Although from a musical family, Luigi Russolo initially trained as an artist. After a somewhat checkered start to his career, he joined Emilio Marinetti’s futurist movement and in 1910 was one of the authors along with Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini of the Manifesto of Futurist Painters (1910) and Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (Apollonio 17). Among his paintings at this time was one called La musica, which shows a halo of masks converging on a musician at a keyboard.
The performance of Francesco Balilla Pratella’s Musica Futurista (1912) and the associated riot in Rome in March 1913 inspired him to write the manifesto The Art of Noise as an open letter to Pratella. It is unclear whether he was inspired by Pratella’s music or frustrated by Pratella’s ignoring the sonic possibilities of the wider futurist position (Apollonio 57). In the manifesto, Russolo dismisses traditional musical sounds as being too narrow to satisfy the modern ear and pleads for a new music based on noises that relate to our experience of the world. He then outlines a systematization of noises and proposes to construct instruments to produce them.
Russolo was no mere theorist, and aided by Ugo Piatti immediately began to design and construct a number of “intonarumori” or “noise intoners.” These instruments included among others: the scoppiatore (exploder), ronzatore (buzzer), crepitatore (crackler), stropicciatore (stamper/shuffler), sibilatore (whistler), rombatore (rambler), stridatore (screamer), tuonatore (thunderer), scrosciatore (crusher), frusciatore (rustler), gracidatore (croacker), and gorgoliatore (gurgler). Each instrument had a range of possible pitches and dynamics (Maffina 5). In April 1914, the instruments had their debut playing three works by Russolo in Milan. The concert degenerated into a riot with the futurists led by Marinetti fighting the public in the stalls. Two days later at an unrelated concert, Russolo punched the music critic Cameroni in the face and was charged with assault. Subsequent concerts at Genoa, London, Dublin, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow, where Russolo met and influenced the Russian futurists, were somewhat less controversial. Igor Stravinsky met Russolo at this time and was impressed by the possibilities of his instruments (Tisdale and Bozollo 94-95).
In his Founding Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti had glorified war as “the world’s only hygiene” and like most of the futurists Russolo volunteered. In 1917, he was badly wounded. In the meantime, in 1916 the journal Poesia had published a special futurist music edition The Art of Noise that collected Russolo’s first manifesto and other writings including: The Futurist Noise Intoners; The Noise of Modern War, The Conquest of Enharmonism through the Futurist Noise Intoners; The Art of Noise; and New Acoustic Sensation (Tisdale and Bozollo 107- 108).
Partly due to his lack of sympathy with fascism, atypical for the futurists, Russolo spent most of the 1920s in Paris. He organized noise concerts in Paris in June 1921 that combined the noise intoners with normal instruments. They were attended by Manuel de Falla, Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, and Arthur Honegger, among others. Russolo continued his developments of new instruments. These were the “enharmonic bow,” which was designed to obtain new and unusual sonorities from stringed instruments, largely by simultaneously stopping and vibrating the strings, and the “rumorarmonio,” later called the russolophone, which combined the characteristics of several of his earlier instruments. At this time, he collaborated on several silent films using the russolophone as accompaniment. Both new instruments were introduced in their final form by Edgard Varèse at a concert in December 1929. Plans to mass produce the instruments, however, came to nothing.
In 1931, he abandoned music and in 1932 moved to Spain, returning to Italy a year later. He developed an interest in the occult and yoga and in 1942 resumed painting in a “classical-modern” style. All his instruments were destroyed during World War II, however, at his death in 1947 he was working on a model of an enharmonic piano that could play intervals smaller than a semitone.
In his 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature, Marinetti wrote that poetry must have noise, weight, and smell. Russolo took the first of these and developed the concept of noise as an autonomous musical entity. This was possibly the most revolutionary of all the futurist ideas, and one that continues to resonate through twentieth-century music. Music without fixed pitches and “musical” sounds was previously unthought of in Western music and Russolo’s experiments led directly to the purely percussion music of Amadeo Roldàn, Varèse, and John Cage, the tone clusters of Henry Cowell, and later to the musique concrete of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, which perhaps finally realized Russolo’s original concept of a flexible amalgam of noises and sounds. Schaeffer was actually unaware of Russolo’s ideas and instruments, but the musical climate that derived from them led to the possibility of musique concrète.
