Photo by Paula Court 2009.
Photo by Paula Court 2009.
March 12th, 2012 · A.E. Zimmer

The Forgotten Bellwethers of a Sonic Revolution

Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori

There were cries, the kind that can only hint at a dizzying torture.

“Please stop! No more!”

The pleas squeaked from a 1913 audience, witnessing the sound of the Futurist Movement. In an intimate Italian villa, Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori– roughly sewn instruments made of wooden boxes and conical amplifiers–unapologetically cranked the sounds of the early twentieth century– the sound of the cog and the wheel clacking, of machines charging towards industry.


As supernatural as they are mechanical, the intonarumori are the forgotten bellwethers of a sonic revolution. Now considered the earliest pioneer work into noise music, Russolo’s Futurist sound is raucous yet spectral, as if the frequencies come not from a city’s concrete but someplace far ghostlier. Upon listening, one wonders how and why can a machine “haunt” us? Perhaps the eeriness of the Futurist sound is due to its aural disturbance of a symbolic tradition. When the symbol of excellence turns from man to machine, might those made of flesh feel slighted?

These crude, toothsome-looking instruments blare a telling caterwaul. Their whirring sounds express a confrontation and collaboration with the technologies that redefined human production in the early twentieth century. The sound of screws disambiguated from human context, the intonarumori do not quite reveal the nature of the machine as much as they reveal man’s anxiety before it– his ghostly disappearance, the warp and shrink of his authorial voice.

For Performa 09, Performa celebrated Russolo’s noise with a one-night-only concert, Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners. The performance involved original scores and contributions from over fifteen artists, complete with Luciano Chessa’s meticulous re-construction of the intonarumori in full. Since then, the reassembled noise intoners have toured to the Maerzmusik Festival, Berlin; Transart Festival, Rovereto, Italy; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Flaneries Musicales de Reims, France; and Art Basel Miami Beach.


A.E.Zimmer is a writer and contributor to Performa Magazine.

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