A deep dive into life Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, the pioneer of experimental music
“Old life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of machines, noise was born. Today, noise dominates over the sensitivity of mankind.”
Defining Luigi Russolo as a musician might be a bit farfetched. However, he was key for most of the music we tend to listen to today. As it is taken for granted that Nirvana would not have existed without Sex Pistols, likewise Luigi Russolo is key in layman’s terms ‘noise music’ and allowed bands such as Einsturzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth or even the guitar solos of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to perform something recognised by many as art. This cultural shift was possible since Russolo was one of the first to understand that noise could be also considered as sound and, therefore, sound compositions.
Lui Russolo was born near Venice in 1885 and died in a small town on the shore of Lake Maggiore in 1947, his figure as a painter, musician and inventor hold a prominent role among futurists. All the music of the twentieth century is in debt with his intuition of a new sound world in which noise becomes music. Like for many unappreciated artists of the past, Russolo’s works (legacy) have not yet been fully recognised.
Today it is increasingly difficult to listen to music produced entirely by instruments that we could conventionally call “classics”. Just take a tour of the radio stations or zap on television to listen to myriads of songs and advertising jingles composed and played artificially—even if they actually seem to be played by musical instruments in all respects.
The birth of unconventional music, in fact, is certainly antecedent to the Moog mania of the 1970s, when the birth of compact synths at an affordable price had meant that hundreds of exclusively electronic musical compositions appeared. Today it may not come as a surprise to think that in 1968, with the album Switched-on Bach, that Wendy Carlos reproduced with the only modular Moog system, remains one of the most important classic compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. This, of course, is down to the fact that the modern music listener has become accustomed to the sound of fuller productions of some square or sinusoidal waves that are only slightly modulated. Yet at the time all Carlos’ work was extremely innovative even if it did, however, have more ancient roots. Even before the theremin was born in 1919—and after the telharmonium 1897—Luigi Russolo conceived “noise music”, futuristic music played by the instrument of his invention, the intonarumori.
To be precise, the intonarumori, an acoustic noise generator is not by definition an electronic instrument since its operating principles are mechanical and acoustic in nature. However, the inspiration is the same as any synthesizer, perhaps even more than the theremin which in reality was an electronic instrument indeed, but capable of producing its own distinctive sound (and not an imitation of others), adjustable in amplitude and frequency according to electromagnetic principles. Each soundproofing was instead made up of wooden boxes with a speaker placed in the front and metal plates and ropes inside. The “noise maker”, through the use of levers and buttons as a controller changed the amplitude, volume and wavelength of the sounds produced. No electronic waves, no digital sequences of zeros and ones, no oscillator and no commonly intended wave generator.
In his efforts of trying to artificially imitate natural sounds, Russolo was able to conceive ‘noise music’ in 1913, prompting the sounds that have been regularly in modern electronic music by the use of his genius, albeit slightly rudimentary, ‘wooden boxes’. Ever the innovator, Russolo started to become increasingly enthusiastic about the idea of being able to produce music without the use of acoustic means later in his life. A glimpse into the manifesto The Art of Noise, signed by Russolo himself, explores the notion that noise was theorised to arrive at composing music consisting of pure noises instead of harmonic sounds. Russolo did go on to make several different recordings from 1913 to 1921 which explored this idea, most notably “Risveglio Di Una Città” from 1913 and many more original recordings as well as new Intonarumori compositions).
Unfortunately for him—and perhaps for us—the use of Intonarumori will find little application within classical orchestras to sporadically suggest with effect noises. Nonetheless, Russolo engaged himself even deeper in the art and went on to build the Rumorarmònio, a keyboard type that brings together multiple noise instruments, manoeuvred by pedals and keys.
But the cultural awareness at those times was not yet ready to understand the implications of futuristic musical aesthetics, if not with the posthumous advent of musique concrète and electronica: the criticism of the thirties will do the rest, opposing the whole movement and inculcating the doubt, for someone still valid: “Does futurist music exist?”
“The difference, true and fundamental, between sound and noise is reduced only to this: being the noise much richer in harmonic sounds than sound generally is… but since these harmonic sounds always accompany a predominant fundamental tone. Every noise has its tone.“