Born into a family of artists – his grandfather Luigi was a painter and his uncle Urbano a sculptor – Nono took an interest from an early age in cultural history and art. His interest in music was encouraged by his parents, who were amateur musicians and who owned a sizable collection of recordings. From 1943 to 1945 he studied composition with Malipiero at the Venice Conservatory, where there was an emphasis on vocal polyphony and the madrigal tradition, as well as an awareness of the music of the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky and Bartók. Nono’s experiences of the war, of the Nazi occupation and the Resistance were fundamental to his general development, while musically his meeting with Maderna was critical; from 1946 onwards they forged a long-lasting association. A small community of musicians grew up around them in Venice who, through the examination of the contrapuntal, harmonic and formal foundations of European art music, aimed to develop a new musical language. Their main point of reference was Dallapiccola, who belonged to the preceding generation of Italian composers and with whom Nono developed a relationship of reciprocal esteem and friendship in 1947. The group shared in particular a desire to discover and learn from the Second Viennese School.
In 1948 Nono and Maderna took part in Scherchen’s conducting course in Venice, following which they worked together for the publishers Ars Viva. For several years Scherchen became their mentor, and through private lessons (at Rapallo, 1952–3) Nono studied further the compositional techniques of Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg and Webern. On Scherchen’s recommendation he was accepted as a student on the 1950 Darmstadt summer course, at which the first performance of his Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’op.41 di Schönberg provoked contrasting reactions. In Darmstadt he attended classes given by Varèse, whose influence became progressively more apparent in his work. Until 1959 – the year of his controversial lecture Geschichte und Gegenwart in der Musik von heute – he continued to take part at the Darmstadt courses (from 1957 as a teacher), during which many of his compositions were performed for the first time and important discussions and meetings took place. He came into contact there with members of the Schoenberg school, in particular the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, with whom he collaborated on the composition of his Varianti; in 1955 he married Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria. The Darmstadt summer courses confirmed Nono’s leading position and, together with Boulez and Stockhausen, he became a key figure in the European avant garde.
Nono’s musical technique and artistic stance developed not only through contact with the international musical community, but also from works and figures in other cultural fields. His friendship and later collaboration with the painter Emilio Vedova, his study of the theatrical ideas of Meyerhold, Piscator and Josef Svoboda, his exposure to the philosophical and political thought of Gramsci and Sartre, and the poetry of García Lorca, Neruda, Eluard, Pavese and Ungaretti were of crucial importance at that time. From these poets Nono took the texts for his vocal works of the 1950s : Tre epitaffi per Federico García Lorca, La victoire de Guernica, La terra e la compagna and Cori di Didone. In the last two of these, and in the unquestionable masterpiece of his first decade’s work, Il canto sospeso (1955–6) to texts by condemned prisoners of the European Resistance, Nono made use of a new style of singing which involves the fragmentation of the text and its attachment to musical structures which vary from a single line to diverse types of textural layering. Nono’s intense involvement in the social issues of his time gave rise to a style in which sound and text are inextricably linked; in which the work takes a firm hold in the ‘real’ world, as a kind of a historical record. Increasingly, Nono used texts with political references (he had in 1952 become a member of the Italian Communist party), culminating in the stage piece Intolleranza 1960 which, at its first performance in Venice (1961), provoked protest and uproar. It represented a turning-point, not only because for the first time it made concrete Nono’s ideas for a new form of music theatre which he had been developing in the 1950s, but also because it revealed the extent of the political conflict in which the composer felt himself involved: racial intolerance, fascist violence, exploitation of the working classes, and the struggle for freedom and independence in developing countries.
