The Art of Noise: Soundscapes of the Italian Futurists

The sound of the Crepitatore

The Technological and Mechanical Innovations that began in the age of the Industrial Revolution have exponentially, infiltrated every aspect of the human experience. Our modern methods of consumption, construction and conception are all “machine aided” and modern methods of Transportation and communication have made possible the notion of a Global Village.

As we enter what might be termed the third age of industrialisation, however, many questions are being raised about how these innovations serve to erode the very essence of what it is to human and what sacrifices we are making in the name of progress.

Attitudes at the beginning of the Twentieth Century were somewhat different. The birth of the motor car, aviation and cinema created a sense that humanity was capable of reshaping itself and an age of great prosperity was dawning. All this, of course, would be swept away by the mechanised slaughter of two world wars.

The celebration of modernisation would be resurrected by the American led consumerism that followed the second of these wars and humanity would once again be enthraled by a coming Utopia; only to find itself in the current simulacra of forgotten futures.

This Narrative of progress, however, is one not solely written as an apparatus of control by those in power; there were many who embraced such ideas on an artistic level and believed that culture could be remodelled alongside society; The Italian Futurists were one such movement.

Youth, Speed and Violence

There is much in the practice of Italian Futurism that seems contradictory and controversial. Its endorsement of Mussolini’s Fascist ideology and dispassionate take on humanity are anathema to a current moral and ethical compass, and much of the art it produced is considered brutish by many accustomed to the sleek lines of the digital age.

Beneath this controversy, however, can be found a great deal of prescience concerning the impact mechanisation would come to have our existence. The dislocation of sentimentality that is at the heart of Futurism allows for the honesty of representation so often diluted by Romanticism. Futurism explored notions of time collapsing in on itself and in parrel to Dadaism (although opposed in conception) it fragmented reality into new forms that exposed a rose-tinted view of history.

The counter cultures of Punk and the Enfant Terrible can find a heritage here and the desire to foist an ideology and an aesthetic upon others is something that reoccurs many times through the Twentieth Century. The Futurist conception of sound, with which we are concerned, is also no less dogmatic.

Manifesto

The Art of Noises by Luigi Carlo Filippo Russolo was first penned in the form of a letter to fellow Futurist composer Francesco Balilla Pratella. It is a blueprint for a new form of sound production that could simultaneously embrace the sounds of the machine age whilst sweeping away the confining structures of tonal music.

Russolo takes the concept of “Noise” as being particular to the advent of machines and suggests that the pre-industrialised age was one of relative silence. He goes on to suggest that Western Music’s evolution from monophonic simplicity through ever more complex harmonic forms was analogous to this new sound world.

The logical conclusion, he surmised, was the use of machine noise as the ultimate expression of polyphony; that this would, in fact, be the only way that composers of the future could hope to abstract this new reality. He was, of course, correct in many ways, though this use of concrete sound has yet to permeate the mainstream.

This notion of the real would find traction in the work of Pierre Schaeffer and the school of Musique Concrete some thirty years later and like Scheaffer Russolo would lay out categorisations for such Sound objects.

His “Sound families” were as follows:

  • Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
  • Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
  • Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
  • Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling, Scraping
  • Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
  • Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs

These are classifications that also form an important role in the disciplines of Sound design and Foley recording. Concepts that, like Musiqie Concrete would only materialise with the advent of the tape recorder.

Russolo would later take these concepts one step further and construct a series of instruments that could each generate sounds particular to each of these families. In this, he also prefigures certain methods of Synthesis and the 1970s ideal of modelling the real.

Russolo’s conclusion to the Art of Noises purposes a dichotomy by which this new Art might adhere:

  1. Futurist composers should use their creativity and innovation to “enlarge and enrich the field of sound” by approaching the “noise-sound.”
  2. Futurist musicians should strive to replicate the infinite timbres in noises.
  3. Futurist musicians should free themselves from the traditional and seek to explore the diverse rhythms of noise.
  4. The complex tonalities of noise can be achieved by creating instruments that replicate that complexity.
  5. The creation of instruments that replicate noise should not be a difficult task since the manipulation of pitch will be simple once the mechanical principles that create the noise have been recreated. Pitch can be manipulated through simple changes in speed or tension.
  6. The new orchestra will not evoke new and novel emotions by imitating the noises of life, but by finding new and unique combinations of timbres and rhythms in noise, to find a way to fully express the rhythm and sound that stretches beyond normal un-inebriated comprehension.
  7. The variety of noise is infinite, and as man creates new machines the number of noises he can differentiate between continues to grow.
  8. Therefore, he invites all talented musicians to pay attention to noises and their complexity, and once they discover the broadness of noise’s palette of timbres, they will develop a passion for noise. He predicts that our “multiplied sensibility, having been conquered by futurist eyes, will finally have some futurist ears, and . . . every workshop will become an intoxicating orchestra of noise.

