The definition of noise seems simple enough. Loud. Disruptive to the senses. Basically a sound that is deemed unpleasant and undesirable. But what if I tell you, quite the contrary, that noise is essential and intrinsic to music? This series of articles will not strive for a definitive outcome to this premise, but will rather seek to present a history on the phenomenon and the various views surrounding this acoustic mystery. In the end it’s up to you to decide whether our subject matter is a menace or a blessing to our acoustic spectrum.
In this edition we will explore Luigi Russolo’s L’arte dei Rumori (The Art Of Noises), which triggered one of the first real discussions around the concept of noise. Additionally we’ll also have a beer in Cabaret Voltaire with the folks who tried to destroy the meaning of sound and language: the Dadaists. Cheers!
Sounds of War
It’s 1913; the year Ford invented the moving assembly line, improving the assembly time of a Ford M1 from 12 hours down to just three. It’s also the year where dark clouds were starting to hover across Europe, precipitating over the arrival of World War I in 1914. A new musical aesthetic presented by Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti at the time advocated for all manner of sounds associated with urban living; including industrial noises, thunders and roars, animal and man-made sounds. This resonated with Luigi Russolo, a fellow futurist who saw the possibilities of incorporating these noises into music expression. A revelatory performance by a futurist composer friend later moved Russolo to words and the manifesto The Art of Noises was born.
In this manifesto, Luigi proposed that the existing musical notation system was restrictive and served only to confine the development of music. He implored us to set out and develop machines capable of producing sounds beyond our musical ladder, thereby enriching our own hearing with new and exciting rhythms.
“Our expanded sensibility will gain futurist ears as it already has futurist eyes. In a few years, the engines of our industrial cities will be skillfully tuned so that every factory is turned into an intoxicating orchestra of noises”
To strengthen his ideas, Russolo created a new musical notation system to portray the music of his intonarumori, made up of 27 unique machines capable of rendering the pitching noises that he envisioned in his manifesto. His army of “noise soldiers” was first set in motion on the 2nd of June 1913 at the Storchi Theater in Modena, with over 2000 people attending the event. Sadly enough his message was met with strong disapproval and even caused a fight to break out in the room. The times simply weren’t ripe enough for his revolutionary sounds.
His message did however gain massive support from his fellow Italian Futurists. This group of artists and enthusiasts were part of a cultural movement that placed emphasis on speed, technology, youth and violence in their art. Their works were not limited to art and sculptures, involving musical compositions as well. Upon hearing Russolo’s futurist’s sounds, his comrades rated his works as phenomenal and found his explorations in sound to be:
“Not mere impressionistic reproductions of life around us, but rather a moving noise syntheses. Through a clever variation of pitches, the noises lose their imitative and accidental episodic quality, and become abstract elements of art”.
As if destiny had a hand in this, World War I broke out a year after Russolo wrote his manifesto and Russolo would go on to enlist in the Italian army, where, up until his discharge in 1917, he would be succumbed to the “music of war”, experiencing first-hand the loudest noises that people could muster out of their machines.
Words about Russolo’s sonic experiences eventually travelled. Elsewhere, in a little café in Zurich, many artists secretly gathered to share their experiences and escape the horrors of war. And it was here that noise found its foothold and flourished.
Sounds Produced by the Intonarumori
Risveglio di una Città
In the year 1916 Zeppelins were patrolling the skies, trenches were dug out in the muddy grounds and chaos roamed the streets. Europe was at war, and the only country able to escape these atrocities and remain neutral was Switzerland. Many artists from diverse backgrounds had managed to flee the dreadful situation of their countries to take up refuge in this European safe haven, thereby compressing all of Europe’s artistic energies into one small country. One particular café in Zurich allowed these creative fledglings to congregate and express their emotions. On the 2nd of February 1916 Hugo Ball and his wife Emmy Hennings opened the doors of Cabaret Voltaire with the announcement:
The Cabaret Voltaire – Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a center for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zürich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals.
In the Café, a new art movement was distillated from various other movements, such as Italian Futurism, Russian Futurism, Avant-garde, Surrealism, Symbolism and many more. Their overarching message was to condemn World War I, blaming logic, reason and aestheticism of the capital’s bourgeoisie as the cause of this madness. As a reaction, the newfound movement called Dadaism rejected all of the previously mentioned ideas and acted purely on chaos, expressing their art as something that is not art, but pure irrationality and nonsense. Every night, the Dadaists would get together and express their discontent through means of the nonsensical spoken word, noise and rage. On one night they would disrupt a normal piano play with pots and pans or with screams alluding to no particular emotion, and on another they would be dressed in the oddest fashions, yelling out words simultaneously and enjoying the chaos. This form of music/noise was called brutism, and was one method used by the Dadaists to destroy meaning itself, subsequently expanding the borders of what music could be.
Cabaret Voltaire and the Dadaists
The German Dada Movement (Documentary)
Up till now, the history of noise has been a turbulent one. It has been created out of war, given form by chaos and hated by many even though it inspired the few. In the next edition we’ll examine how this concept is being incorporated into more and more musical compositions and what definitions this evolving beast may adopt in the future. From musique concrète to John Cage and from silence to rubber ducks; all will be dealt with…, so stay tuned.