by Jonathon Keats
The Futurist Luigi Russolo was a lousy painter, but as a composer he was way ahead of his time.
Reminiscing in the late 1950s, Igor Stravinsky recalled an evening in 1915 when he first heard the Futurist music of Luigi Russolo. “Five phonographs standing on five tables in a large and otherwise empty room emitted digestive noises, static, etc.,” he said. “I pretended to be enthusiastic and told [the Futurists] that the sets of five phonographs with such music, mass produced, would surely sell like Steinway grand pianos.” While Stravinsky’s account was inaccurate in almost every detail, Russolo had by then so nearly been forgotten that the Russian composer’s withering judgment threatened to be the last word on the Italian artist’s singular achievement.
Luigi Russolo (1885–1947) was the greatest of the Italian Futurists, arguably the only one to fulfill the movement’s bombastic promise, publicized in their incessant succession of manifestos, to “destroy the cult of the past” and to “reenter into life.” Futurist painting and sculpture merely depicted modern conditions using old-fashioned methods. The music Russolo composed beginning in 1913—and the instruments he created to perform his compositions—represented a wholly new aesthetic: he introduced everyday noises into the concert hall as raw material for artistic expression. Visual art had to wait another five decades, for the combines of Robert Rauschenberg, to be equivalently liberated from underlying artifice.
Russolo’s feat is all the more extraordinary given his background. While his father was a church organist who taught him to play the violin as a child, his first success was as a visual artist. Etching was his specialty. Having trained himself in rendering by copying Old Master drawings, around 1906 he took up the pictorial language of Symbolism, frontloading his art with blatantly literary allusions. Most of the other future Futurists were similarly preoccupied. Russolo befriended two of them, Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carrà, at a Milan art exhibition in 1909.
That was the year of Futurism’s founding. The movement was famously announced on the front page of Le Figaro, in a manifesto written by the Italian Symbolist poet F.T. Marinetti. “We intend to sing the love of danger,” he declared. “Courage, boldness, and rebelliousness will be the essential elements of our poetry…. We intend to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world…. We intend to destroy museums, libraries, academies…. Standing erect on the summit of the world, yet once more we fling our challenge to the stars!” Widely republished and broadly distributed, the manifesto proved irresistible to restless young men like Russolo, Carrà and Boccioni, who told his new comrades, “We need something like that in painting.” On February 11, 1910, with Marinetti’s encouragement, the three collaborated with Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini to write the “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters”. By the following year, they were exhibiting together.
Without question, Russolo was the least competent painter of the group. Boccioni and Balla were both so talented that their treatment of paint nearly covered up the nascent art movement’s conceptual stillbirth. But precisely because there’s nothing seductive about Russolo’s brushwork, nor anything subtle about his composition, his paintings most starkly reveal what Futurist painting lacked. Russolo reliably hit all the favorite Futurist themes—clichés of modernity including speed and violence and industrialization, as well as the subjectivity of human experience—giving them each boilerplate Futurist treatment. In Dynamism of an Automobile (1913), the vehicle’s swift movement is pointed out by a succession of wedges. In The Rebellion (1911), the fury of an advancing crowd is signaled by painting people red. And in Force Lines of a Thunderbolt (1912), Russolo shows us a subjective point of view by painting the sky from the perspective of someone standing on the ground below. The surrounding buildings include a factory chimney lest we forget the encroachment of industry.
This is not the language of Symbolism, per se, but it’s just another syntax, a different vocabulary. Perhaps that would be adequate, if the social insights of Futurism were as profound as those of German Expressionism, or the grammar as revolutionary as that of Cubism, or at least if the claims of the Futurists had been slightly less pompously inflated. However speed lines and red men hardly constitute “a new sensibility that has been utterly transformed,” as promised in the Futurist painters’ Technical Manifesto of 1910. Oil and canvas simply weren’t suitably radical materials for a Futurist break with the past, a reentry into life.
Marinetti himself came closer to the Futurist ideal with his words-in-freedom poetry—parole in libertà—an onslaught of explosive onomatopoeia such as zang-tooomb-tooomb-zang-zang publicly delivered as a verbal assault. His performances certainly influenced Russolo’s artistic evolution, yet the direct inspiration for the painter’s migration from sight to sound was the work of Balilla Pratella, Futurist composer-designate. “At the crowded Costanzi Theater in Rome, while I was listening to the orchestral performance of your overwhelming Futurist music,” Russolo wrote in his breakthrough 1913 manifesto, formulated as a letter to Pratella, “there came to my mind the idea of a new art, one that only you can create: the Art of Noises, a logical consequence of your marvelous innovations.” Russolo’s vision for this noise art was remarkably cogent and comprehensive. Observing that modernity had made life noisy, and that the noise of machinery influenced human hearing, he argued that in the 20th century musical sound had become “too limited in its qualitative variety of timbres”, and that therefore “[w]e must break out of this restricted circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.”
