The Original Noise Artist: Hear the Strange Experimental Sounds & Instruments of Italian Futurist, Luigi Russolo (1913)

When you hear the phrase Art of Noise, sure­ly you think of the sam­ple-based avant-garde synth out­fit whose instru­men­tal hit “Moments in Love” turned the sound of qui­et storm adult con­tem­po­rary into a hyp­n­a­gog­ic chill-out anthem? And when you hear about “noise music,” sure­ly you think of the dra­mat­ic post-indus­tri­al cacoph­o­ny of Ein­stürzende Neubaut­en or the decon­struct­ed gui­tar rock of Light­ning Bolt?

But long before “noise” became a term of art for rock crit­ics, before the record­ing indus­try exist­ed in any rec­og­niz­ably mod­ern form, an Ital­ian futur­ist painter and com­pos­er, Lui­gi Rus­so­lo, invent­ed noise music, launch­ing his cre­ation in 1913 with a man­i­festo called The Art of Nois­es.

“In antiq­ui­ty,” he writes (in Robert Filliou’s trans­la­tion), “life was noth­ing but silence.” After pre­sent­ing an almost com­i­cal­ly brief his­to­ry of sound and music com­ing into the world, Rus­so­lo then declares his the­sis, in bold:

Noise was real­ly not born before the 19th cen­tu­ry, with the advent of machin­ery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sen­si­bil­i­ty…. Nowa­days musi­cal art aims at the shrillest, strangest and most dis­so­nant amal­gams of sound. Thus we are approach­ing noise-sound. This rev­o­lu­tion of music is par­al­leled by the increas­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of machin­ery shar­ing in human labor.

Not quite so rad­i­cal as one might think, but bear in mind, this is 1913, the year Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” pro­voked a riot in Paris upon its debut. Rus­so­lo took an even more shock­ing swerve away from tra­di­tion. Pythagore­an the­o­ry had sti­fled cre­ativ­i­ty, he alleged, “the Greeks… have lim­it­ed the domain of music until now…. We must break at all cost from this restric­tive cir­cle of pure sounds and con­quer the infi­nite vari­ety of noise-sounds.”

To accom­plish his grand objec­tive, the exper­i­men­tal artist cre­at­ed his own series of instru­ments, the Intonaru­mori, “acoustic noise gen­er­a­tors,” writes Therem­invox, that could “cre­ate and con­trol in dynam­ic and pitch sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of nois­es.” Work­ing long before dig­i­tal sam­plers and the elec­tron­ic gad­getry used by indus­tri­al and musique con­crete com­posers, Rus­so­lo relied on pure­ly mechan­i­cal devices, though he did make sev­er­al record­ings as well from 1913 to 1921. (Hear “Risveg­lio Di Una Cit­tà” from 1913 above, and many more orig­i­nal record­ings as well as new Intonaru­mori com­po­si­tions, at Ubuweb.)

Rus­solo’s musi­cal con­trap­tions, 27 dif­fer­ent vari­eties, were each named “accord­ing to the sound pro­duced: howl­ing, thun­der, crack­ling, crum­pling, explod­ing, gur­gling, buzzing, hiss­ing, and so on.” (Stravin­sky was appar­ent­ly an admir­er.) You can see recon­struc­tions at the top of the post in a 2012 exhi­bi­tion at Lisbon’s Museu Coleção Berar­do. Many of his own com­po­si­tions fea­ture string orches­tras as well. Rus­so­lo intro­duced his new instru­men­tal music over the course of a few years, debut­ing an “exploder” in Mod­e­na in 1913, stag­ing con­certs in Milan, Genoa, and Lon­don the fol­low­ing year, and in Paris in 1921.

One 1917 con­cert appar­ent­ly pro­voked explo­sive vio­lence, an effect Rus­so­lo seemed to antic­i­pate and even wel­come. The Art of Noise derived its influ­ence from every sound of the indus­tri­al world, “and we must not for­get the very new nois­es of Mod­ern War­fare,” he writes, quot­ing futur­ist poet Marinetti’s joy­ful descrip­tions of the “vio­lence, feroc­i­ty, reg­u­lar­i­ty, pen­du­lum game, fatal­i­ty” of bat­tle. His noise sys­tem, which he enu­mer­ates in the trea­tise, also con­sists of “human voic­es: shouts, moans, screams, laugh­ter, rat­tlings, sobs….” It seems that if he didn’t sup­ply these onstage, he was hap­py for the audi­ence to do so.

After Russolo’s first Art of Noise con­cert in 1913, Marinet­ti vio­lent­ly defend­ed the instru­ments against assaults from those whom the com­pos­er called “passé-ists.” Oth­er recep­tions of the strange new form were more enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly pos­i­tive. Nonethe­less, notes a 1967 “Great Bear Pam­phlet” that reprints The Art of Nois­es, the effects aren’t exact­ly what Rus­so­lo intend­ed: “Lis­ten­ing to the har­mo­nized com­bined pitch­es of the bursters, the whistlers, and the gur­glers, no one remem­bered autos, loco­mo­tives or run­ning waters; one rather expe­ri­enced an intense emo­tion of futur­ist art, absolute­ly unfore­seen and like noth­ing but itself.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Meet the “Tel­har­mo­ni­um,” the First Syn­the­siz­er (and Pre­de­ces­sor to Muzak), Invent­ed in 1897

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Cat­a­logues the Theremin, Fairlight & Oth­er Instru­ments That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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