The Art of Noises, Revisited

Luigi Russolo was that guy at the party.

A painter by trade, Russolo made a second name for himself by being both the life and death of the soirée. He’d often break into vile poetry, destroy textbooks, and even worse—burn the Italian flag before stomping out. While crass and offensive, his outbursts were among the most fun one could have in a politically-torn Italy and always met with a torrent of follow-up invitations the following morning. Russolo would spend roughly half of the 1910s painting and the other half thoroughly offending Milan’s aristocracy. Us contemporary composers couldn't be prouder.

Pictured: optimism. Presumably. 

Pictured: optimism. Presumably. 

Russolo considered himself a futurist; morbidly fascinated with the grit and grime of the modern European cityscape. One needs to look no further than his paintings to get a sense of his world—abstract shapes jet out of skyscrapers; proto-freeways stretch far into the canvas as if calling us in. His works are disquieting, to say the least, and that’s largely what still attracts me to them. It's not so much that they demonstrate any future I’d like to live in, but that they demonstrate a future that seems so distinctly pre-WWI. There are no flying cars, androids, or blinking lights in this future. Instead, the cities are bare, mechanically patterned, and oddly sentimental. Russolo had a rather liberal definition of beauty.

In 1913, our hero traveled to Rome to attend a performance of his friend Francesco Pratella’s experimental orchestra. After the concert, an especially giddy Russolo penned a ten-page letter to the composer. This futurist manifesto, “The Art of Noises,” became, perhaps frustratingly, the painter’s best known contribution to the creative world. While nobody is quite sure what went on in Russolo’s head, the concert prompted him to recontextualize virtually every pre-existing musical conception he had. He writes,

“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 sensibilities of men.”

The enthusiastic Russolo stresses that the concept of “noise” is not only subjective, it's one that humans actively invented. In fact, he goes as far as to give an event: the invention of the steam engine. The industrial revolution changed not only how we internalize and process the meaning of a physical commodity, but actively shaped how we hear the world. To your pre-steam engine John Smith, the sounds of the world are almost entirely naturally driven. With the sporadic exceptions of thunderstorms, earthquakes, or rocky seas, the sonic palette available was decisively short, quiet, and monochromatic. 

"Let’s 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..."

"Let’s 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..."

As steam engines sputtered into action across Europe, they brought with them a new color of sound—one that was arguably more varied and nuanced than anything that preceded it. Whether or not the sounds of industrialization are pleasurable to listen to didn’t seem to interest Russolo. Instead, he logically concluded that music from a pre-industrial era was never conceived with the ear of a noise-conscious human. 

Writes Russolo, “Each sound carries with it a nucleus of foreknown and foregone sensations predisposing the auditor to boredom, in spite of all the efforts of innovating composers. All of us have liked and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. For years, Beethoven and Wagner have deliciously shaken our hearts. Now we are fed up with them. This is why we get infinitely more pleasure 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.”

Not pictured: a recurring lease on Russolo's apartment.

Not pictured: a recurring lease on Russolo's apartment.

To make new music for a 20th century ear required a new family of instruments. For the rest of his life, Russolo curated a menagerie of bizarre, homemade noisemakers. His house was soon filled floor to ceiling with his metal scrapers, gratuitously oversized strings, and mysterious boxes with hand cranks. The Italian aristocrats stopped inviting him to parties at this time. 

It has been over a century since Russolo penned his letter, and any walk through any 21st century city is an obvious sign that our sonic world has only grown. Since Russolo, we have seen the ubiquitous permeation of recorded sound, the chirps and bleeps of electronics, and the artifacts of digital noise. Our world sounds nothing like Russolo's, yet notice that our orchestras still resemble those of 1913. With all respects to Dr. Adler, even our orchestras are time capsules. Even the most recent common addition, the tuba, was born in 1908. Regardless of the music our orchestras play, they barely have the vocabulary of a child from the post-WWI baby boom. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Our orchestras just have a bit of an accent. 

My job, at least for the next year, is to be the orchestra's vocal coach.

The futurists, having fun. Presumably.

The futurists, having fun. Presumably.

As it happens, there are hundreds who share my, and Russolo's, frustration. Instrument inventors are hiding all over the world— from abandoned silos in Switzerland to a landfill in Paraguay. You can find them in Guatemalan workshops, Korean sideshows, and among gardens in the Italian Alps. Starting in August 2017, I will be travelling the world on an odyssey of invention, in search of the weird and wonderful tinkerers working to expand our instrumental lexicon. I’ll be researching robots that play instruments in ways humans cannot, living with a community of farmers who turn gardens into synthesizers, and scouting my way though abandoned icons of industry that are now home to some beautifully wonderful creations. I will work closely with each inventor in their community and over my stay, compose an original work for their invented instrument unique to their lives, processes, and materials.

For the next 52 weeks, I’ll be writing to you from the frontlines of some of the most weird and wonderful musical experiments around the planet. I sincerely hope you join me.

Together, we can make Russolo proud.

And thoroughly piss off the Milanese aristocracy.