Russolo also foreshadowed Cage’s ideas about music being created by the listener. In The Art of Noise, he wrote: “Let us wander through a great modern city with our ears more attentive than our eyes, and distinguish the sounds of water, air, or gas in metal pipes, the purring of motors (which breathe and pulsate with an undoubted animalism), the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of trains on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags” (1986). Not only is Russolo, as a good futurist, finding music in technology, but he is also suggesting that the organizing principle is not the creator of sounds but the listener.
Futurists working in different media used similar language about their art. Russolo writes about flexible simultaneous noise with flexible expression, while in the field of painting and sculpture Balla and Depero write about creating a flexible dynamic aggregate. In both cases, the writers are trying to create and describe a new artistic language that breaks away from the static to express the futurist ideal of motion. Dynamism, however, does not preclude subtlety in any art form; many of Russolo’s noises and instruments were quite soft and gentle and he believed they could only be appreciated in absolute silence. In 1921, the critic Henri Bidou described the sounds of the noise intoners less as noise than as new timbres.
Visual artists also saw Russolo’s ideas as having relevance to their own work. Piet Mondrian wrote an article in De Stijl about the noise intoners in 1921, using them as an aural analog of the relationship between nature and art and a symbol of the creation of new artistic languages (Radice 11).
The classification of noises was an important part of Russolo’s manifesto. “Every noise has a note, sometimes even a chord that predominates in the set of its irregular vibrations” he wrote, and “the rhythmic movements within a single noise are of infinite variety. There is always, as in a musical note, a predominant rhythm, but around this many secondary rhythms can be felt.” He identified six families of noise.
From the start, Russolo stressed that his aim was not pure imitation. He wrote: “Despite the fact that it is characteristic of sound to remind us brutally of life, the Art of Noises must not limit itself to reproductive imitation. It will reach its greatest emotional power through the purely acoustic enjoyment which the inspiration of the artist will contrive to evoke from combinations of noises.”
The musical notation that Russolo and others used for the noise intoners was graphical to reflect the “enharmonism,” that is, use of intervals smaller than a semitone, of the music. In this, Russolo anticipated similar notations used byBéla Bartók, Morton Feldman, and other American indeterminists and Krzysztof Penderecki. Russolo was not alone in attempting to create new instruments for new sounds. In the 1920s and 1930s, Maurice Martenot, Oskar Sala, Jorg Mager, and Leonid Theremin produced electronic instruments that did not attempt to imitate or improve existing ones. Their instruments, or developments from them, have survived better than Russolo’s slightly earlier mechanical devices. Since then, composer/instrument makers have become quite common, though they function mainly on the fringes of musical culture. Furthermore, the idea, which has its origins in Russolo’s work, of creating new musical elements, rather than rearranging existing ones, is also the basis of much electroacoustic music (Radice 13-14).
Russolo has left very few musical artifacts. None of his instruments survive (though there have been recent attempts to reconstruct some of them), and only incomplete plans, a few photographs, and single pages of scores are still extant. A recording of his instruments is of such poor quality as to be almost useless. Nevertheless, the influence of his ideas persists even if they are not recognized as his. The adoption of noise as an expressive musical element is one of the keys to twentieth-century music. After Russolo, the language of music was changed forever and both instrumental and electroacoustic composers are his heirs.
Apollonio, U., ed. Futurist Manifestos. London: Thames & Hudson, 1973.
Maffina, G.F. Luigi Russolo e l’arte dei rumori. Torino: Martono, 1978.
Tisdale, C., and A.Bozollo. Futurism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Radice, Mark A. “Futurismo, Its Origins, Context, Repertory and Influence.” Musical Quarterly 73(1989):1–17.
Russolo, Luigi. The Art of Noises. Trans. B.Brown. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon, 1986.