Luigi Russolo was a prominent painter in the Italian Futurist movement yet he is best known for ‘The Art of Noises‘ which is considered one of the most important and influential texts of musical aesthetics in the 20th Century. The text was written as a letter in 1913 by Luigi Russolo to his friend, the Futurist Composer Francesco Balilla Pratella. The manifesto sketches ideas from Russolo’s radical alternative to the classical musical tradition. Russolo argues that traditional orchestral instruments and compositions are no longer capable of representing and capturing the spirit of modern day life, with it’s energy, speed and noise. A year after Russolo composed this letter he introduced his Intonarumori (Noises Instruments) in a series of concerts which took place in Milan and London. Have a read at Luigi Russolo letter below:
'The Art of Noises'
Dear Balilla Pratella, great Futurist composer, In Rome, in the Costanzi Theatre, packed to capacity, while I was listening to the orchestral performance of your overwhelming Futurist music, with my Futurist friends, Marinetti, Boccioni, Carrà, Balla, Soffici, Papini and Cavacchioli, a new art came into my mind which only you can create, the Art of Noises, the logical consequence of your marvelous innovations. Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls, nature is silent.
Amidst this dearth of noises, the first sounds that man drew from a pieced reed or streched string were regarded with amazement as new and marvelous things. Primitive races attributed sound to the gods; it was considered sacred and reserved for priests, who used it to enrich the mystery of their rites.
And so was born the concept of sound as a thing in itself, distinct and independent of life, and the result was music, a fantastic world superimposed on the real one, an inviolatable and sacred world. It is easy to understand how such a concept of music resulted inevitable in the hindering of its progress by comparison with the other arts. The Greeks themselves, with their musical theories calculated mathematically by Pythagoras and according to which only a few consonant intervals could be used, limited the field of music considerably, rendering harmony, of which they were unaware, impossible.
The Middle Ages, with the development and modification of the Greek tetrachordal system, with the Gregorian chant and popular songs, enriched the art of music, but continued to consider sound in its development in time, a restricted notion, but one which lasted many centuries, and which still can be found in the Flemish contrapuntalists’ most complicated polyphonies.
The chord did not exist, the development of the various parts was not subornated to the chord that these parts put together could produce; the conception of the parts was horizontal not vertical. The desire, search, and taste for a simultaneous union of different sounds, that is for the chord (complex sound), were gradually made manifest, passing from the consonant perfect chord with a few passing dissonances, to the complicated and persistent dissonances that characterize contemporary music.
At first the art of music sought purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound. Then different sounds were amalgamated, care being taken, however, to caress the ear with gentle harmonies. Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound.
This musical evolution is paralleled by the multipication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front. Not only in the roaring atmosphere of major cities, but in the country too, which until yesterday was totally silent, the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling.
To excite and exalt our sensibilities, music developed towards the most complex polyphony and the maximum variety, seeking the most complicated successions of dissonant chords and vaguely preparing the creation of musical noise. This evolution towards “noise sound” was not possible before now. The ear of an eighteenth-century man could never have endured the discordant intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestras (whose members have trebled in number since then). To our ears, on the other hand, they sound pleasant, since our hearing has already been educated by modern life, so teeming with variegated noises. But our ears are not satisfied merely with this, and demand an abundance of acoustic emotions.
On the other hand, musical sound is too limited in its qualitative variety of tones. The most complex orchestras boil down to four or five types of instrument, varying in timber: instruments played by bow or plucking, by blowing into metal or wood, and by percussion. And so modern music goes round in this small circle, struggling in vain to create new ranges of tones.
This limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of “noise-sound” conquered.
Besides, everyone will acknowledge that all musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of the efforts of all the innovatory musicians. We Futurists have deeply loved and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the “Eroica” or the “Pastoral”.
We cannot see that enormous apparatus of force that the modern orchestra represents without feeling the most profound and total disillusion at the paltry acoustic results. Do you know of any sight more ridiculous than that of twenty men furiously bent on the redoubling the mewing of a violin? All this will naturally make the music-lovers scream, and will perhaps enliven the sleepy atmosphere of concert halls. Let us now, as Futurists, enter one of these hospitals for anaemic sounds. There: the first bar brings the boredom of familiarity to your ear and anticipates the boredom of the bar to follow. Let us relish, from bar to bar, two or three varieties of genuine boredom, waiting all the while for the extraordinary sensation that never comes.
Meanwhile a repugnant mixture is concocted from monotonous sensations and the idiotic religious emotion of listeners buddhistically drunk with repeating for the nth time their more or less snobbish or second-hand ecstasy.
Away! Let us break out since we cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality, with a generous distribution of resonant slaps in the face, discarding violins, pianos, double-basses and plainitive organs. Let us break out!
