Luigi Russolo’s Cacophonous Futures
What does the future sound like? In the early 20th century, one answer rang out from Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori — lever-operated machines designed to pop, sough, shriek, and shock. Peter Tracy explores the ambitions behind Italian Futurism’s experiments with noise and the sensory, spiritual, and political affinities of this radical new music.
March 24, 2022
Luigi Russolo (1885–1947) was well into a successful painting career when he turned to music in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises (L’arte dei rumori). Announcing an intention to “enlarge and enrich the field of sound”, the Futurist polymath waxed poetic about the modern city’s sonic landscape — “the throbbing of valves, the bustle of pistons”, and “the shrieks of mechanical saws”.1 For Russolo, the noisy nature of everyday, industrializing Europe offered new ways of perceiving the acoustic world and a means of shaking concert music loose from its stagnant orchestral roots. With significant help from his assistant, Ugo Piatti, Russolo set out to put these ideas into practice, working day and night to “achieve the great ideal of a complete orchestra of noise instruments [intonarumori]”.2 Within three months, they had built their first creation, a “burster” (scoppiatore), and premiered it before an audience of two thousand at Teatro Storchi in Modena, Italy. Meant to mimic a car engine’s sputter, the instrument, by all appearances a simple wooden box with an enormous speaker cone attached, had a playable range between two octaves, modulated by a crank and lever.3 This “burster” was soon followed by a “hummer”, a “rubber”, which evoked spatulas scraping rusty pans, and the “crackler” — a sonic chimera sounding like something between a mandolin and a machine gun.4
Little remains today of Russolo’s instruments beyond scattered diagrams and photographs, which have been used on multiple occasions to create playable replicas. Aside from a fragment of the score for Risveglio di una città, none of Russolo’s compositions for the intonarumori survive. Yet, miraculously, two gramophone recordings were produced by Russolo and his brother Antonio in 1921 and have been successfully preserved.5 In these grainy time-capsules, the intonarumori seem to be in conflict with one another, battling for sonic space alongside traditional instruments at what sounds like the end of a long tunnel. In Corale, an asinine, plodding orchestral score is rendered unsettling by the violent roar of an unidentifiable machine. Serenata features even less of the intonarumori, but their occasional presence turns a sentimental serenade of strings and woodwinds into a carnivalesque nightmare. Tempered by the presence of instruments from the past and by the limits of contemporary technology, the “noise intoners” nevertheless make their intense energy felt through Russolo’s soundscapes.
In an interview some forty years after his 1915 encounter with the music of the Italian Futurists, composer Igor Stravinsky recalled the event as, at best, an intriguing oddity:
On one of my Milanese visits Marinetti and Russolo, a genial quiet man but with wild hair and beard, and Pratella, another noisemaker, put me through a demonstration of their “futurist music.” Five phonographs standing on five tables in a large and otherwise empty room emitted digestive noises, static, etc. . . . I pretended to be enthusiastic and told them that sets of five phonographs with such music, mass produced, would surely sell like Steinway Grand Pianos.6
Stravinsky’s reaction was mild when compared to that of the international press: one correspondent for a Paris newspaper described a concert of the intonarumori as “an impressive simultaneity of bloody faces and noisy enharmonics in an infernal din”.7 Yet the musical inventions of Russolo did not fail to find admirers. Indeed, the composer Edgard Varèse was highly enthusiastic about Russolo’s musical and theoretical works, as were later composers such as Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage, and visual artists like Piet Mondrian. What was still unknown to Stravinsky in 1915, however, would become common knowledge by the mid-twentieth century: the sonic revolution that Russolo and his fellow Futurists sought was uneasily compatible with the ritualized, martial violence celebrated by Italian Fascism.
