To most people, “The Art of Noise” means one thing: British superproducer Trevor Horn's early-'80s studio group and their still-cool hit “Close to the Edit.” But the band's moniker was taken from the name of an artistic manifesto written in 1913 by a painter-turned-composer named Luigi Russolo, a member of the now-legendary Italian Futurist movement. The Futurists were strident iconoclasts who sought to represent the Machine Age staples of speed, noise and progress through aggressive, dynamic art and music.
Horn's trademark orchestra hits may still creep up in many a house track, but the influence of Russolo's radical theory of the art of noise has cast a far bigger shadow over the entire development of electronic music and the avant-garde. The idea of a noise-generator, for instance, is basic to any synthesist, but it was unheard of when Russolo began building his intonarumori, or “noise intoners,” in 1913. Fitted with a gramophone-style speaker and a hand crank painted in bright colors, the large hurdy-gurdy-like boxes had names like The Burster, The Gurgler, The Whistler, The Crackler, The Hummer and The Scraper, depending on their tones.
In his famous treatise, Russolo organized noises into six basic categories, from “rumbles and roars” at one end to “shouts and screams” at the other. Russolo wrote, “We must break out of this narrow circle of pure musical sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds.” He cited the “throbbing of valves,” “the pounding of pistons” and “the clatter of streetcars” as essential sonic components of any music that seeks to be relevant in modern times. “Today, noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibilities of men,” he wrote, declaring that it was his goal to “add to the great central themes of the musical poem, the domain of the machine and the victorious kingdom of electricity.”
Russolo's first performances met literally with violent responses, but a series of concerts at London's Coliseum in 1914 earned him the admiration of composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev. Although few recordings of his work survived, Russolo's innovations clearly foreshadowed the iconic noise-meets-orchestra pieces of Edgard Varese (“Ionisation”), George Antheil (“Ballet Mechanique”) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (“Mikrophonie I”). The influential musique concrete school of Pierre Schaeffer, including Schaeffer's own 1948 Concert de Bruits (“Concert of Noises”), was directly inspired by Russolo, as was IRCAM pioneer Pierre Henry's Futuristie in 1974.
These days, you're likely to hear Russolo-isms flowing from the always-voluble mouth of DJ Spooky, and artists as diverse as Nurse With Wound and Mike Patton have recently incorporated Futurist themes into their albums. In the bigger picture, though, it's easy to characterize Russolo as the first man to make industrial music and to recognize how a world filled with noise was going to forever change the way you hear and, ultimately, the way you make music. For more information, check out www.futurism.org.uk.