Luigi Russolo

born in 1885 in Portogruaro, Italy; died in 1947 in Laveno-Mombello, Italy

Biography

Russolo is born into a musical family

1901 Moves to Milan and decides to become a painter; intense exchange with students at the Brera Academy; internship with a conservator

1907/1908 First graphic works

1909 Futurism comes onto the scene and Russolo joins the movement; first exhibitions and start of close friendship with Umberto Boccioni

1913 Switches to music and writes his main treatise »L’arte dei rumori« (»The Art of Noises,« book published in 1916); Russolo thus becomes the founder of Rumorismo (or Bruitisme = noise music); he invents novel noise-generating devices and writes several articles on the renewal of music

1917 Severely wounded while serving as a volunteer in World War I

1927 Moves to Paris due to his rejection of fascism in Italy

1929 Last public concert

1931 Meets Guido Torre, who introduces him to the occult sciences

1933 Returns to Italy and undertakes in-depth philosophical studies

1938 Publication of the book Al di là della materia (»Beyond Matter«); returns to painting in his latter years

Visual Arts

Visual Arts

Luigi Russolo began his career as a graphic designer and, after joining the Futurist movement in 1910, took up painting in the Futurist idiom of glorifying the emerging modern industrial age. When he switched to music in 1913, painting became more of a sideline, but it remained important to him his entire life.

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In 1907/1908, Russolo produced a series of etchings on themes inspired by Umberto Boccioni’s graphic art, still rendered in the Symbolist style. From 1910 onwards, he painted typical Futurist images, syntheses of figuration and the depiction of simultaneous sequences of movement. The bright colors reflect his optimistic embracing of the emerging industrial age and his fascination with its rhythms, movement, and dynamism. This enthusiasm is also manifested in image titles such as Dynamism of an Automobile and Forms and Rhythms. Russolo soon felt that the purely visual nature of painting was not enough for him. Sensitized to sound by growing up in a musical family, he took an interest especially in the sounds and technical noises that were becoming part of everyday life in the machine age.

After his programmatic switch to music, Russolo gave up painting almost completely for several years. He would not return to his former métier until the 1940s. In 1945, he presented a work series in Milan that he himself described as classical modernism.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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Music

Music

Russolo advocated for the expansion of music through the addition of machine noises and everyday sounds to replace tones. In this way, daily life could be incorporated directly into art. In order to have the technical means to produce such noises, he became an inventor of musical instruments. He founded Bruitisme (from the French word »bruit« for noise) and became one of the pioneers of a new music in the 20th century.

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As a musician and composer Francesco Balilla Pratella was part of the Futurist circle. Between 1910 and 1912 he published three manifestos on Futurist music (»Manifesto dei musicisti futuristi,« 1910; »Manifesto tecnico della musica futurista,« 1911; »Distruzione della quadratura,« 1912). In his music pieces he expands the spectrum of sounds produced by traditional instruments through further chromatic differentiation and also by allowing for improvisation and irregular rhythms. Russolo knew Pratella from Paris and regularly corresponded with him. In 1913, Russolo wrote his own manifesto, »L’arte dei rumori« (»The Art of Noises«), in which, as a fine artist and self-taught musician, he went far beyond Pratella’s approach propagating a renewal of music through everyday noises. Rather than using traditional instruments to produce such noises, he wanted to generate them by technical means. For this purpose he began in 1913 to invent – partly in collaboration with Ugo Piatti – »intonarumori« (noise generators), which were wooden boxes of various sizes and shapes equipped with levers, cranks, diaphragms, and sound funnels, which he named according to the sound produced: howler, buzzer, hisser, gurgler, or rattler. In 1924, Russolo constructed the »Rumorarmonio« (noise harmonium), also referred to disparagingly as the »Russolophone.« In addition to a keyboard, it had seven levers and two pedals, making it possible to combine seven sounds at twelve pitches on a single instrument. In 1926, Russolo developed the Enharmonic Bow as a mechanical device that makes instrument strings vibrate in such a way that the higher-frequency sounds overlap. And in 1929, he invented a special attachment for organ pipes that expands the fullness and spectrum of sound they produce.

The first Futurist concert was performed on April 21, 1914, at the Dal-Verme Theatre in Milan, featuring 18 »intonarumori,« followed by a further concert in Genoa. After being confronted with public protests in Italy, Russolo reaped resounding applause that same year in London. The intonarumori, the »Rumorarmonio,« and the »Enharmonic Bow,« all of which were patented, were used in music pieces and to accompany silent films until the late 1920s. They never became a fixture on the music scene in the long run, however. Sound film, which came out around 1930, finally spelled their demise. None of Russolo’s inventions went into serial production and none of the originals survived beyond World War II.

Compositions by Alexander Mossolov, George Antheil, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky, whom Russolo met in London in 1914, take up elements of Russolo’s noise music. John Cage explicitly referred to his L’arte dei rumori, and Erik Satie, Pierre Schaeffer, who coined the term »concrete music,« as well as Mauricio Kagel and the Noise Music that emerged in the 1980s were indebted to his work. Unlike Bruitisme, which mimics everyday noises, Noise Music uses synthesizers and computers to generate abstract sounds.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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In the Exhibition

In the Exhibition

Luigi Russolo

Risveglio di una città / Awakening of a city, 1913

Sound-recording 1977 for the Biennale di Venezia with reconstructions of Intonarumori by M. Abate, P. Verardo, 3:50 min

photo: Luigi Russolo, Ugo Piatti with Intonarumori, 1914/1915

Writing his own pieces for his intonarumori, Russolo developed an enharmonic graphic as a form of notation. In March 1914, he published the article »Enharmonic Notation for the Futurist Intonarumori« in the magazine Lacerba, along with two pages from the score for his composition Risveglio di una città (»Awakening of a City«). This would arguably become his best-known piece. For the Futurists, the city was at the heart of technical progress. The work is an acoustic soundscape that celebrates the tonal dimension of urban noise.

Futurism

Futurism

Italian Futurism was a movement that developed from 1908 onwards, establishing itself in 1909 with a manifesto declaring the intention of shaking up Italy’s bourgeois society, which had enjoyed centuries of success politically but had become mired in cultural insignificance. The Futurists promised to open up the gateway to the modern world by encouraging the wholehearted embrace of technical progress. Key words were »speed« and »movement,« expressed in painting, poetry, and music. On February 20, 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the »Manifesto of Futurism« in the Paris daily paper Le Figaro. The manifesto proclaims, among other things:

»We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car ... is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. [...] Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. [...] We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for [...]. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice. [...] we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of [...] greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; [...] deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.«

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The political urgency of these words couched in poetic, emotionally charged language unfolds an intoxicating dynamic. But the agenda for a Futurist turnabout was ambivalent and not without its ideological flaws. The artistic movement was avant-garde in both its formal aesthetic and its context in music history, but reactionary in its rejection of emancipatory strivings in society. The real danger of the movement, however, is revealed in its political engagement, because the exaltation of technology explicitly goes hand in hand here with the glorification of war. Any study of Futurist phenomena must therefore take a critical look at their implications for society and their entanglement with nationalism and fascism.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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Author:

Doris Leutgeb