It’s no good objecting that noises are exclusively loud and disagreeable to the ear.
It seems pointless to enumerate all the graceful and delicate noises that afford pleasant sensations.
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 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 wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.
Nor should the newest noises of modern war be forgotten. Recently, the poet Marinetti, in a letter from the trenches of Adrianopolis, described to me with marvelous free words the orchestra of a great battle:
We want to attune and regulate this tremendous variety of noises harmonically and rhythmically.
To attune noises does not mean to detract from all their irregular movements and vibrations in time and intensity, but rather to give gradation and tone to the most strongly predominant of these vibrations.
Noise in fact can be differentiated from sound only in so far as the vibrations which produce it are confused and irregular, both in time and intensity.
Every noise has a tone, and sometimes also a harmony that predominates over the body of its irregular vibrations.
Now, it is from this dominating characteristic tone that a practical possibility can be derived for attuning it, that is to give a certain noise not merely one tone, but a variety of tones, without losing its characteristic tone, by which I mean the one which distinguishes it. In this way any noise obtained by a rotating movement can offer an entire ascending or descending chromatic scale, if the speed of the movement is increased or decreased.
Every manifestation of our life is accompanied by noise. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. Sound, alien to our life, always musical and a thing unto itself, an occasional but unnecessary element, has become to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes. Noise, however, reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve. We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.
Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.
Here are the 6 families of noises of the Futurist orchestra which we will soon set in motion mechanically:
|Noises obtained by percussion on metal, wood, skin, stone, tarracotta, etc.||Voices of animals and men:
In this inventory we have encapsulated the most characteristic of the fundamental noises; the others are merely the associations and combinations of these. The rhythmic movements of a noise are infinite: just as with tone there is always a predominant rhythm, but around this numerous other secondary rhythms can be felt.
- Futurist musicians must continually enlarge and enrich the field of sounds. This corresponds to a need in our sensibility. We note, in fact, in the composers of genius, a tendency towards the most complicated dissonances. As these move further and further away from pure sound, they almost achieve noise-sound. This need and this tendency cannot be satisfied except by the adding and the substitution of noises for sounds.
- Futurist musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones posessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.
- The musician’s sensibility, liberated from facile and traditional Rhythm, must find in noises the means of extension and renewal, given that every noise offers the union of the most diverse rhythms apart from the predominant one.
- Since every noise contains a predominant general tone in its irregular vibrations it will be easy to obtain in the construction of instruments which imitate them a sufficiently extended variety of tones, semitones, and quarter-tones. This variety of tones will not remove the characteristic tone from each noise, but will amplify only its texture or extension.
- The practical difficulties in constructing these instruments are not serious. Once the mechanical principle which produces the noise has been found, its tone can be changed by following the same general laws of acoustics. If the instrument is to have a rotating movement, for instance, we will increase or decrease the speed, whereas if it is to not have rotating movement the noise-producing parts will vary in size and tautness.
- The new orchestra will achieve the most complex and novel aural emotions not by incorporating a succession of life-imitating noises but by manipulating fantastic juxtapositions of these varied tones and rhythms. Therefore an instrument will have to offer the possibility of tone changes and varying degrees of amplification.
- The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.
- We therefore invite young musicians of talent to conduct a sustained observation of all noises, in order to understand the various rhythms of which they are composed, their principal and secondary tones. By comparing the various tones of noises with those of sounds, they will be convinced of the extent to which the former exceed the latter. This will afford not only an understanding, but also a taste and passion for noises. After being conquered by Futurist eyes our multiplied sensibilities will at last hear with Futurist ears. In this way 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.
Dear Pratella, I submit these statements to your Futurist genius, inviting your discussion.I am not a musician, I have therefore no acoustical predilictions, nor any works 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 incompetenceand convinced that all rights and possibilities open up to daring, I have been able to initiate the great renewal of music by means of the Art of Noises.
Luigi Russolo Painter Milano, March 11, 1913. Direction of the futurist movement: Corso Venezia, 61, Milano.
The Intonarumori are a group of experimental musical instruments built and invented by Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo between the years 1910 – 1930. The musical instruments were acoustic and not electronic. These Instruments were built to perform his musical theories and vision outlined in: ‘The Art of Noises‘. These Instruments were acoustic noise generators that permitted to create and control in dynamic and pitch several different types of noises. There were 27 varieties of intonarumori with different names according to the sound produced: howling, thunder, crackling, crumpling, exploding, gurgling, buzzing, hissing and so on.
