Music, hegemony and revolutionary violence

In a recent article published in Music & Politics, I examined the relationship between music, hegemony and violence in the political thought of the Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924-1990).1 I analysed in particular his interpretation of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas and how he addressed his political and ethical commitment in Für Paul Dessau, a seven-minute piece composed in 1974 at the Studio di Fonologia of the Milano RAI.2 I argued that this work for solo tape responded in an original way to the concrete issue of the politicisation of music during the Cold War. It connected causes, identified common adversaries, and indicated objectives to be achieved.

Socialist hegemony, revolutionary violence and the ethics behind the musical activism of Luigi Nono

Political concepts from Antonio Gramsci underlie Nono’s political thought, the relationship between his conception of violence and struggles for social justice, and the ethic behind his compositional practice. Essential in understanding the ethic behind Nono’s musical activism is the fact that he considered it as a way to resist oppression and injustice, a vital tool for the establishment of socialist hegemony. He claimed that “making music” was something that committed him “in a way that is no different from participating in a demonstration or in a clash with the police, or as could be the case tomorrow, in the armed struggle.”3

This relationship between hegemony and violence is directly related to his reading of Gramsci. As Dylan Riley asserts, “one of the central themes of the [Gramsci’s] Prison Notebooks is the connection between physical violence or force – as exercised either by states or revolutionary movements – and consent.”4 For Gramsci, any transition to socialism will have to address the armed struggle, since the revolutionary moments, when “spontaneous consent has failed,”5 are central to creating hegemony. Nono was convinced that “if a score cannot provoke or incite revolution, it can contribute to it by participating in intellectual and revolutionary hegemony.”6 He developed this idea asserting that “a score can mature and evolve into direct and concrete participation of the struggle, which can be confronted and transposed into the score.”7

For Marxist intellectuals like Nono, the Third World struggles for justice and emancipation seemed to announce a political upheaval on a large scale. He conceived these struggles as a necessary step for the construction of a socialist society, assuming that “there is no difference between the class struggle and that of the people for their liberation.”8 As he stated in an interview in 1969, “the workers impose a class struggle for socialist power in the factory. The guerrillas impose a head-on class conflict.”9

Nono believed that the use of new technology, and the work within the electronic studio, was indispensable for the dissemination of the necessary ideas for cultural and ideological hegemony of the revolutionary forces. The composer should make tangible the ideas, information, and material from political struggles in order to contribute to consciousness raising. To achieve this, the composer should work “with all the resources made available to him by the new audio and visual languages.”10 From 1960 until the mid-1970s, Nono’s use of the Studio di Fonologia of the RAI in Milan was part of the aesthetic and political project of committing both his work, and the means used to produce it, to the advancement of class struggle and social justice.

Für Paul Dessau: Political Voices from Liberation Struggles of the Twentieth Century

The electronic studio provided Nono with the possibility of realising a number of unprecedented sonic processes particularly relevant for his political concerns, such as the appropriation of previously recorded sounds and their incorporation into new acoustic spaces, as well as the transformation of sound morphology. Nono used these processes in Für Paul Dessau in order to include into the work some of the most significant social revolutions and emancipation struggles of the twentieth century: the Russian and the Cuban revolutions, the antifascist resistance against Nazism and Fascism, the Vietnam War, and the post-colonial struggles of the Third World during the 1960s and 1970s.

In Für Paul Dessau, Nono uses recorded speeches of the historical leaders Vladimir I. Lenin (1870-1924), Ernst Thälmann (1886-1944), Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928-1967), and Fidel Castro (1926-2016). Given between 1919 and 1963 in Russian, German, French and Spanish, the recorded speeches were available to Nono on vinyl records. He mixed the voices by stratification in order to highlight both the semantic range of certain words or phrases, and the rhythm and articulation of each language. Nono explained the purpose of his use of historical recording:

I took as theme for this composition our common international struggle. The musical structure is shaped by words from Lenin, extracts from ‘What is Soviet Power?’ and ‘An Appeal to the Red Army,’ words from Thälmann, an illegal recording of Lumumba in his cell before his assassination, words from Ernesto Che Guevara about three years of war in Vietnam, and Fidel Castro’s ‘Second Declaration of Havana.’ This structure is thus constructed to liberate the forces of art and combat, through the synthesis of these words of our time, which bring our struggle and art closer to reality and give them a new dimension.11

The use of these archives is highly political not only in terms of the narratives introduced to the audience, but also in terms of the new collective discourse that they produce. Since archives “are the loci of power of the present to control what the future will know of the past,”12 Nono’s use of archives is significant for his purpose of making his listeners aware of the struggles of the past in order to better understand the struggles of the present. He creates “continuity where discontinuity prevailed.”13

