In a manifesto dated March 11, 1913, the Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo unleashed L’Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noise), a dynamic piece of literature calling for nothing less than the complete renovation of the musical arts. Commencing with a genealogy of music from the Greek tetrachordal system to what Schoenberg had later proclaimed as the “emancipation of dissonance” in 1911, Russolo declared that the music of his time sought further complexity, searching “for the amalgamation of sounds more dissonant, strange, and harsh to the ear” (Kirby, 167). Thus, Russolo argued, “we are always getting closer to ‘noise-sound’.”
The musical world had gone through an unprecedented revolution as Russolo was writing his manifesto. The symbolist sympathies of Claude Debussy ruptured the Classical diatonic system by exalting the whole-tone scale as a method of composition, turning Balinese tonal influences into the pitch-space of the sensuous, exotic other, as exemplified in the programmatic Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun, 1894) after Stephan Mallarme’s poem of the same title. Scriabin’s unclassifiable “mystic chord” likewise chipped away at the marble of diatonicism, fusing his theosophical leanings with the sonorous. By 1909, Schoenberg had begun his early experiments in “atonal” music, threatening to chuck the tonality baby out with the bathwater.
From these episodic musical revolutions, Russolo’s treatise of 1913 seems like a natural cadence of what Richard Turaskin calls the “maximalist” impulse of the early 20th Century avant-gardism. Yet, to simply arrest Russolo in a linear trajectory anticipating the Musique Concrete of Pierre Schaeffer or John Cage’s prepared piano is to overly filter the musical from Russolo’s wider philosophical project as a member of the Futurist movement in a fast-modernizing Italian landscape. To begin with, despite growing up in a musical household, Russolo was not a professional musician. Eschewing ambitions to enter a music conservatory like his two brothers, Russolo chose a path of painting instead, and was one of the founding members of Futurism under the charismatic leadership of F.T. Marinetti. Neither was Russolo the “official” composer of the Futurist movement, the position of which went to Francesco Balilla Pratella – the only Futurist musician with an academic background in music – who had authored the first Futurist Music Technical Manifesto earlier in 1911 (Kirby, 160).
Despite his lack of qualifications, Russolo transformed his musical ineptitude into a dynamo for impetuous revolution. “I am not a musician,” he wrote at the end of his manifesto, “I, therefore, do not have acoustic predilections or works to defend. [...] That is why, being bolder than if I were a professional musician, unpreoccupied by my apparent incompetence and convinced that audacity has all rights and all possibilities, I have been able to perceive by intuition the great renovation of music through the Art of Noise.” (Kirby, 174) Unshackled by the conditioning effects of disciplinary artistic institutions, Russolo thus framed himself as a fortuitous outsider, albeit one that can truly invoke the revolutionary spirit of music without years of accumulated biasedness. To prove himself worthy of his task, Russolo went on to create sound-making objects called intonarumori (noise-makers), which he exhibited and toured in futurist concerts around Italy and Europe.
By the late 1920s, however, the initial furor of excitement over Russolo’s project had but faded into the background. Marinetti, once championing Russolo’s intonarumori as tactile objects symbolizing noise as “the language of the new human-mechanical life” (Marinetti, Flint, 138), fails to mention them altogether after the war. Attempting to sum up Russolo’s musical oeuvre, numerous historians such as Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla usually anticipate the short-lived glimmer of the intonarumori project, claiming that “noise was Futurism’s contribution to music.” (Risdall & Bozzolla, 111)
Such accounts of music in Futurism, however, to consider Russolo’s second project, which aimed not only to revolutionize the methods of musical production and the universe of “musical” sound, but also to forge modern listening subjects in line with what Marshall Berman calls the “machine aesthetic” (Berman, 26), a quasi-religious faith in the myth of technological progress through the mediation of machine between man and his perceptible environment. Indeed, as Berman points out, it is this incipient form of Modernism which would later occupy artists such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, with palpable intellectual consequences in what Jean Baudrilliard calls our virtualized, “hyper-real” forms of ontology in 21st century technoculture. Understanding this armature of Russolo’s musical sensibility as a transformation of listening culture under the aesthetics of the machine, furthermore, sheds light on the internal conflicts and inconsistencies of Futurism as an ideological manifestation with multiple players, without over-reducing Russolo’s role to a historical road-marker en route to musical avant-gardism. Furthermore, locating L’Arte dei Rumori in the discourse of the machine might enable us to consider the real, gendered implications of Futurist machine assemblages in light of hybrid theory by Harraway, Deleuze and Guattari, as well as a re-evaluation of the early machine aesthetic not as simple opposition, but reworked extension of Italy’s emerging Decadentismo consciousness.
