The Art of Noises

Luigi Russolo

The Art of Noises‘ (‘L’arte dei Rumori’) is a Futurist manifesto, written by Luigi Russolo in a 1913 letter to friend and Futurist composer Francesco Balilla Pratella. Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. It emphasized and glorified themes associated with contemporary concepts of the future, including speed, technology, youth, and violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city.

In his letter, Russolo argues that the human ear has become accustomed to the noise of the bustling urban industrial soundscape; furthermore, this new sonic palette requires a new approach to musical instrumentation and composition. He proposes a number of conclusions about how electronics and other technology will allow futurist musicians to ‘substitute for the limited variety of timbres that the orchestra possesses today the infinite variety of timbres in noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.’ ‘The Art of Noises’ is considered to be one of the most important and influential texts in 20th century musical aesthetics.

Russolo states that ‘noise’ first came into existence as the result of 19th century machines. Before this time the world was a quiet, if not silent, place. With the exception of storms, waterfalls, and tectonic activity, the noise that did punctuate this silence were not loud, prolonged, or varied. He notes that the earliest ‘music’ was very simplistic and was created with very simple instruments, and that many early civilizations considered the secrets of music sacred and reserved it for rites and rituals. The Greek musical theory was based on the tetrachord mathematics of Pythagoras, which did not allow for any harmonies. Developments and modifications to the Greek musical system were made during the Middle Ages, which led to music like Gregorian chant. Russolo notes that during this time sounds were still narrowly seen as ‘unfolding in time.’ The chord did not yet exist.

Russolo refers to the chord as the ‘complete sound,’ the conception of various parts that make and are subordinate to the whole. He notes that chords developed gradually, first moving from the ‘consonant triad to the consistent and complicated dissonances that characterize contemporary music.’ He notes that while early music tried to create sweet and pure sounds, it progressively grew more and more complex, with musicians seeking to create new and more dissonant chords. This, he says, comes ever closer to the ‘noise-sound.’ Russolo compares the evolution of music to the multiplication of machinery, pointing out that our once desolate sound environment has become increasingly filled with the noise of machines, encouraging musicians to create a more ‘complicated polyphony’ in order to provoke emotion and stir our sensibilities. He notes that music has been developing towards a more complicated polyphony by seeking greater variety in timbres and tone colors.

Russolo explains how ‘musical sound is too limited in its variety of timbres.’ He breaks the timbres of an orchestra down into four basic categories: bowed instruments, metal winds, wood winds, and percussion. He says that we must ‘break out of this limited circle of sound and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds’ and that technology would allow us to manipulate noises in ways that could not have been done with earlier instruments. Russolo claims that music has reached a point that no longer has the power to excite or inspire. Even when it is new, he argues, it still sounds old and familiar, leaving the audience ‘waiting for the extraordinary sensation that never comes.’ He urges musicians to explore the city with ‘ears more sensitive than eyes,’ listening to the wide array of noises that are often taken for granted, yet (potentially) musical in nature. He feels these noises can be given pitched and ‘regulated harmonically,’ while still preserving their irregularity and character, even if it requires assigning multiple pitches to certain noises.

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