“Today’s factory is a lager too”: the emancipation of sound in La fabbrica illuminata by Luigi Nono and Giuliano Scabia (1964)


Nono’s continuous references were primarily to Bach, to his
a cappella choirs. (…) As if language for Nono (the sound of
language, or a part of it), was out there, in those choruses and
voices from the processions and the “passions” of the
workers and the farmers.
Giuliano Scabia (1990)


(Bach put the passion of Christ to music – Nono said to me
one day, – and I the passion of the working class).
Giuliano Scabia (2011)


Staging of “la Fabbrica Illuminata”, XXXI Maggio Musicale FIorentino, scenographies by Virginio Puecher. Printed in La Biennale di Venezia, Con Luigi Nono, Ricordi, 1992, p. 216

[preamble] What I remember about working in a factory, throughout the summers of my university years, is the persistent noise. A tremendous racket. Pervasive. And the smell, intense, disgusting: it was a food factory, mostly dependent on seasonal workers. Then there was the obligation to wear clothing provided by the company. The threshold of a grim aseptic locker in the locker room, marked the beginning of the worker and the end of the person. A nightmare, at age twenty. Night and day, day and night. The factory 24/7: the lights were always on.
For the longest time, the “lights-on” factory was considered a space of redemption from misery or forced idleness (“the factory is dignity, honour, wealth”). A place of epiphany for merchandise but demeaning for man, because the ancient relationship with things, in the organized labour of the factory based on a logic of domination, was progressively replaced by the alienation of the machine. And with it, in a reference to Walter Benjamin, a growing degradation of the experience.1 Within the walls of the factory as a bright rational myth, the despotism of profit has built an entire parallel world around itself that, in the spectacle of its organization, can anticipate and simulate life itself, as it neutralizes it.2
One of the most clearly-thinking protagonists of the debate on the relationship between intellectuals and industry that began in Italy as early as 1958, promoted by Italo Calvino first, then, in 1961, by Elio Vittorini with the famous monograph issue of “Menabò”, is the writer and poet Vittorio Sereni (1918-1983).3 The poem that opens the publication dedicated to “literature and the industrial world”, is Una visita in fabbrica, written by Sereni between 1952 and 1958, during the years he worked for the Pirelli press office, but finished in April 1961. The poet uses prophetic words to describe the smothered destiny of this legendary place of modernity, a pre-condition of production and mass consumption, which exploits not only the body but all the senses.4 Starting with the risk of a “totally silenced time” (I, 4) by the bosses against the “voice of the others, workers” (I, 15), and which is a “voice now abolished” and cancelled like “silenced music” (I, 19 and 21), which is replaced by “a clamour | as if from the underground!” (II, 6-7), in the space of “noise added to noise” (II, 12), while among the machinery the lives continue and end (without real life) in the terrifying image of a “mass grave” (III, 11). And so the memory of other deaths, during the war, and of the resistance of life in the lone consolatory vision of “a chorus |of an expanse of swallows” (IV, 5-6), gives Sereni the courage for a collective summons to overcome resignation, for a choral “we”, thanks to “a cry we have too long repressed |from the depths of these aseptic infernos” (V, 18-19).

Luigi Nono and Carla Henius, Venice 1964. Photo by Nuria Schoenberg Nono,  courtesy of Archivio Luigi Nono, Venezia. © Heirs of Luigi Nono

