The Art of Noise: Forays into the Avant-Garde

It’s important to note in our foray into the history of avant-garde art that painting wasn’t the only medium impacted by experimentation. I’ve written several posts on music, and every band or independent musician mentioned in them bears the impact mark of the stylistic upheavals characteristic of the early 20th century. One particular character piques my interest at the moment for his musical innovations: Luigi Russolo.

Russolo (30 April 1885 – 6 February 1947) was an Italian Futurist. The Futurists will certainly find themselves mentioned here again at some point in our meditations on the avant-garde and the weird arts. With their celebration of technological progress, violence, speed, airplanes and cars, they may seem to match the aesthetic of the Transporter movie franchise closer than the more paranoid overtones of postmodernist art typically celebrated here, but I can shelve my scorn long enough to acknowledge that the Futurists really were cutting-edge, for their time (thanks to Robert P. Harrison’s excellent podcast Entitled Opinions, I’m somewhat more familiar with the Italian Futurists than with the other art movements, like Neoplasticism, that I’m blundering through here). For now, however, I want to focus strictly on Russolo and music… or, more accurately, Russolo and noise.

In 1913, Russolo wrote a manifesto entitled The Art of Noises. This appeared nearly a decade before Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance,” and I can’t help speculating that Russolo’s concepts must’ve influenced Schoenberg. I haven’t read Russolo’s manifesto, but it seems easy enough to summarize based on it’s description in the wonderful world of Wikipedia:

Russolo argues that the modern ear has essentially become accustomed to the new world of noise as it was introduced by industrialization. Noise, according to Russolo, didn’t exist in it’s sustained state before machinery. Therefore, to address the needs of an audience desensitized by noise to the limited range of the orchestra, music should employ noise to recapture its magic over the listener.

Fair enough, I’d say: Russolo doesn’t want the audience to fall into complacency. Any admirer of weird art would surely applaud this concern, if not Russolo’s methods. Of course, pure noise isn’t interesting, and it seems like Russolo acknowledges this himself. Compare Pharmakon’s horrifying album Bestial Burden to Merzbow’s Venereology for a lesson on interesting noise vs. annoying, nearly “pure” noise (sorry Merzbow fans. I know that’s pure blasphemy). I wager it would be difficult to listen to Bestial Burden without acknowledging the potential power of noise.

So what does noise do in music? Does it shock us out of our complacency? I think that it does. I would, however, take this a step further. Careful readers will recognize the following theme, which I’ve employed in discussions of literature and art so far. It’s high time I apply it to music.

The Wikipedia article on The Art of Noises (man, that title would’ve been so much better with the singular “Noise,” even if a little less precise), mentions that Russolo acknowledges thunder, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. as pre-industrial noises familiar to humans. I find it interesting that these naturally noisy occurrences seemed to evoke the most fear in wonder in pre-industrial man. Is it that we are “desensitized” by noise and are therefore unable to enjoy classical music? I find it much more likely that noise was and is always a potentially powerful experience to human listeners. Noise itself is an element scorned by the Enlightenment; it is much better suited for the Romantics (just listen to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony). It equally opposed to a culture that values information and, therefore, communication.

Noise is a lack of meaning in information theory, just as perfect order is. Neither randomness, nor a series of perfectly ordered integers (1,2,3,4,5… etc) conveys information. If we consider industrialization an outgrowth or byproduct of the Enlightenment, then noise is industrialization’s opposite. Noise harkens back to a primordial unknowable; it recalls the mystery of thunder gods and the elements of nature beheld in awe by pre-scientific humanity. We aren’t held in awe by noise simply because it reminds us of washing machines (unless you’re listening to Merzbow. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself). Orchestrated noise, rather, faces us with something we are unable to assimilate to our rational worldview. It presents us with a gap to the unknown.

This is only unfortunate insofar as Russolo intended to advocate Futurism with his noise theory. We should applaud him for his audacity, nonetheless. Noise is not the sound of the future. Noise is always the sound of a cosmically mysterious worldview increasingly forgotten. Noise is the sound of the weird.

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