Friday, 3 September 2010

The Art of Noises

Luigi Russolo

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a fascinating programme on Luigi Russolo and his Art of Noises. The presenter, Robert Worby, travelled to Milan, where an exhibition on Futurism was being staged, and located Russolo’s manifesto for a new music and the sound-producing mechanisms which he fabricated to realise it in the context of this noisome movement. We got to hear a very old recording in which the voice of Futurism’s most voluble proselytiser, Filippo Marinetti, emerged from its clouds of static in the midst of a shrill proclamation. An actor took over to deliver more of his frequent and bullish expressions of contempt for what he considered outmoded forms of art (all of them, essentially) and his grandiose, world-conquering claims for the new movement (his) which would sweep them all away. There is much violent rhetoric about destroying museums, libraries and academies, and about the beauty of speed and the thrill of mechanisation. It’s unlikely that any of the artists who waxed lyrical in such an effusive manner ever actually worked in one of the factories whose sounds and movements they sang hymns of praise over. Clearly a self-confident man, Marinetti every utterance seems to emerged in the form of a manifesto. He comes across a jabbering Mussolini, drunk on the power of his own verbiage. He must have been very tiring company. You can imagine him making an issue out of the most trivial of everyday encounters, creating a drama out of, say, ordering from a menu (we reject utterly the outmoded, dull abomination of the apple crumble, and demand new, astounding combinations of artificially created ice cream flavours). He celebrated the sounds of the pre-World War One battlefields with an enthusiasm that, if he intended it to be taken seriously (and he doesn’t seem to have had a well developed sense of irony), suggests a detachment from real human experience and feeling which bordered on (or perhaps entered fully into) madness. If these loud prattlings didn’t discredit him (and they could at least be ignored) his later enthusiastic embrace of fascism certainly did for future generations. He seemed actively to embrace the mechanisation and desensitisation of the human soul, and serves as a salutary exemplar of the folly which results when artists’ abstract theoretical grandstanding collides with concrete historical reality. In short, be careful what you wish for.

Russolo the artist - Dynamic Automobile
Luigi Russolo was an enthusiastic follower of Futurism, initially as a painter. His Art of Noises manifesto was inspired by hearing the music of Futurist composer Ballila Pratella. Pratella had issued his own manifesto, the Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, in 1910. Russolo’s Art of Noise (which you can find over at Ubuweb here) was framed as a letter of praise to Pratella, a ‘great Futurist musician’, which suggests a rather more modestly proportioned ego than Marinetti’s. He is essentially looking to escape from the limited range of sound which the traditional orchestral instrumentation provided. These, he suggested, in a slightly less excitable tone than Marinetti, but nevertheless with the provocative assertiveness of these endless manifestos, had become stale and worn through overfamiliarity. Certain sounds had become fixedly associated with particular moods and a sense of boredom had begun to fill the concert halls. He was not the only person to be thinking along such lines. As late romantic orchestral music became ever more overripe and swollen, the tremblings of seismic change began to be felt in various locations. Russolo thought, in line with Futurist enthusiasms, that the sounds of the modern, mechanised world suggested new tonal possibilities. ‘We get infinitely more pleasure’ he overstated ‘imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more, for instance, to the heroic or pastoral symphonies’. Drawing a picture of the concert hall as a prison of dull monotony, he bursts through its doors and into the streets where we can ‘walk together through a great modern capital, with the ear more attentive than the eye, and we will vary the pleasures of our sensibilities by distinguishing among the gurglings of water, air and gas inside metallic pipes, the rumblings and rattlings of engines breathing with obvious animal spirits, the rising and falling of pistons, the stridency of mechanical saws, the loud jumping of trolleys on their rails, the snapping of whips, the whipping of flags’.

Russolo does not merely want to replicate these sounds, however, but to order and regulate them, to get at some ideal underlying form. ‘The art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction’, he writes, which tends to refute those who claim him as a precursor to Pierre Schaeffer and the early musique concrete sound collagers. Pietro Verardo, who has built working reconstructions of Russolo’s battery of noise makers, expands on the point. Russolo wanted to recreate the world on the stage, he suggests. He aimed a re-ordering of the world, a careful juxtaposition of the distillated elements of its sounds arranged in such a way that some transformation in its essence, or at the very least in the way we perceive it, would occur. It was a heady conceptual collision of science and the occult which was prevalent in the early years of this new century, in which the rapid and accelerating pace of change was already becoming apparent, and the tectonic plates of old and new worlds ground against each other.