The Future is Noise
In his early career as a painter, Russolo was significantly influenced by Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880–1955), whose own 1910 manifesto, Musica Futurista, urged “the liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past”.8 Reflecting on the psychological and metaphysical ramifications of scientific practice and technological discovery, Russolo’s fellow Futurists broke from the past by articulating new ways of perceiving, thinking, and living. In the 1910 Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, which Russolo co-authored with the painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini, the 1895 discovery of X-rays is taken as proof that the full extent of reality is not visible to the naked eye: “Who can still believe in the opacity of bodies, since our sharpened and multiplied sensitiveness has already penetrated the obscure manifestations of the medium?”9
This Futurist interest in obscure mediums and novel sensations often manifested itself as a preoccupation with synesthesia. In Russolo’s early paintings, completed between 1901 and 1913, clouds of color and streaked light represent non-visual sensory phenomena. Profumo, for instance, features a figure lost in the satisfaction of scent, rendered as a wash of blissful greens, yellows, and blues. In Chioma, a woman’s hair comes brilliantly to life as a fiery orange swirl, while her penetrating gaze creates searching rays of purple light. La Musica, with its leering, tumbling noteheads and a shadowy, solitary organist, suggests that, for Russolo, sound and color were parts of the same sensory whole.
Other Futurists seemed to agree: the painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni (1882–1912), for instance, remarked in his Roman lecture of May 1911 that paintings could be thought of as “whirling musical compositions of enormous colored gases”, while Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), the founder of Futurism, revealed his preoccupation with the idea of “noise as poetry” through a series of onomatopoetic writings that he termed parole in libertà (free words).10 In these cacophonous works, the sounds of war are mimicked by ordering letters according to sound rather than meaning. In turn, Marinetti’s words seem to have provided Russolo with a new program for music and noise, one that was to shape his life for more than fifteen years.11
When Marinetti penned the 1909 Manifesto del Futurismo, he mythologized himself as a composer overcome by a manic state, one in which modes of perception blurred together and where choric voices, modern architecture, and everyday objects could collude to form a new and dazzling orchestra:
We shall sing the great masses shaken with work, pleasure, or rebellion: we shall sing the multicolored and polyphonic tidal waves of revolution in the modern metropolis; shall sing the vibrating nocturnal fervor of factories and shipyards burning under violent electrical moons; bloated railroad stations that devour smoking serpents; factories hanging from the sky by the twisting threads of spiraling smoke . . . the oscillating flight of airplanes, whose propeller flaps at the wind like a flag and seems to applaud like a delirious crowd.12
It was a boundless, assumption-shattering, and violence-courting energy that Marinetti projected from this first statement of his Futurist ideals — a compulsive vitality that aimed to shock the modern urbanite out of blasé complacency, reinvigorating their senses to confront the wonders of a new century with open eyes and ears. Marinetti was trying to rally Europe’s aesthetes to a shining new cause: noise, speed, power, Futurism. “By celebrating action and movement”, writes Luciano Chessa, Marinetti’s “aesthetics celebrated the energy manifested in every vibration of the cosmos, that is, energy itself.”13
Four years after this manifesto, Russolo fashioned a tract of his own in The Art of Noises, which recounts a trench letter, sent by Marinetti during the First Balkan War, in which the sounds of combat create “the orchestra of a great battle”. Building on this image, Russolo lays out a map of his mechanical philharmonic, where the intonarumori are classed by families of sound. “Roars”, “thunderings”, “explosions”, “bangs”, and “booms” belong to his first category, while “shouts”, “screams”, “shrieks”, “wails”, “hoots”, “howls”, “death rattles”, and “sobs” compose category six.14 This taxonomy governed both the spatial organization of the intonarumori on stage and the methodology behind their construction, a process that drew on significant technical skill (fine-tuned through numerous failed experiments) in order to intone, in Russolo’s words, “diverse noises, regulating them harmonically and rhythmically”.15
The intonarumori’s roots in the sound of battle were far from incidental — the fetishization of war was central to Futurist ideals.16 Many were willing to accept and encourage a certain amount of destruction to clear the way for, in Boccioni’s words, “smashing the chronometric tyranny of rhythm”, celebrating violence, in the studio and on the streets, as both an intense expulsion of energy and a means of furthering their cause.17 Marinetti announced the Futurist’s intention to “glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman”.18 Whereas Pratella advocated a merely theoretical break with the artistic past, Marinetti called for these sentiments to be taken to their ultimately physical conclusions, exhorting his acolytes to destroy museums, libraries, and universities.19 Although his machismo and misogyny could be construed as posturing, Marinetti’s militancy had much in common with, and helped shape, emerging strains of revolutionary and reactionary politics. A volatile blend of modern science, mass media, fine art, poetry, and insurrection, Marinetti’s vision resonated with a generation of artists who — as Russolo and others wrote in “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters” — wished to express “the violent desire that stirs in the veins of every creative artist today”, a desire that led many to sympathize with the devastating forces of Fascism.20