Nevertheless, Nono must still have felt his means of musical expression to be insufficiently developed to articulate these ideas; for immediately after Intolleranza 1960, he turned to work almost exclusively with electronics. In the RAI Studio di Fonologia in Milan he began work on a new stage composition, which was to evolve into a series of uncategorizable works. The first was La fabbrica illuminata (1964) for female voice and tape, the tape part comprising sounds recorded in a factory, workers’ voices, a choir and the soloist herself (originally Carla Henius). A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida (1966) and Y entonces comprendió (1969–70), among other works, went to confirm certain fundamental aspects of Nono’s musical thought: the use of vocal material, with singers and actors chosen for their particular timbre and quality of gesture; interaction between live voices and their alter ego on tape; amplification to highlight aspects of the sound which would otherwise be difficult to perceive; diffusion of the sound from different points in space; and, last but not least, the employment of texts which document contemporary history. These works represent an avant-garde stance which, abandoning traditional musical narrative and grammar, employs the most advanced technical means in order to expose the structures of political power.
The 1960s witnessed intense confrontation between the theory and the practice of Marxism, and Nono played a significant role in these events. In 1965 he realized a tape score for the play Die Ermittlung by Peter Weiss; the following year he worked on material for Living Theatre; 1967 saw his first long trip to Latin America where he met the leading figures of cultural and political opposition; and in 1968 he collected materials from the student protests in Paris, which are used in Musica-manifesto no.1. The texts Nono employed during this period together create what amounts to a map of socialist culture: from Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht and Malcolm X, to revolutionary documents from various continents. Nono’s theatre piece Al gran sole carico d’amore (1972–4) – in which events from different epochs are fused together under the common theme of women’s struggle for liberation – is both the synthesis and conclusion of his openly declared political position.
With the string quartet Fragmente–Stille, an Diotima (1979–80), he seemed to be entering a more private phase in his career, focussed on more abstract musical concerns. But although Nono worked with new ideas in this and subsequent pieces he did not abandon the fundamental aesthetic and technical issues of the previous decades. For example, form constructed from a discontinuous series of fragments – with which Nono had experimented for the first time at the end of the 1950s in the orchestral Diario polacco ’58 – was now brought to the fore, with a considerable reduction in the length and dynamic level of what might be described as sonorous islands, amid a scenery of silence. There continued, too, the conception of the performer as a source of individual material, developed through collaborative exchange with the composer (in the 1970s this way of working had, with Pollini, given rise to Como una ola de fuerza y luz and … sofferte onde serene …). And Nono remained convinced of the need for technology in the process of musical creation. Indeed, the themes of violence, oppression and utopian tension had not disappeared either, only now they were no longer dealt with on a historical or documentary level, but rather on an individual level, taking on a quasi-ontological significance. Two factors, in particular, contributed to the characteristic features of this period: Nono’s meeting with the philosopher Massimo Cacciari, and his work at the Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung in Freiburg. The eclectic thought of Cacciari – strongly influenced by Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Rilke and Walter Benjamin, and also by the study of myth and Jewish mysticism – became an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The texts for Nono’s pieces were now formed from collections of fragments of literary and philosophical writing undertaken in collaboration with Cacciari; while in the Freiburg studio he worked closely with a team who were mastering the most advanced techniques for transforming sound in real time and diffusing it in space. His concept of ‘composition’ broadened, now taking into account the internal evolution of sound and its spatial trajectory. The most important project born out of the Freiburg experiments and his collaboration with Cacciari was Prometeo (1984), a large-scale work which represented a new stage in the development of that form of music theatre which, from the time of Intolleranza 1960 onwards, Nono had defined as azione scenica. However, during the composition of Prometeo every narrative, scenic and visual element was eliminated; there remained only a gigantic wooden structure, the shape of which resembles the keel of a boat, but whose function is that of a gigantic resonating case which the architect Renzo Piano planned for the interior of the church of S Lorenzo in Venice. Nono defined Promoteo as a ‘tragedy of listening’, alluding on the one hand to Greek tragedy with its stasimons and choruses and on the other to a drama which unfolds within sound itself. During the composition of the work he also turned at times to various shorter compositions for voices, a small instrumental ensemble and live electronics: Quando stanno morendo (Diario polacco no.2), Guai ai gelidi mostri and Risonanze erranti. The same years also saw the appearance of two major pieces for full orchestra – A Carlo Scarpa architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili and No hay caminos, hay que caminar … Andrej Tarkowskij – in which conceptions of sound requiring the use of computers are re-thought on a purely acoustic level.