Through the synthesis and spatialisation of speeches and composed sounds, Für Paul Dessau gave voice to the Third World in a unified symbolic space, bringing together postcolonial struggles and anchoring them in a socialist tradition. The political dimension of Für Paul Dessau betrays a conscious strategy for socialist hegemony. This consisted of giving voice to specific actors by making them visible in the common space, and of legitimising ideas and concepts in order to reflect on a common social world. Using the sonic processes made possible by electronics, Für Paul Dessau ‘transposes’ and symbolically links the voices of an archipelago of political struggles of the twentieth century. It outlines a cartography of historical social revolutions and Third World struggles for emancipation and social justice. As an activist-musician, Nono sought to associate political militancy and symbolic creation in order to fulfil the hegemonic function that he granted to organic intellectuals. Für Paul Dessau underlined both his responsibility for and commitment to the necessary cultural, political, and social transformation of his time.

Image post:
Silvana Gallinotti, Sans titre, 2018. Photo: Sergio Santamaría Borges. Image courtesy of the artists.

Cite this blog post
Luis Velasco-Pufleau (2018, September 9). Music, hegemony and revolutionary violence. Music, Sound and Conflict. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from

  1. Luis Velasco-Pufleau, ‘On Luigi Nono’s Political Thought: Emancipation Struggles, Socialist Hegemony and the Ethic Behind the Composition of Für Paul Dessau’, Music & Politics 12, no. 2 (2018), []
  2. This work was dedicated to his friend, the German composer Paul Dessau (1894-1979), for his 80th birthday. Nono performed Für Paul Dessau in a tribute-concert for Dessau on 15 December 1974 at the Academy of Arts in East Berlin. []
  3. “è questo che intendo per far musica: qualche cosa che mi impegna in modo non diverso dalla partecipazione a une dimostrazione o a uno scontro con la polizia, o come potrebbe essere, domani, la lotta armata,” Luigi Nono, ‘Il potere musicale (1969)’, in Luigi Nono: Scritti e colloqui, ed. Angela Ida De Benedictis and Veniero Rizzardi, vol. I (Milan and Lucca: Ricordi and LIM, 2001), 268. []
  4. Dylan J. Riley, ‘Hegemony, Democracy, and Passive Revolution in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks’, California Italian Studies 2, no. 2 (2011), []
  5. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey N. Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 12. []
  6. “Si une partition ne peut pas provoquer ou susciter une révolution, elle peut y contribuer, en participant à l’hégémonie intellectuelle et révolutionnaire,” Luigi Nono, ‘Entretien avec Luigi Nono’, in Luigi Nono: Écrits, ed. and trans. Laurent Feneyrou (Genève: Éditions Contrechamps, 2007), 301. []
  7. “Une partition peut mûrir et se résoudre dans la participation directe et concrète de la lutte, qui peut être affrontée et transposée dans la partition,” Nono, 301. []
  8. “Il n’y a pas de différence entre la lutte de classes et celle des peuples pour leur libération,” Luigi Nono, ‘Un discours sonore (1966)’, in Luigi Nono: Écrits, ed. and trans. Laurent Feneyrou (Genève: Éditions Contrechamps, 2007), 233. []
  9. “Les ouvriers imposent, dans l’usine de classe, une lutte pour le pouvoir socialiste. Les guérilleros imposent un conflit de classe, frontal,” Nono, ‘Entretien avec Luigi Nono’, 302. []
  10. “Avec toutes les ressources que mettent à sa disposition les nouveaux langages sonores et visuels,” Nono, ‘Un discours sonore (1966)’, 234. []
  11. “J’ai pris pour thème de cette composition notre lutte commune internationale. Des mots de Lénine, extraits de Qu’est-ce que le pouvoir des Soviets ? et de l’Adresse à l’armée rouge, des mots de Thälmann, un enregistrement illégal de Lumumba dans sa cellule, avant son assassinat, des mots d’Ernesto Che Guevara sur trois années de guerre au Viêt-Nam et de la Deuxième Déclaration de La Havane de Fidel Castro déterminent ma structure musicale. Cette structure est ainsi construite pour libérer les forces de l’art et du combat, à travers la synthèse de ces mots de notre temps, lesquels rapprochent de notre réalité le combat et l’art, et leur confèrent une nouvelle dimension,” Luigi Nono, ‘Für Paul Dessau (1974)’, in Luigi Nono: Écrits, ed. and trans. Laurent Feneyrou (Genève: Éditions Contrechamps, 2007), 661. []
  12. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, ‘Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory’, Archival Science 2, no. 1–2 (March 2002): 13, []
  13. Gianmario Borio, ‘Luigi Nono: Notes on the Relatioship Between Music and Technology’, in Luigi Nono: Complete Works for Solo Tape, 2 CD + booklet (Milan: Stradivarius Ricordi Oggi, 2006), 39. []

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