[light of sound] The theme of silence as an immediate response to the work experience in a factory is remarkable: muteness as a rejoinder to the clatter of the workspace, which emerges as “a closed world”. With no poetry at all. And Ottiero Ottieri in his Taccuino industriale, which appeared in the same issue of “Menabò” in 1961, writes about the non-poetry of the factory because those “few artists who work there, become silent”.5
And the acoustic power of a “cry” as an experience of liberation and redemption from “these aseptic infernos”, perhaps a bit dampened (because obsessed) in the demand for a choral action that might bring hope, is all right there, in the very title of this work, La fabbrica illuminata (The illuminated factory), which Giuliano Scabia and Luigi Nono created in 1964. A title in which “the political reference is clearly stated: the exploitation of working class labour”.6 And so the factory is always open, night and day, always at work, omnivorous; but it is a factory capable of regenerating itself in the voice restored to the workers, “the voice of the others, a working class voice'”: with a new and glowing choral spirit – as Scabia writes a posteriori: “new light (of sound)”7 – because it is introduced into the common space (produced by the experience) of sound:
La fabrica illuminata is a composition for voice and four-channel tape to texts by Giuliano Scabia and a fragment of Due poesie a T. by Cesare Pavese. Composed in 1964 for the inaugural concert of the Premio Italia, and dedicated to the workers of the Italsider factory in Genoa-Cornigliano, it was not performed on that occasion, because it was censored by the management of RAI television because of its highly-politicized texts that were considered offensive to the Government. The first public performance took place in Venice on September 15th 1964 at the XXVII International Festival of Contemporary Music – La Biennale, performed by mezzosoprano Carla Henius with Nono directing the sound. The work was commissioned to Nono by RAI television while he was working with Scabia on Un diario italiano, of which La fabbrica illuminata was to be an episode. The original project, later abandoned, was based on the idea of politically and socially committed musical theatre, inspired by the Soviet avant-gardes (and authors such as Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerchold, for example), and by the political theatre of Erwin Piscator. Un diario italiano would therefore have constituted Nono’s second “stage action”, after Intolleranza ’60 (1961).8
But the more authentic theatrical dimension of La fabbrica illuminata was designed as a material activation of the factory’s soundscape. The composition process benefitted greatly from Nono and Scabia’s visit in May 1964, accompanied by Marino Zuccheri (a technician from the Phonology studio of Rai television in Milan), to the Italsider factory in Genoa Cornigliano. Here, they gathered materials and magnetic tape recordings of “the sound of magma, the words/shouts of the workers who appeared as emerging voice, like fish flickering in that deafening sea, fiery air and the rumble of Prometheus, or stood reading the words on enamelled metal signs”.<sup>9</sup> The encounter with the visual and acoustic reality of the factory workers took place in “their” space, along the kilometre-and-a-half from the steel smelting in the blast furnace to its transformation into rolled steel, as research on the field because its purpose was to build knowledge. It provided not only sound material to elaborate and reinforce in the studio, but also the opportunity for a whole new understanding of this reality. The point was not to follow and record it, in order to reproduce it, but to acquire it and address it through the specific experience of sound/noise as its new cultural context.<sup>10</sup> Therefore sound, used technologically for purposes of invention and expression, was to be, for Nono, the level of understanding and of action upon reality: “I am convinced that with today’s music (independently of whether it is associated with a text or not) we can analyse, understand and intervene in our lives. (…) Not to achieve sectorial, technological, sociological or aesthetic recognition, but as a cultural-political choice that casts light on the use, the function and the objectives of the technical and expressive means that the musician has or ‘invents’.”11 But this plan had to become common in order to shape a new experience that could recognize a future that is already here. How? By presenting new sound material, a new composition process that can innovate its techniques, and by directly considering the social objectives of the acoustic experience. In the light, naturally, of an idea of the revolution-to-come that has been too long in the making, and of a more pragmatic theatrical dimension that was increasingly to prevail in Nono’s works, then and in the years to come.12 With Nono, in the words of Giovanni Morelli, New Music in Italy was regenerating its fibre, emerging from the darkness of even recent musical traditions, compromised with the horrors of History (artistic and political) in the first half of the twentieth century, prospering in this new light of sound.13

[appositions]La fabbrica illuminata is therefore a work for theatre (if by theatre we mean bodies listening and not words to listen to) that wishes to transform the experience of sound into a practice capable of action and of making the utopia of a more conscious participation come true in real-time: at the very moment the material occurs. In other words: Nono takes reality as an event (theatre) that already exists in the (acoustic) experience as a situation (in other words in its potential and capacity for even collective action). Hence the elaboration and the new stratification of musical and literary material created earlier for Un diario italiano: “for part of the choral sections, Nono replaced the texts with the new ones written with Scabia on the basis of the materials they collected at Italsider; a fragment of scene two, entitled Sogno incubo. 5 donne, provided the starting material for the third section (Giro del letto). Thus La fabbrica illuminata took on the characteristics of an independent composition”.14
This independence may be sought in the change of the title, shifting from a passive but direct account of the action (diary, logbook, journal, memory, chronicle, register…) to the situation itself, to the object itself, the factory “thing”, hence extracted from its own possible contour/container/textual context. The extended and almost bureaucratic words of the recording, of the account, thus become fragment, they rise nervously, agitated as knives.