A Riotous Cacophony

The wider Futurist movement has its roots in another manifesto; that of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Around Marinetti, there coalesced a group of writers, painters and composers who would produce the pre First World War artworks that are often defined as belonging to the “heroic” period of the movement. Though there is little in Marinetti’s writing that may fit modern conceptions of this term.

This original Manifesto of Futurism is formed of many ideas that are in essence proto-fascist and indeed Marinetti would go on to write the Manifesto of the Italian Fasci of Combat; that bible of Mussolini’s own particular vision of right-wing nationalism. In light of this, we are presented with a question that resonates in our appraisals of the twentieth century. Do the Morals and Ethics of an Artist inform our appreciation of his or her Art?

There are again, too, the honest non-romanticist aspects of Futurism that make it so representative of its time and open up questions about nature that are so often absent from the current discourse. Humans, Marinetti said, would always be animals and one role of Art should be the taming of the inner beast.

A key tool in disseminating the Futurist message would be agitprop and again in a parallel fashion to the ideologically opposed Dadaist movement, live performance would form a major part of this campaign. So it was that in June of 1913, Marreniti would finance and organise the inaugural concert of works for Russolo’s new instruments.

It would take place at Modena’s Teatro Storchi and the first of Russolo’s Intonarumori (Noise Machines) the Scoppiatore would play to a full house. A combination of false starts and general derisory reactions from the audience resulted in Russello’s partner in the enterprise, Ugo Piatti, trading insults with the irate crowd. And the assembled Patrons vacated the auditorium en-masse.

Undeterred by such events, Russolo and Piatti worked on further Intonarumori and in April of 1914 a further a concert was staged; on this occasion programmed to feature four “Networks of Noises“. The audience proved equally unreceptive however and on this occasion, a riot would break out, with objects hurled at the Futurist musicians and threats made to smash their abominable creations.

Echos

The Intonarumori created by Russolo would eventually number twenty-seven and each one generated sound in a unique way; particular to one of the six sound families outlined in the Art of Noises. They were also for the most part purely acoustic in their various methods of sound generation, with some reliant on electricity for their operation.

The Majority of the Intonarumori operated via the agitation of a string by a metal exciter; A drum-like resonant body would then amplify and colour this sound. The apparatus was housed in a wooden box and a Gramophone horn mounted on top was used to further project the output.

Russolo describes the sound of one such device as akin to “...the characteristic noise of the spark-ignition engine“; most too had controls to modify Pitch and this particular Intonarumori was capable of “...[changing] the tone of [its] noise up to a maximum of two octaves.

Another example gave “...a high grunt like a skinned animal, or an Argentinean, gentle, adjustable, clear, detached tinkle“. Whilst that capable of “the sharp crackle” Russolo noted, “...is perfect for solos and is probably an instrument able to produce virtuosity.”

Such sounds, however, are no longer relegated to the imagination. 2009 saw musicologist Luciano Chessa and Luthier Keith Cary reconstruct sixteen examples of Intonarumori in commemoration of 100 years of the Futurist movement. A debut at the San Francisco Museum of modern art was followed by performances in New York and Rome; all of which were received in a manner rather more civilised than Russolo’s first forays.

Preservation

Future Circuit by Tetuzi Akiyama, a modern work for Intonarumori

The musicology contained in The Art of Noise and the appreciation of acoustic physics Russolo demonstrates in his writings on the Intonarumori are solid in conception. If we remove the fascist associations and eccentricities of his methods; elements of Russolo’s theories can still be found in a number of modern-day disciplines; from Instrument design, Special effects creation and physical modelling Synthesis to Acoustic Ecology and Sound Studies.

Russolo’s name, too, is enshrined; alongside the likes of Avraamov, Ruttman and Theremin; as one of the great inter-war innovators in the field of Sound Art. His theories were so bereft of a predicate and the technologies at his disposal so primitive that it is difficult to imagine how he came by the Art of Noises, let alone manage to implement it.

It is by these standards then that we must dislocate the controversy of Futurism from Russolo’s legacy. And in the roster of contemporary artists who continue to look to his methods and teachings for inspiration we see a realignment of ideas that are yet to be fully explored.

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