Indeed, for Mario Morini, the reception of French decadent literature and poetry in early 20th Century was instrumental in giving critical voice to a class of intellectuals predisposed to the politicization of the aesthetic, amidst a recently unified Italy (Morini, 66). Geographical unification, however, did not give rise to political unity: the risorgimento, under the Parlimentary hegemony of Giovanni Giolitti, fostered an ambivalence in the role of the individual in early industrial Italy. Despite ushering in an epoch of “economic progress, civil modernization, cultural renewal and democratic reforms” which gave rise to a “modern and productive bourgeoisie”, Giolitti’s governance from 1903-1913 attracted criticism for “political corruption, a crisis of state, a weakening of the nation and serious moral decay of individual and collective conscience” (Gentile, 11). Decadent literature and poetry was viewed with some suspicion, backed with the imported psychological theories of the modern “nervous” man in studies by Janet, Charcot and Nordeau. As Morini notes:
“The ‘decadent’ style itself indicated the need for artistic and literary languages to refer totally and obsessively to themselves, in an attempt to validate their self-enclosed code against external reality and history at large. [...] Italian Decadentismo appears to have been constructed for the purpose of indicating a variety of signs of an epochal crisis of values, rather than signs of a critique of those values [which were] ... inevitably correlated and complementary. In the last decade of the nineteenth century in Italy, however, the idea of decadence was constructed and conveyed primarily as a crisis rather than a critique.” (Morini, 69)
Italian critics and intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century such as Vittorio Pica and Arturo Graf capitalized on decadence as decline, with journals such as Il Convito openly hostile to French decadent literature doomed to stasis and ennui rather than transformative possibilities (Morini, 72). In an essay on Paul Verlaine and other decadent writers, Vittorio Pica characterized the aimlessness of the decadent consumer “fluctuating between sensualism and mysticism”. Indulging in “vain, crazy, and unnatural efforts” at invoking extreme experience, “they spend what little energy they have, and they fall back, disheartened and exhausted, to a sad and incurable lassitute” (Morini, 70). One remarkable exception, however, cast Decadentismo as a transitory phase, a fleeting moment in dialectical history which will eventually pave the way for a better, modern existence. In Libro della figurazioni ideali written in 1894, the Symbolist Poet Gian Pietro Lucini interpreted what he called decadenza as a historically necessary transformative force to topple the gods of the old:
“In any case, we would not be decadent (decadenti) with respect to our artwork, but with respect to life, because everything around us is subject to change: science, religion, political forms, economics, but change comes to an end, and that end is not without death and ruin: nor is a new life possible without death and rottenness.” (Morini, 74)
For Marinetti and the Futurists in early 20th Century Italy, faith in the myth of technological progress found form in the machine both as metaphor and synecdoche, literally and figuratively a “vehicle” for transformation of social consciousness oriented towards the glorification of a new, modern Italy. The machine was to Marinetti what decadenza was to Lucini’s historical dialectic, an intermediary mode of embodiment which would ultimately lead to a greater Italy. In her book The Other Modernism: F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Fiction of Power, Cinzia Sartini Blum identifies remarkable complicities between Marinetti’s literary personification in La Conquete des Etioles (The Conquest of the Stars) and Huysmans’s des Essientes (Blum, 7-16). Both fictional characters experience a moment of sublime elevation through the locomotive, in which the refreshing vigor of mechanical speed is set as a foil against the effeminizing degradation of nostalgia, the past, and the passivity of the masses. “The attitudes of the two protagonists,” she notes, “differ significantly: Des Essientes’s is one of passive contemplation, whereas that of Marinetti’s protagonist is one of active identification” (Blum, 11). One could also conceivably say that Marinetti’s modernist machine aesthetic is decadenza as extrapolative activity rather than introspective retreat.
