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||| the ecstatic noise of industry simulation: Russolo's Intonarumori & the Futurist sonic aesthetic |||
"[Music must] represent the spirit of crowds, of great industrial complexes, of trains, of ocean liners, of battle fleets, of automobiles and airplanes. It must add to the great central themes of the musical poem the domain of the machine and the victorious realm of electricity."
Balilla Pratella, "Manifesto of the Technics Of Futurist Music" 1911
With the beginning of the 20th Century came an increasing realisation of the sound of industry. Society began to listen to itself. Since the Industrial Revolution life had become noisier, at least within the vast urban conglomerations that grew to support the new work processes. With the dawning of the new century this noise spread out and began its persistent rise to the present, where it seems there are few places left without the audible imprint of humanity. The motor car, the airplane, modern weaponry, telephony and many other technologies broke the relative silence of centuries.
Thus to Futurism: the first of the many anti-art movements of the 20th Century, followed (loosely) by Dadaism, Surrealism, Lettrism, Situationism, Fluxus, (arguably) punk, and Neoism. Futurism laid down a defining characteristic of such movements: a concern for real life. As Saussure began to define the basis for modern linguistics, with its removal from reality via signs and denotation, so the work of the Futurists bombastically attempted to rescue real life from such abstraction.
Thus to noise: Russolo's Intonarumori symbolise the aural intent of the Futurists. Intonarumori (Noise Intoners) were essentially speaker boxes that created sounds reminiscent of machinery, people, water and other environmental noises. Russolo called for recognition of such sounds in favour of the 'acceptable' musical noises made by conventional instruments. He called for music that reflected its environment, in order to remain attuned to the environment, accept it and revel in it.
Noise communicates… Cut to present time. Sampling culture has accepted the premise. It was accepted within contemporary composition via Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage and musique concrete. The Beatles and other psychedelic bands introduced environmental noise to rock in the late '60s. Punk's debt to Futurism - also manifested via outlandish dress - was shouted out by Adam & The Ants ("Animals & Men", "The Family of Noise") and introduced The Jam's "Going Underground". Now DJs Speedranch and Jansky Noise terrorise audiences with high volume cut and splice found sounds laced with punishing industrial beats, while visionary Argentine band Reynols unleashes its 10,000 Chickens Symphony.
The Futurist noise aesthetic has arguably found its way into the mainstream, or a more critical reading would claim it has been co-opted. It has done this because, like written or recorded language and preserved images, recorded noise symbolises reality. No sooner had society begun to hear itself before it became able to record what it could hear. Sound became another sign. Anthropologists and musicologists began recording instances of time, and the hyperreality of cinema, reinforced by sound, began to tell the world who it was. Reality became further divorced from its meta-narrative.
It is the ability of sound to symbolise that made the Futurists, particularly Marinetti and Pratella, conscious of its importance. It is also that ability that has fuelled acceptance, not just of machine noise but of the whole range of environmental noise. Rail buffs listen to sounds of trains on CD, tourists record the ambient noise of places they visit, rappers record gunfire and police sirens and sonic art installation both utilises, and creates, environmental noise.
Futurist manifestos on noise tend to focus on musical considerations. Within a musical context, it often fulfils narrative functions - the smashing of glass at the start of Sham 69's "Borstal Breakout" - and it is this ability to aid the telling of a story that has taken it beyond revolutionary theorising and into the living room, beyond the abstractions of Kurt Schwitters and the ZANG TUMB TUUMB of Marinetti's war. Noise as narrative element is utilised most effectively on radio. Noise is used as a signifier, aiding the visualisation required by listeners, particularly in radio drama. There is an important point to be noted here, that pulls noise into the same significant territory as words, for what is signified is often not representative of the signifier at all. Witness the classic case of coconut shells signifying the steps of a horse. The shells are as unrelated to the steps as are the words that describe them. That they do describe them at all is due to the medium, observing Marshall McLuhan's dictum that the medium is the message.
The Futurist joy of machine noise is the same joy expressed by the Situationists at the wonder of their surroundings. But where the derive tended to focus on physicality (architecture) and its implications, the Futurists were keen also to listen. Appreciation of machine noise translates as recognition of immediacy - unmediated experience - the raw beauty of reality. The call for its usage in music relates to the desire for environmental recognition - conventional musical sounds being unable to say anything about the now - and the need to break down the mediation of highbrow culture that perpetuates such meaningless music. The heirs to this attitude now occupy all points on the cultural map. Musique concrete and electroacoustic composition form a tradition that tends towards highbrow mediation. Contemporary Futurist agent provocateurs Test Department and Einsturzende Neubaten have softened their attack with dull techno effects. Extant pioneers Speedranch, VVM, Pan Sonic and others gnaw at the fringes of electronic culture. Chris Watson records vultures gnawing at a carcass from inside the carcass. Stomp bang dustbins on television. Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" is still misunderstood.
FT Marinetti, Selected Writings
Ed. Umbro Apollonio, Futurist Manifestos
Dead Media Project,
Futurist Manifestos online
Jacques Attali, The Political Economy of Music
Mark Sinker, "Destroy All Music", in The Wire #180
Rob Young, "Worship the Glitch", in The Wire #190/191
Penguin Dictionary of Art & Artists