Body Madness: Russolo’s Early Concerts
The first Futurist “happenings”, public poetry readings and performances that encouraged participation from the audience via heckling and vegetable throwing, could be construed as a push to craft a certain eccentric image of the movement, one that would capture the public’s attention and imagination. According to Gavin Williams, “Marinetti’s international publicity campaign had as its goal the seduction of audiences — typically figured as a crowd — to the aesthetics of war.”21 As the 1912 and 1913 Balkan Wars raged and World War I loomed, “Marinetti (along with many others) promoted battle as a means of national regeneration”.22 In an explicit attempt to seduce Italians and foreigners through the violent “beauty” of war, Marinetti wanted to throw “images and sounds ‘frantically into the nerves’”, so as to induce “a sensory overload that would ideally give rise to ‘body madness’ in listeners”.23
Given the surviving descriptions of Russolo’s early concerts, “body madness” seems a rather appropriate term for the resulting scenes. On April 21, 1914, the first public concert featuring the full intonarumori orchestra was held, with the whole gamut of instruments arranged in an arc on a massive stage. More striking than the instruments were the events that unfolded in the audience: Russolo himself concedes that “the immense crowd was already in an uproar a half hour before the performance began” with the first projectiles raining “upon a still closed curtain”.24 This, he claims, was the doing of professors from the Royal Conservatory of Milan.25 A contemporaneous account of the event makes the infamous 1913 “riot” at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps sound like afternoon tea:
At the beginning of the third piece, an extraordinary thing happens: Marinetti, Boccioni, Armando Mazzi, and Piatti vanish from the stage, emerge from the empty orchestra pit, run across it, and hurl themselves among the seats, assaulting the many pastists, now drunk with the rage of tradition and imbecility, with blows, slaps, and cudgels . . . the battle in the orchestra lasts about half an hour, while the imperturbable Luigi Russolo continues to direct his orchestra of noise instruments.26
Soon afterwards, the orchestral performers themselves get in on the fray: half keep the intonarumori running, pulling their levers and turning their wheels like a frantic submarine crew, while the other half battles the audience. Yet the bloodshed courted by Marinetti and the Futurists was far from random: they aestheticized violence to such a degree that what occurred in the seats was merely an extension of what took place on stage.
In the wake of the First World War, this “artistic experiment” began to seep deeper into public life. During June, 1919, Marinetti co-authored yet another manifesto: Il manifesto dei Fasci italiani di combattimento, commonly referred to as the Fascist Manifesto. Marinetti’s involvement with Italian Fascism is unsurprising when we consider his preoccupation with the volatility of crowds, celebration of public violence, and vision of national renewal through bloodshed. The role of art under Mussolini, argues Roger Griffin, was “to act as a source of the regenerative myths needed to forge a vital new communitas, the national community, out of a moribund society, to inform the ‘spirit’ of Fascism’s ‘spiritual government’”.27 Despite numerous critical attempts to exculpate Futurist noise from Fascist politics, sonic discord could easily become the soundtrack of authoritarianism. “Noise served as the perfect emblem of this violence”, Christine Poggi writes, “which Marinetti and the other futurists wished to unleash, if only to rechannel it to nationalist aims”.28
Although Russolo never explicitly identified as a Fascist, he was by no means immune to the darker strains in Marinetti’s vision: during Mussolini’s reign, Russolo’s work was involved in two state-sponsored arts exhibits, one at Turin’s Quadriennale in May 1927 and one at Milan’s Pesaro Gallery in October 1929.29 At the Turin exhibit, works by Balla, Anton Giulio Bragaglia, and Russolo, among others, were billed as arte fascista. These signs of collaboration and complicity with Mussolini’s regime have been covered up in Russolo scholarship to such a degree that earlier critics, such as Giovanni Lista, termed him explicitly anti-fascist. In the introduction to his French translation of Russolo’s The Art of Noises, Lista claims, on the basis of postwar testimonies, that Russolo left Italy for Paris in 1927 explicitly to protest Fascism.30 Yet even if Russolo’s involvement with Fascist exhibitions were to be ignored, his close involvement with Marinetti and his participation in the violence-courting rituals of Futurist aesthetic practice throw Lista’s designation into question. Indeed, attempting to separate Russolo and other politically ambivalent Futurists from the more explicit evils of their Fascist colleagues is a difficult, if not futile, exercise.
