Futurism and Sound Noise

Sunday, March 16th, 2014 by contromal

Futurism. Well, I really want to insult those who vested their creative lives in futurism. It was hard enough for me to get past their blatant genderism and pointed misogyny, let alone brilliant statements in manifestos like:

“9. We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” (Marinetti 198)

I think what bothered me most were the obvious ironies and contradictions that were woven into tenets of a futurist’s philosophy, seemingly unnoticed and certainly unacknowledged. For example, in Marinetti’s The Variety Theater Manifesto, he compelled his reading audience to “2. Prevent a set of traditions from establishing itself in the Variety Theater” (208). I am certain that this is obvious, but this statement establishes a tradition of not establishing traditions. Not to mention that such a type of theater seems to be taking place in an physical theater, which one could argue would be destroyed under tenet number ten, mentioned above. It seemed to me that the type of art, “stress on invented languages, simultaneous performances, & audience-bashing & provocation (glue on seats, vegetables to throw back at performers),” celebrated in the futurist manifestos have themselves earned scorn (215). Perhaps I am not understanding the purpose of art, if one assumes there is a purpose to it, but this seems more like an exalted clown college or fraternity playbook, than art that might make an individual think… about anything… or question… something.

In spite of these shortcomings, I found the futurist agenda interesting with regards to Russolo’s take on noise and music.

“First of all, musical art looked for the soft and limpid purity of sound. Then it amalgamated different sounds, intent upon caressing the ear with suave harmonies. 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.” (5)
The Art of Noise (futurist manifesto, 1913) by Luigi Russolo

Now, I may be a woman, but I know a LOT about music. I listened to Luigi Russolo’s “Risveglio Di Una Citta, 1913” and I really think I get it. Essentially, Russolo criticizes orchestras for not being interesting anymore, because man’s taste has evolved alongside the development of the machine, his ally in accomplishing labor. He wants to replace the noises instruments make (which are also machines – Russolo ignores this) with the noises machines, cities, and crowds make. Russolo states that “musical sound is too restricted in the variety and the quality of its tones,” that “The most complicated orchestra can be reduced to four or five categories of instruments with different sound tones,” and that “We must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds” (6). Now, I am not opposed to the idea that composers need to “shake it up” to push the limits of sound, noise, and music. I have played The Planets by Gustav Holst and used my violin bow as percussion, I have hummed a kazoo (with virtuostic passion) to a performance of some Star Wars piece, and I have played an orchestral arrangement of Jurassic Park, in which a guy screeched the part of a raptor. Russolo warns that “Some will object that noise is necessarily unpleasant to the ear” and I am not one of these people (7). I believe that noise can decidedly enhance the quality of a musical performance for the composer, performers, and audience (take for example the gun shots, weapon being cocked, and cash register cha-ching in M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” http://youtu.be/ewRjZoRtu0Y). However, I think Russolo takes his argument too far.

First of all, his assertion that “all contemporary composers of genius tend to stress the most complex dissonances” is obviously biased to support his agenda (11). Although composers like Brahms and Stravinsky incorporated and depended upon dissonance, they did not forsake the entirety of harmonic form. Their pieces, in some way, find resolution. So, while their pieces may work with dissonance, they use this technique of to progress the music. Something I felt lacking in Russo’s work was a complete lack of affect and direction. As the audience shouldn’t I be moved in some way? Whether it’s revulsion or joy or confusion or even apathy? I would say that I wasn’t even motivated enough by Russo’s work to feel apathetic. And if the point is that his music was pointless, then at least that came across.

My second issue with Russo is this idea that the old or traditional lacks so entirely that Russo’s idea of music must completely exclude their presence from new, machinic, music-making. He says “we must replace the limited variety of timbres of orchestra instruments by the infinite variety of timbers of noises obtained through special mechanisms” (emphasis added 11). Replace? Really? I think that music made on instruments designed specifically for the purpose of making music appeal to a human audience in a way that the music stolen from machines cannot. When the human mind bridges the gap between representation (I’m thinking Peter and the Wolf – the human must decide what instrument is Peter, which the Wolf) and creation, it somehow bonds in a way that is different that recognition (I’m thinking of Russo’s recordings of automobiles). Sure. Broaden what qualifies as music. But remove traditional noise makers, because their noise is too purely musical? I do not agree that this allows for the unpredictability the futurists preach against. Rather it limits the infinite quality of noise. Occasionally, could an oboe be incorporated with a beautiful melody, because that is what oboes produce when a human manipulates it as a machine?

My recommendation calls for the orchestration of noise (although I’m not certain it can be considered noise, if it is repurposed in music… but that’s another discussion), musical instruments, and musical instruments manipulated in new ways.


Because I don’t care who you are… that’s not boring.



2 comments on “Futurism and Sound Noise

  1. Yes, I found that “scorn for woman” line particularly pungent as well….those turn-of-the-century writers always having to dampen things… And, yes, anytime anybody talks about “replacement” in music, I’m want to disregard them, maybe because there’s very little I don’t like music-wise, and certainly no agenda I think should ever be thrust upon “all” music. There’s just so much room for innovation, re-invention, re-imagining, and–like AC/DC on cellos show (absolutely love this video, was just shown it last week!)–old things we thought we understood or put into a certain kind of narrative can be utterly made new …after all, isn’t finding the new in the old more the spirit of media archaeology anyways?

    Granted, I suppose Russo was writing at a much different time than the present. And orchestra/”classical” music is still exalted too, culturally speaking. We can also certainly see the ways in which the music industry tries to consolidate sound…but that’s something that should be resisted. Then again, you can never resist something by simply advocating for one paradigm to replace another. All you want to be is the boss, then.

  2. sdileonardi says:

    right on! I felt the same way about the extremism of his theoretical outline for noise – why go so far the other direction that you strip music of all melody, rhythm, or syncopation? I think the rest of the twentieth century saw multiple and varied attempts to incorporate noise into music without leaving the latter behind. I’m especially thinking of the serious ways technology has been manipulated in a way that Russolo would have approved of but way beyond his original vision: DJs and spinning; techno music and computer generated music; feedback and distortion in rock music; percussion groups (ala Blue Man Group) who use found objects; voice manipulation in pop; the list goes on

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