Russolo proposed a taxonomy of new sounds, creating 6 distinct ranks into which they were corralled. These were:
1. Roars, claps, noises of falling water, driving noises, bellows.
2. Whistles, snores, snorts
3. Whispers, mutterings, rustlings, grumbles, grunts, gurgles
4. Shrill sounds, cracks, buzzings, jingles, shuffles
5. Percussive noises using metal, wood, skin, stone, baked earth etc.
6. Amimal and human voices: shouts, moans, screams, laughter, rattling, sobs.
Pietro Verardo likens this division of the sound world into clearly delineated categories to the later development of synthesisers, and thus makes Russolo’s a progenitor of electronic music, a claim often made for him. The sound boxes, or intonarumori which he created were designed to voice some of these noises. None of the originals remain, having been lost either in the chaos of the post First World War period, or during Nazi bombing. They have been reconstructed by Pietro Verardo, however, who recreated them using pictures and patent designs as templates. Robert Worby visits him in his studio to see these fantastic instruments. Their names are descriptive of the sounds which Russolo had divided into his 6 categories. They sound a lot more onomatopoeically satisfying in Italian: Crepitatore, Ulalatore, Gracidatore, Gorgogliatore, Ronzatore. The more bluntly descriptive English equivalents don’t sound quite as magical: buzzers, thunderers, shatterers, snorters etc. Worby gets to try a couple of the intonarumori, sounding the low and high howlers. Their sound is, as he describes it, ‘very musical’. The intonarumori are large boxes with wheels inside which turn and create friction against strings, producing long held tones. The vibrations are transferred to drum skins which are amplified through large horns, which emerge from the front of the boxes like great conical beaks (or big hooters). Pietro Verardo suggests that Russolo may have been partly inspired to create these devices by Leonardo Da Vinci’s plans for musical machines. He had worked on the restoration of the Last Supper some time before, and was likely to have been familiar with Da Vinci’s work, which was considered acceptable Futurist fare, presumably because of his unrealised mechanical inventions. The intonarumori are fascinating objects in themselves, bridging the worlds of sound and visual art in a fashion similar to that displayed by the self-built musical instruments of Harry Partch or the kinetic sculptures of Max Eastley, sounded by (or giving sound to) the natural elements.

Russolo with intonarumori
Russolo gave a concert of his pieces for the intonarumori at the Teatro da Verme in Milan on 22nd April 1914, with the predictably riotous reaction which seemed to greet any attempt to break with tradition in this era. Stravinsky and Diaghilev seemed more appreciative at a later salon demonstration given at Marinetti’s house in 1915. After this initial rocky performance, he took his instruments on a tour of European concert halls, which included an appearance at the London Colosseum in June 1914. There’s an extract of an interview on the programme with someone who was there, and who recollects being less than impressed. The same could be said of the local press reaction. Primed by the belligerent tone of the Futurist manifestos and the forceful names given to the instruments to expect something perhaps literally explosive, they expressed disappointment at the relatively muted sounds which the intonarumori produced. The use of the word noise and the celebration of the sounds of the mechanised city lead you to expect a clangorous concatenation of percussion punctuated by sirens and bells and blaring horns. The sort of thing which Edgar Varese would produce in pieces such as Ionisation and Ameriques. These sounds were more akin to haunted moans and sighs, sounds from some unearthly and airless city. Some were like a vacuum cleaner, and anticipated the pranksterish use of such sounds in the 60s work of Fluxus ‘composers’. Herrmann, the composer who is the central character amongst a group of young people seeking new ways to create art and distance themselves from their past in Edgar Reitz’ series of films Die Zweite Heimat, stages a concert of his piece for vacuum cleaners and other domestic appliances. Herrmann comes to Munich in the 60s from a rural village in the Hunsruck area of Germany, close to the Rhine and steeped in the world of Wagner and folk memory. It is a world from which he wishes to distance himself, and this embracing of the sounds of the city is one way of doing so. Other noises in Russolo’s palette (and you can hear sound clips over at Ubuweb here) sound like pneumatic drills operating underwater, the slow breathing of a sleeping giant, arctic winds heard from within a sealed shelter, the ratcheting of malfunctioning machinery and the scraping of metal on wire strings. Such a sound would be electronically transformed by the Radiophonic Workshop years later into the echoing wheeze of the dematerialising Tardis.

Russolo left very little trace of his work behind, outside of his Art of Noise manifesto. The instruments were lost or destroyed and of his scores, only 7 bars of the piece Awakening of the City remain. We get to hear Daniel Lombardi’s 1978 recreation of this small fragment, which gives a teasing glimpse at what has been lost. There’s also a recording, half-buried in the crackly patina of time, of Russolo’s brother Antonio’s composition Corale from 1921, which uses the intonarumori to back more conventional orchestral forces. The elusiveness of Russolo’s legacy, its physical absence, has left a spectral template which the imagination can fill in and expand upon. David Toop notes the way in which the Art of Noise manifesto has retrospectively been adopted as a legitimising progenitor for all manner of musics, its intentions being adapted and reshaped in the process. History is, if not rewritten, then rechannelled along different courses. DJ Spooky cites contemporary artists such as Merzbow, Kode-9 and Nobukazu Takemura as being at the head of such streams, but these are notional lineages at best. You could also point to the use of the industrial sounds of concrete mixers and pneumatic drills by the likes of Faust and Einsturzende Neubaten, or the concrete electronic passages of Varese’s Deserts, which use the sounds of a factory, or Satie’s use of typewriter and gunshot in Parade, all of which bear the stamp of Futurist ideas to some extent. But these ignore the transformative element of Russolo’s ideas, the ordering and categorisation of ideal rather than actual sounds. A piece such as Stockhausen’s 1958 electronic work Kontakte (for the recording of which he constructed a revolving speaker box which looked like a mutated descendant of one of Russolo’s intonarumori) might provide a closer comparison, its juxtaposition of metallic and molten, hot and cold sounds. But perhaps Russolo’s music really remains singular, whether in ideal or realised form, indivisible from the dawning of the turbulent twentieth century, emergent at a fevered time when it seemed that some form of alchemical transformation could be realised through art, and the nature of the world forever changed.