (Module 5).



Assis, Paulo de. 2006. Luigi Nonos Wende: Zwischen Como una ola de fuerza y luz und . . . sofferte onde serene . . ., 2 vols (Hofheim, Germany: Wolke Verlag)

Deleuze, Gilles. 2001. Difference and Repetition, trans. by Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994; repr. London: Continuum). First published in French in 1968

Foucault, Michel. (1972) 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972; repr. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2002). First published in French in 1969.

Linden, W. 1989. Luigi Nonos Weg zum Streichquartett: Vergleichende Analysen zu seinen Kompositionen Liebeslied. . . sofferte onde serene . . .Fragmente-Stille, An Diotima (Kassel: Bärenreiter)

Nono, Luigi. 1977. . . . sofferte onde serene . . . (Milan: Ricordi), 2nd ed. published 1992.

———. 2001. Scritti e colloqui, ed. by Angela Ida De Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi, 2 vols (Milan: Ricordi; Lucca: LIM)

Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum). First published in French in 2000

Stenzl, Jürg (ed.). 1975. Luigi Nono: Texte, Studien zu seiner Musik (Zürich: Atlantis)

Žižek, Slavoj. 2012. Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2004; repr. Abingdon, UK: Routledge)

Work title

…..sofferte onde serene…

Catalogue number

ALN 42


Piano and tape


Maurizio and Marilisa Pollini

Composition period


Tape production 

Studio di Fonologia della RAI, Milan

Sound technician 

Marino Zuccheri

Sonic material of the tape

Piano (Maurizio Pollini)


Casa Ricordi ed. 132 564 (1977; 1992);

Prototype critical edition by Paulo de Assis (Orpheus Institute, 2009)

World premiere 

Milano, Sala Verdi of the Conservatoire, 17 April 1977

Piano: Maurizio Pollini

Sound projection: Luigi Nono

Sound technician: Marino Zuccheri

Claudio Abbado, Luigi Nono, and Maurizio Pollini. Milan, 1975.