Luigi Russolo and the New Art of Noise

Originally posted on the now-defunct goth and industrial blog Rivet Gig in November 2014.


“We must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.”
—The Art of Noise

Back at the beginning of noise music, before John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, and Pauline Oliveros; before Free Jazz, Musique Concrete, and Dada; you’ll find him.  ...Overlooked outside of art circles, the bulk of his work lost to time, and what’s left still as unlistenable to most audiences as ever—but undeniably the man who started it all.

Luigi Russolo, one of the first practitioners of the Italian Futurist movement of the 1910s, is widely considered to be the inventor of noise music.  An iconoclast whose concerts caused riots, he was a forefather to the genre’s spirit, as well: like most noise musicians who followed, his music came from a desire to radically break from the past by designing new methods of sound expression.  Methods that seem to be rooted in a deep dissatisfaction with the popular music of his time, which he described as “dripping with boredom stemming from familiarity.”

“Is there anything more ridiculous in the world than twenty men slaving to increase the plaintive mewing of violins?” he asks in a 1913 letter to fellow experimental composer Balilla Pratella titled “The Art of Noise.”  Arguing that technology has made life noisier than ever, he goes on to claim that it’s imperative to take all these new sounds and use them to create a new form of music, then finishes up by separating noises into six basic groups and announcing his intentions to “realize [them] mechanically.”  

To that end, he went on to develop the Intonarumori, a series of crank-powered noise generators that could each create and modify one sound: the first synths, in a way.  None of the originals have survived, but they’ve been recreated plenty of times since then:

And while their roars, clatters, and engine noises might not be the most entertaining listen, you can hear the future being written both in his instruments and his compositions.   

To a modern ear, his music seems to have predicted dark ambient and old-school horror movie soundtracks, mixing minor keys and dissonant pianos with drones and jump scares.  At times, you can hear the foundations being laid for drone. The background of Macchina Tipografica, for example, doesn’t sound completely unlike a Sunn O))) song being played a few houses away.

Reading over a list of his fans can also let you know how he more directly went on to inspire future generations.  Edgard Varese, who famously went on to inspire Frank Zappa, praised his shows. John Cage studied Russolo’s music after his death and went on to incorporate his ethos into his work.  Perhaps most directly, Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos identifies him as the first electronic musician.

The influence of futurism at large can also be seen in current goth and rivethead culture, if you know where to look for them.  Russolo and his contemporaries were obsessed with speed, technology, and youth, as well as violence, militarism, war, and (what was considered in their time to be) the obscene.  Man’s triumph over nature and the ongoing advance of technology was also a recurring theme in their work – although without the optimism of the early sci-fi that would come along a few years later – it much more closely mirrored the dark version of it seen in cyberpunk.  I’m sure you don’t need the connections spelled out for you.

But no genre has carried on the tradition like power noise.  Power Noise, for the unfamiliar, is somewhat the redheaded stepchild of electronic music: even many rivetheads and fans of other types of noise consider it unlistenable.  Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music takes the piss out of it before concluding, rightly in most cases, that it’s a genre you wouldn’t want to listen to.  It seems to delight in its outsider status, however, continually making itself louder and less accessible. Whenever it begins to give you a melody or rhythm, it rips it away from you and replaces it with blasts of static or gatling gun bursts of distorted drum machine samples.  Power noise songs very often run in excess of ten minutes, almost daring listeners to put on headphones, turn it up to max, and just see if they can make it through the whole thing.

Some artists, like Brighter Death Now, sound exactly like the kind of thing Russolo would have made if he’d had access to a computer.  Others, like Terrorfakt, set it to rhythms that are crude even by industrial standards, or twist them into rudimentary melodies, but at they’re core, they’re still true to form.  Some, like Tarmvred, incorporate more “normal” elements of EBM and industrial, but still manage to recreate exactly the thundering, ominous tone of many of his compositions.

In the words of one unwitting Youtube commenter, it’s “the real art of noise, man.”

These days, small cliques of artists and performers have devoted themselves to recreating Russolo’s music, but usually in the form of just another piece of old culture to be appreciated, just like the mewing violins he rebelled against.  And, in stark contrast to his forward-thinking mentality, it’s usually done on retro recreations of his instruments, built with the same methods and technologies he used a century ago.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s always nice to see his music recreated as it must have sounded to audiences in his time.  ...But, arguably, the thousands of knob twiddlers overmodulating and distorting machine-generated sounds are the real heirs to his spirit.

CS Jones