Luigi Nono’s notes for “La Fabbrica Illuminata”. Courtesy of Archivio Luigi Nono, Venezia. © Heirs of Luigi Nono

It is independence from the traditional form of the libretto, that will no longer be able to resist this “subversion underway”.15 And the genesis of the reversal may be found in nuce in a letter Nono wrote in 1958 to Italo Calvino, in search of new and original collaborations: “I don’t need a “libretto”, that’s for museums. | but the creative imagination of a man of today“.16 But the participatory procedures that Nono sought as greater proof of a totally new understanding of reality, could only aim, more distantly, towards the creation “of a sort of ‘total event'”, “limited to music, to be intensified on the side of listening rather than that of writing/conception”.17 And some years later, Calvino in fact gave in: “I would very much like to do something with you. But I have no imagination for the theatre or opera. The “choral” dimension escapes me. As does the flight towards the collective lyrical poetry that should sustain your work”.18
Independence, finally, in La fabbrica illuminata, from any programme, from any intended or pursued unity or completeness of the composition, sacrificing the project to advance the design alone of the proposed (sound) materials. As documented in the correspondence between Nono and Scabia, during the still virtual development of the opera (Diario), in the midst of negotiations, an idea began to take shape that was both conjecture and prejudice at the same time, and in the end won out. This is what Scabia proposed to Nono, for the third part of Diario: “but c) the terrible sentences and accusations, almost always unfounded, against the communists during Stalinism“.19
Diario italiano is an interpretation of Italian history during those years, in six scenes that are an aspiration to freedom, joy and love, brought to a close “in contrast and in counterpoint” to “the pain of the killed/dead/assassinated/suicides (“comrades/killed by comrades”) in the left wing”.20 This naive and no less violent resistance to some of the criticisms of Stalinism thus generates the logical equivalence of a figure used with the function of apposition. And so, shortly thereafter, Scabia writes again to Nono: “I am sending you a “possible” column for the dream nightmare in scene II. It can be spoken by several people (only women) or one person alone. The sense of it could be the following: Stalinist concentration camps yes, but today’s factory is also a lager“.21 Here we have the full “meaning” that would inform La fabbrica illuminata in its totality, in the development of scene two, this scene transformed over and over by Nono until it reached its definitive form for solo female voice:
I thought then and think now that the definitive text lacks one of the two poles of revolutionary “passion”: self-analysis. Nono was probably stricken by the materials he gathered at Cornegliano and for the other point there were no elements gathered live, no notes, or sound experiences.22
The “passion of the working class” found its voice in this lack of symmetry as well. A prevalence of poetics over politics? I don’t think so. I believe that the possible power of a dramatic action was overpowered by the idea, which Nono felt with increasing urgency, of action as a common practice (and of a musical-theatre scene that could make it become real without representing it, but rather codify it and lend it authority). The practice of sound. Or at least its emancipation.



La fabbrica illuminata
for soprano and four-channel tape (1964)

composed by Luigi Nono with texts by Giuliano Scabia and Cesare Pavese (from Due poesie a T for the finale)

Dedicated “To the workers of Italsider in Genoa”

World premiere: Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 15 September 1964.
La Biennale di Venezia, XXVII International Festival of Contemporary Music

Carla Henius, mezzosoprano
Luigi Nono, sound direction

Tape recorded at the Phonology Studio of Radiotelevisione Italiana in Milan with the participation of the Choir of RAI television in Milan conducted by Giulio Bertola.

A performance based on La fabbrica illuminata, organized by Spazio Punch and set in the spaces of the shipyard Cantiere Navale Gruppo Faldis, took place on October 6th 2017, as part of the Festival Luigi Nono on the island of the Giudecca (5-9 October 2017): «this is an action that was based on listening to the eponymous composition by Luigi Nono and connects the score, the body, the costume and the image », with Giovanni Nordio, Gregorio Nordio, consultants Paolo Cecchi and Mario Lupano, and the logistics of the Associazione Boat.