Live performances often caused a lot of controversy with concerts sometimes resulting in rioting and violence, as Russolo himself had predicted. In 1914 Luigi Russolo and Filipp Tommaso Marinetti gave the first full concert of futurist music involving the Intonarumori. The program featured four “networks of noises” with the following titles:
- Awakening of a City
- Meeting of cars and airplanes
- Dining on the terrace of the Casino
- Skirmish in the oasis.
This particular performance conducted by Luigi Russolo himself consisted of 15 noise Instruments. Noise generators such as buzzers, gurglers, bursters, shatterer ,thunderers, shriller, whistles, snorter and rustlers. These abstract elements of art revealed a new sonic voluptuousness to the audience which generated a moving noise synthesis. Take note this live performance took place over one hundred years ago; that performance in itself demonstrates a boldness by Luigi Russolo to showcase an unforeseen futuristic art which helped pave new ideas geared towards artistic expression resulting in an explosive sonic outcome, new musical ideas and even ourselves questioning our surroundings and environments by heightening our awareness in the ever changing world around us. An innovative bold move by Russolo which must be applauded. Sadly most of Russolo’s instruments were destroyed in Paris when it was bombed during World War II. Others have simply disappeared but original sketches still exist.
As part of its celebration of the 100th anniversary of Italian Futurism, the Performa 09 biennial, in collaboration with the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Centre and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, invited Luciano Chessa (author of the book Luigi Russolo, Futurist. Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult) to direct a reconstruction project to produce accurate replicas of Russolo’s legendary Intonarumori instruments. This project offered the set of 16 original intonarumori (8 noise families of 1-3 instruments each, in various registers) that Russolo built in Milan in the summer of 1913. These intonarumori were physically built by luthier Keith Cary in Winters, California, under Chessa’s direction and supervision. Watch the video above to understand how Luciano Chessa replicated Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori instruments and performed them live as part of the 100th anniversary of Italian Futurism.
The concert premiered at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on October 16, 2009, before traveling to New York City for its Performa 09 presentation at The Town Hall on November 12, 2009. In September 2010 Chessa presented the recreated intonarumori in its first Italian appearance, a concert event at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto in Rovereto, Italy, as part of the Festival Transart.
Many modern day Musicians, Composers, Innovators and Sound Artists have been inspired by Luigi Russolo’s future manifesto ‘The Art of Noises‘. Here is a list of just some of the artists and composers inspired: Adam Ant, DJ Spooky, Francisco López, Luciano Chessa, John Cage, Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaeffer and Test Dept.
There has been a lot of music created in the 21st century that has taken inspiration from Luigi Russolo’s 20th century future manifesto. Have you ever listened to the English industrial band Test Dept or Spanish sound artist Francisco López? Watch the videos showcased above and below and listen to the sounds, tones and timbre in each music composition to see if you can spot the effect ‘The Art of Noises‘ has had on each of the artists compositional musical style. These two particular modern videos just go to prove ‘The Art of Noises‘ still has a profound effect on Artists, Musicians, Composers and Sound Artists today and will do for many decades to come.
The Futurists was an advant-garde movement with a clear vision and a raison d’être. They carried out their tasks accordingly and to some extent influenced other various art movements such as Art Deco, Constructivism, Surrealism and Dada. The Futurists and Luigi Russolo have had a profound influence on many art forms but what about other creative outlets? Could we say that the Futurists may have had an influence on Sound Design in the modern era of television advertisements?
For example the “Cog” is a famous British television advertisement and cinema advertisement launched in 2003 by Japanese Honda to promote the seventh generation accord line of cars. This is a jaw-dropping advertisement with absolute technical precision in all areas. When i first seen it on television many years ago it blew my mind and still does today.
The sound was designed by Johnnie Burn and Warren Hamilton at Wave Studios. The music used in the Honda Cog spot is “Rapper’s Delight”, performed by American hip hop trio SugarHill Gang as a single in 1979. The ground-breaking “Cog” has received more awards than any other commercial in advertising history. If you have not seen this fantastic advertisement before, please watch below:
I am not saying that ‘The Art of Noises‘ by Luigi Russolo influenced the Sound Designers Johnnie Burn and Warren Hamilton at Wave Studios for their cutting edge and amazing creative sound design work on the award-winning “Cog” by Honda but what I am saying is that I am using this commercial as an example that maybe Luigi Russolo’s vision, mind-set, principles and conclusions set-out in ‘The Art of Noises‘ was possibly the beginning of the future he envisioned, beyond his physical existence in which we are experiencing now through various art forms and mediums today for example the sound design in the “Cog” and other highly skilled television advertisements; I believe this is what Luigi Russolo and the Futurists set-out to do over one hundred years ago and this is why ‘The Art of Noises‘ is one of the most important and influential texts of musical aesthetics in the 20th Century.
“You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan.