Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori

Another great purchase I got at Amoeba this weekend was Musica Futurista: The Art of Noises, a compilation of Futurist speeches, original recordings, and recreations of music and noise composed by the Italian Futurist ringleader F.T. Marinetti, as well as Silvio Mix, Franco Casavola, Francesco Balilla Pratella, and a bunch of other crazy Italian artist types. These guys dominated the avant-garde there from 1909 until the twenties, leaving Russian Futurism, Dadaism, Fascism, and a host of other more famous isms sprouting up in the fields they first sowed.

The spoken word portions of this CD are fascinating (Marinetti sounds like a mad scientist, even in Italian!), and the Futurism scholar and musical enthusiast Daniele Lombardi did a good job of playing a variety of pieces from different composers, including Marinetti’s fantastic “Five Radio Sintesi,” a pioneering sound collage that included random radio sounds, water sploshing, babies crying, drilling noises, and several large portions of pure silence, preempting John Cage by 20 years.

But the best stuff on here by far is something we only get a snippet of: the works of Luigi Russolo and the acoustic sound generators he constructed, called “intonarumori” or noise-intoners, that you see there on the CD cover.  These were playable noise instruments with adjustable pitch, created to perform the new vocabulary of sounds that Russolo mapped out in his “Art of Noises” manifesto.

Here are the 6 families of noises of the Futurist orchestra which we will soon set in motion mechanically:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Rumbles Whistles Whispers Screeches Noises obtained by percussion on metal, wood, skin, stone, tarracotta, etc. Voices of animals and men:
Roars Hisses Murmurs Creaks   Shouts
Explosions Snorts Mumbles Rustles   Screams
Crashes   Grumbles Buzzes   Groans
Splashes   Gurgles Crackles   Shrieks
Booms     Scrapes   Howls
          Wheezes Sobs


This chart was only a small-scale model of the thousands of sounds produced by animals, men, and machine, but Russolo was able to create sound boxes for most of them, with names like “gurgler,” “buzzer,” “howler,” “crackler,” et cetera that described exactly what the boxes sounded like.  Despite several performances in Italy and London, all Russolo’s own compositions’ recordings and even full sheet music are lost, and gramophone recordings of orchestral music composed by his brother Antonio use the intonarumori only as sound effects, like the sound of thunder and rain punctuating an overture, rather than as intruments of their own.  But Daniele Lombardi reconstructs one original fragment that has survived of Luigi Russolo’s “Awakening of a City” on this CD, as well as plays samples of recreations of some intonarumori, including an “enharmonic bow” that sounds like a wiggly saw meets a washtub bass!

“Awakening of a City” as a fragment is short but profound.  Not only does it perfectly capture the soundscape of man-produced machinery (truly industrial music if there ever was), but the pitch-bending of these sound boxes and the rasps and clangs and catgut and buzzes predict everything from Silver Apples to Sonic Youth, LaMonte Young to Led Zeppelin to just plain old zeppelins.  This was music truly ahead of its time, which perhaps explains why the Fascists condemned it so vehemently when they rose to power.

The fantastic site Theremin Vox has a great article on Russolo’s intonarumori, and in fact has some sound samples to rival the performances on “The Art of Noises” CD.  Whereas the CD sounds more abrasive, like how they described early early Stooges live music, the MP3’s here show the sonorous beauty that this new style of music could have brought to the world, had its musicians not been destroyed by war (almost literally, in the case of Russolo’s WWI headwound) and by the Mussolini minions that followed.  Take a listen and you’ll see how incredible this lost early noise music really was.

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