Occultist and Experimenter
By 1930, Mussolini and the Fascists dominated all aspects of Italian life, and the economic upheavals of the Great Depression were starting to make their presence felt. Far from the heart of Italian political and economic activity, Russolo retreated into esoteric pursuits, returning, in a sense, to his first inspirations. Russolo’s paintings are full of skeletons, skulls, will-o’-wisps, hallucinations, and examples of the extra-sensory made visible. Having begun his spiritual education at the Catholic Seminary of Portogruaro, Russolo developed an early interest in the occult, paranormal investigation, and Christian mysticism, influences that informed both his paintings and noise experiments. Based with his wife in Cerro di Laveno, a quiet lakeside town in Northern Italy, Russolo gave palm readings, expressed increasing interest in theosophy, and researched the possibility of — among other things — creating an “energy double” of his body. Although it would be easy to read the abandonment of music as a break with his avant-garde past, this late period of Russolo’s life has its roots in his exploration of noise. Indeed, Russolo’s sonic theories rested on assumptions about the role of the senses in human life, about energy, perception, and heightened emotional states. These ideas found ready expression through both musical and spiritual experimentation, such that hard lines between Russolo’s work as a painter, composer, and occultist are difficult to draw.
As Chessa observes, “futurism was a movement animated by contradictory ideas, constantly oscillating between science and art, the rational and the irrational, future and past, mechanical and spiritual.”31 It is worth noting that the same could be said of Italian Fascism, with its embrace of new weapons and communications technology — radio, film, airplanes — and its mythologizing about a glorious, imperial past in which art was pure and noble. The confluence between the two movements’ aesthetics, philosophies, and tactics, brought together in the figure of Marinetti, is not coincidental. Yet this cannot serve as reason alone to purge all Futurist techniques from the sketchbooks of present-day artists. While none of the original intonarumori survive — having been likely destroyed in the bombing of Paris during World War II — and most of his arrangements are lost, Russolo’s influence on twentieth-century music has been outsized.
There are signs that we need not be quite so pessimistic about the ramifications of Russolo’s work: his musical vision has lived on, for instance, through the iconic American composer John Cage (1912– 1992), whose aesthetic priorities differ from Marinetti’s and Russolo’s politics in crucial ways. Although Cage’s emphasis on noise and his championing of “sounds in themselves” bears a striking resemblance to Russolo’s own writings, the American musician entirely rejected sorting sound by category or hierarchy. Rather than controlling noise, Cage wanted to guide it, drawing on Zen philosophy to articulate a spiritual practice of music, which was antithetical to the channeling of public violence through cacophony.32 It seems that Russolo found his most important audience where the Futurists had been looking all along: in the future.
Peter Tracy is a writer, cellist, and composer. His writing has appeared in Clef Notes, Second Inversion, and VAN, as well as in his online newsletter, Everyone and I. Currently based in Seattle, he splits his time between writing, teaching, and making music with friends. His work in all mediums can be found on his website.