We’ll never know if Russolo’s “letter” was disingenuous, or merely naive in phrasing. Certainly Pratella didn’t consider any of Russolo’s soundings a “logical consequence” of his Costanzi concert. As a composer Pratella was quite conventional, probably best known for two traditionally-orchestrated operas based on the regional folklore of Italy’s Romagna region. While his 1910 manifesto on Futurist music had mentioned machines, he later complained that this reference had been added wholesale by Marinetti. “I tend to recreate the world humanly, and never go against humanity,” he huffed in his autobiography. At Marinetti’s insistence, he did once use Russolo’s noises, though just as sound effects in his 1920 opera “Dro the Aviator”.
Sound effects were only the origin of Russolo’s ambition. His idea was to create an orchestra of tunable mechanical instruments—intonarumori—capable of rumbling like an engine, roaring like a turbine and whistling like a locomotive. “It will not be through a succession of noises imitating those of life,” he wrote, “but through a fantastic combination of the various timbres and rhythms that the new orchestra will achieve the newest and most complicated aural emotions.” To demonstrate what he meant, he immediately got to work building a set of noise instruments. A few months after his manifesto was published, he and the painter Ugo Piatti had already fabricated the first prototypes and staged the first raucous concert.
The intonarumori were simply constructed in closed colored boxes, each fit with a crank and a megaphone. The shape slightly resembled that of an antique Victorola, which explains why Stravinsky mistakenly recalled seeing “phonographs.” Concealed behind each megaphone was a drumhead pulled taut by a string. The string was scraped or rubbed or rattled by a wheel turned with the hand-crank. Performers could control timbre by changing the speed they spun the wheel, and regulate pitch by adjusting tension on the string with a lever. Since each instrument had a uniquely shaped sounding wheel, and some had added electrical components such as vibrating motors, the sonic gamut of Russolo’s orchestra was unprecedented.
As he and his 29 intonarumori toured Europe, the cacophony provoked the usual riots attending early 20th-century avant-garde events, the routine response to dissonance that had also been directed against Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Yet between Stravinsky and Russolo there was a world of difference. Stravinsky sought to recover the pre-classical origin of music by experimenting with “primitive” rhythms; Russolo strove to launch a post-classical future by experimenting with “mechanical” timbres. Stravinsky was certainly the better composer, yet Russolo was actually the greater innovator. Recognizing the distinctive soundscape of his era, he gave formal structure to ambient harmonics. Introducing machines into the music hall, he made mechanical noises into music. Art and life tentatively entered into each other’s compass. And if the merger was not complete—after all the intonarumori weren’t real engines and turbines—at least Russolo envisioned it when he predicted in his manifesto that “every factory will be made into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.”
Of course that didn’t happen. Though Russolo’s noise-music found admirers in an international cast of avant-garde composers—Ravel, Falla, Varèse, Honegger—all seem to have reached the conclusion articulated by Sergei Prokofiev, that “the instruments are too limited in means, not to speak of their technical immaturity.” Those problems would ultimately be addressed by industrialization itself, which allowed composers to bring loop tapes and computers into the music hall, and Russolo’s ideas had their most lasting cultural impact through the midcentury genius of composers such as John Cage (not coincidentally one of Rauschenberg’s closest collaborators).
Russolo’s inspiration simply came too early. He tried mightily to overcome the technical immaturity of his intonarumori, inventing a rumorarmonio, or Russolophone, which allowed him to control multiple modified intonarumori from a keyboard. Installing the marvelous contraption in Paris, he played accompaniment to the silent films of Eugène Deslaw in the late ’20s, vainly hoping to sell his invention to Hollywood, evidently underestimating the appeal of talkies. Like all the Futurists who survived the First World War, Russolo was overtaken by the future. Instead of following Marinetti’s lead and embracing Mussolini, he escaped into mysticism, disappearing to Spain where he studied yoga and somnambulism and magnetic healing, and made a living by reading people’s palms. His final years were passed in the small town of Laveno on Lago Maggiore, listening to Beethoven and Bach, painting spiritualist kitsch, a sort of bastardized Symbolism he hopefully dubbed “modern classicism.”
Aside from the paintings and etchings and a small library, he left scarcely a trace. The Russolophone and intonarumori were destroyed in the Second World War. The music, written in his special graphic notation, also vanished, save for two pages published in the journal Lacerba in 1914. There’s also one phonograph recording for “mixed orchestra.” including a few scratchy passages with intonarumori, conducted by Russolo’s elder brother Antonio, Arturo Toscanini’s understudy. And today there’s a small subculture of historically-minded musicians dedicated to reconstructing Russolo’s instruments and composing for them (though they are still not, admittedly, selling like Steinway grands).
Out of this void, one question reverberates loudest: How did such farsighted brilliance fall to Russolo of all people? The beginning of an answer may be found in the final line of his own 1913 manifesto: “More daring than any professional musician could be, not worrying myself about my apparent incompetence and convinced that boldness possesses all rights and seizes all possibilities, I have been able to intuit the great renovation of music through the art of noises.” Throughout his life, even at the height of his musical experimentation, Russolo identified himself as a painter, and it was into painting that he channeled his Symbolist proclivities. That focus did not apply to music, in which his interest was ambient. Primed with Futurist ambitions, the organist’s son heard with his ears what his eyes were too keen to see.