Here, we return to Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei Rumori of 1913, which he described as the “logical consequence” of Ballila Pratella’s Futurist Music technical manifesto of 1911. The obliteration of traditional forms of harmony, for Russolo, is justified by both the history of musical composition and the transformed demands of the modern listener, attuned to the energizing soundscape of modern life. Central to this progression is the role of the machine which reflects the new sensibilities of the 20th Century:
“THIS EVOLUTION OF MUSIC IS PARALLELED BY THE MULTIPLICATION OF THE MACHINE, which collaborates with man everywhere. Today, the machine has created many varieties and a competition of noises, not only in the noisy atmosphere of the large cities but also in the country that, until yesterday, was normally silent, so that pure sound, in its monotony and exiguity, no longer arouses emotion.” (Kirby, 167)
As a result, Russolo proposes that the ears of modern man “are not content” with conventional harmonic systems, demanding instead “more ample acoustic emotions” (167). A new listening economy measured by the yardstick of machine aesthetics henceforth replaces the traditional sentiments of Beethoven and Wagner; for Russolo, the modern listening subject extracts “pleasure in ideally combining the noises of trams, explosions of motors, trains, and the shouting crowds than in listening again ... to the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastorale’” (168). Great emphasis is placed on the liberating pleasures of listening to machines as music, and Russolo envisions a kind of attentive listening to match that of the visual, with one’s “ear more attentive than our eye”, propelling man’s sensory organs into machine-like receptors for future developments in music:
“Our multiplied sensibility, after being conquered by Futurist eyes, will finally have futurist ears. Thus motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be skillfully tuned in order to make every factory an intoxicated orchestra of noises” (174)
Russolo’s penultimate passage is particularly telling: one may chose to read it literally, in the sense that, like Russolo’s later intonarumori, the specific pitch class potentials of noise-producing machines would be tuned to evoke specific predetermined compositional templates. In Fedele Azari’s Futurist Aerial Theatre dated April 11, 1919, Azari mentioned a collaborative invention with Russolo of a “special type of hood to increase the resonance of motors and a type of exhaust that regulates the sonority of the motor without modifying its potential” (220). Such contrivances constitute the aestheticization of the machine, prefiguring the mechanical instrument for aesthetic contemplation. Alternatively, one could see Russolo’s tuning of the machine as a function of the “Futurist ear”, a transformed sensibility which automatically hears noise as music, extracting the aesthetic from machine noise. It is this conception of Russolo’s that requires theoretical amplification from contemporaneous Futurist machine discourses, especially Marinetti’s. In particular, Russolo’s “multiplied sensibility” is a direct quotation of Marinetti’s Futuristic “Multiplied Man”, a machine/human cyborg-like hybrid, a subject who experiences ecstatic totality and wholeness through the pseudo-divine union with the machine.
One of the earliest elaborations of Marinetti’s “Multiplied Man” is found in the publication Le Futurisme, from 1911. In the accompanying essay Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine, Marinetti decries the traditional “ideological fusion” between woman and beauty (Rainy, Poggy & Whittman, 89), promoting “the idea of mechanical beauty” in its place. The apocalyptic “multiplied man”, for Marinetti, is man invigorated through artifice and machinery, drawn to the aesthetic pleasure of the technological, diverted from the corrupting desire for fleshy women:
“[We] must prepare for the imminent and inevitable identification of man and motor, facilitating and perfecting a continual interchange of intuitions, rhythms, instincts, and metallic disciplines that are absolutely unknown to the great majority of people today and are devined by only the most clear-sighted minds.” (90)
Conceptualizing the “Multiplied Man”, Marinetti describes the “creation of an inhuman type” unsullied by the “poisonous corrosives” of “moral suffering” and “love”, an “inhuman and mechanical type, constructed for omnipresent velocity” who is “naturally cruel, omniscient, and combative”. The neighboring essay We Abjure Our Symbolist Masters, The Last Lovers of the Moon continues the machinic diatribe in more explicit, hybridized terms:
“With us [the Futurists] begins the reign of the man whose roots are cut, the multiplied man who merges himself with iron, is fed by electricity, and no longer understands anything except the sensual delights of danger and quotidian heroism” (94)
Like Deleuze and Guattari’s “desiring machines”, Marinetti and Russolo’s “Multiplied Man” reflect an ontological system characterized by temporal assemblages, circuits of pleasure completed by “plugging” and “unplugging” oneself from these mechanical extensions. Rejecting the Symbolist poets and the sordid pleasures of decadence, Marinetti recasts the “Multiplied Man” as a hygienic form of decadent pleasure whereby flesh fuses with circuitry in what Deleuze and Guattari call the “machine assemblage”. The metamorphosis of man and machine as temporal assemblages constitute Marinetti and Russolo’s multiplied consciousness in which the boundaries between self (subject) and other (machine) break down through “planes” and “potentialities” without recourse to a self-autonomous, enclosed subject. With the dissolution of the stable subject by machinic extension, Marinetti literally reduces the future “Multiplied Man” to mere masculine machine, incapable of extraneous and inconsequential emotions such as love and passions, his heart “reduced to purely distributive function”. Even the erotic is demystified and desexualized, transformed into “copulation for the preservation of the species” like every other banal bodily function (92).
“Attentiveness” of the Futurist ear attuned to the machine thus cast a transformative effect over the “Multiplied Man’s” perception of sound. The boundaries between “noise” and “music”, like the opposition between man and machine, lose their clear definitions: “Noise” becomes music to the ears of the “Multiplied Man”, who looks back with disgust at traditional forms of music as noise to his renewed sensibilities. In The Futurist Intonarumori of 1913, Luigi Russolo further contemplates the formation of the Futurist ear with respect to noises, in which he forsees noise losing “its own accidental character” becoming “an element sufficiently abstract so that it can reach the necessary transfiguration of every primary element in the abstract material of art” (Kirby, 178). Only then, “liberated from the things that produce it” can it become “automatic material, malleable, ready to be shaped by the wishes of the artist who transforms it into an element of emotion, into a work of art”. Alternatively, it is the Futurist listener, the “Multiplied Man” who plays the role of the artist, already reconstituting the noises of machines as aesthetic objects worthy of enjoyment.