Futurist Music 1910-1920
Luigi Russolo &  Francesco Balilia Pratella

russolo.jpg (38497 bytes)

"Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, wlth the
invention of the machine,
noise was born. Today, noise
triumphs and
reigns supreme over the sensibilities of men"  
Luigi Russolo 'The Art of Noises' 1913

Text by Caroline Tisdall
Edited by Morgan Karlsson

Noise was Futurism's contribution to music, The principle of noise was not introduced by a musician but by the most eccentric of the Futuristpainters, Luigi Russolo. He was one of the few Futurists who actively dared to branch out into another field, and he explained his temerity in the following way: "I am not a musician, I have therefore no acoustical predilections, nor anyworks to defend. I am a Futurist painter using a much loved art to project my determination to renew everything. And so, bolder than a professional musician could be, unconcerned by my apparent incompetence, and convinced that all rights and all possibilities open up to daring, I have been able to initiate the great renewal of music by means of the Art of Noises."

Russolo's aim was to widen the accepted definition of music in much the same way as Futurist Marinetti's Words in freedom and Destruction of Syntax had challenged the traditional boundaries of literature.

Music, and preconceptions of beauty in music, had traditionally been confined to the invention of pure sound, artificially made and predictably ordered. But beyond invented sound, as it was known and recognized, there lay a whole world of noise, an untapped source of energy and acoustic enrichment. Noise did not mean just din and cacophony, though this too held its attraction.

The wealth of sound in the world ignored by the conventions of music ranged from the primary noises of nature to the roar of life and machines in the modern city, and was being added to daily. The recognition of the potential of brute noise as a source of art was a radical departure, still advocated by the musical avant garde more than sixty years later, and still generally unaccepted.

Russolo's attempts to put some of the Futurist theories of music into practice brought about some of the most extraordinary musical experiments of the pre-First World War years: the Noise lntoners or Intonarumori. The Noise Intoners reproduced some of the novel noises of the modern world, and added others besides. As signs of the new will to experiment beyond the accepted bounds of music, both the Intoners and the theory behind them belonged to the innovatory climate of the first two decades of the century which extended well beyond Futurist activities in Italy. In terms of more traditional forms of music, this spirit of change found major expression in the works of Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Satie.

But since the late nineteenth century more eccentric researches had been made into the possibilities of creating completely new musical instruments and forms. Usually they were to perform the dual function of interpreting both colour and sound: Bishop Bainbridge's Colour Organ was one example, and Alexander Wallace Rimington's Colour Music was another. Both were later superseded by Scriabin's Colour Organ, and his attempts to capture the nature of abstract values in colour and sound, and by the poet Léopold Survage's theories of Coloured Rhythms. All these experiments had one feature in common they were the result of an enthusiastic belief in music produced by machines of one kind or another, and it would have been surprising if the machine-mad Futurists had not come up with some form of mechanical music too.

The official Futurist musician was not Russolo but Francesco Balilia Pratella (1880-1955). He was at heart a fairly conventional composer, though he was to incorporate Russolo's machines into some of his Futurist works. He later became best known for his extensive use of the folk songs and themes of his native Romagna, and remained firmly attached to the peasant traditions of that most earthy of regions. His 'Manifesto of the Futurist Musician' of 11 October 1910 was one of the earliest signs of Futurism spread into other fields.

The future lay in 'The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra human phenomena present in it. Exalting the man symbol everlastingly renewed by the varied aspects of modern life and its infinity of intimate relationships with nature.'

The conservatories should make way for areas of 'free study'. Reactionary critics, rigged competitions, imitations of the past, the belief in "well made" music, the reign of the singer and the nauseating repetitiveness of Neapolitan songs and sacred music all this belonged to the past.

Pratella wrote two more manifestos, the 'Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music" and 'The Destruction of Quadrature', and all three were published together in 1912 in a volume which contained the piano version of Pratelia's Futurist Music for Orchestra, and which carried a splendid cover drawing by Boccioni. The Destruction of Quadrature was very much a musical parallel to Marinetti's Destruction of Syntax, and the 'Technical Manifesto' recommended rhythmic irregularity, atonality and micro-tones.

The Technical Manifesto inspired Russolo to the invention of a mechanical means of interpreting 'the musical soul of crowds, great industrial complexes, transatlantic liners, trains, tanks, automobiles and aeroplanes, the domination of the machine and the victorious reign of electricity". One of Marinetti's useful maxims was that originality is often as much the product of will as of genius, and the invention of the Noise Intoners was certainly an act of will. Once again, theory came before practice. Russolo's manifesto 'The Art of Noises', which calls for a vast battery of Noise Intoners, appeared on 11 March 1913, but when the great new invention was unveiled to the public in Modena three months later there was just one of them there: an Exploder reproducing the noise of an internal combustion engine with a range of ten whole-tones.

In  'The Art of Noises' Russolo described the passage through history from silence to sound and on to noise-sound and musical noise. He argued that the limited range of musical instruments could no longer satisfy modern man's acoustic thirst. Orchestras had grown in size since the eighteenth century, but that only made the situation more laughable: 'Do you know of any sight more ridiculous than that of twenty men furiously bent on redoubling the mewing of a violin?'

Russolo's manifesto was refreshingly lyrical and constructive, partly because he was arguing for the acceptance of a new awareness of beauty in which the perception of the primary sounds of nature was balanced with the excitement of city noises: 'To convince ourselves of the amazing variety of noises, it is enough to think of the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall, the gurgling of a brook, the rustling of leaves, the clatter of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of a cart on pavings, and of the generous, solemn white breathing of a nocturnal city, of all the noises made by wild and domestic animals, and of all those that can be made by the mouth of a man without resorting to speaking or singing.

"Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning mills, printing works, electric power stations, and underground railways."

Russolo raised a number of points that went beyond the usual Futurist cataloguing of urban excitements. The possibility of a form of expression 'made by the mouth of man without resorting to speaking or singing', which is hinted at in 'The Art of Noises', has continued to fascinate philo sophers and linguists involved in the study of expression beyond words and Ian guage, and it is regrettable that Russolo did not pursue it further.

Later on in the manifesto he introduced another prophetic note: the 'Futurist Ear' would be the stage at which 'the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises'. The implications of this bring to mind Walter Benjamin's condemnation of the aestheticization of politics, which he saw as a Fascist tendency, but the prime example of Russolo's aestheticization of city life took place, not in Futurist or even Fascist Italy, but in the hopeful days of young Soviet Russia. In 1920 the Concert for Factory Sirens was performed: work was beautiful, and the sweetest noise for the workers was the orchestrated unison of the sirens that summoned them. This was certainly carried out quite independently of anything Russolo had written, but it illustrates the complexity of both the aesthetics and the politics of those years in which a shared experimental enthusiasm could inspire tendencies which were later to emerge as political polarities.