Monday, November 01, 2010


In Luigi Russolo’s seminal work, THE ART OF NOISES –first published in 1913-– the Italian painter and Futurist proposed that: "For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastoral’.”

In fact, “…We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.’

Today, many still distinguish between sound and musical sound, but if film production and the tape recorder did not erase that distinction, the sampler certainly has.

As for Russolo, he wasn’t simply suggesting this would be an interesting pursuit, he thought it a necessary and inevitable musical evolution:

“…Futurist musicians must continually enlarge and enrich the field of sounds. This corresponds to a need in our sensibility. We note, in fact, in the composers of genius, a tendency towards the most complicated dissonances. As these move further and further away from pure sound, they almost achieve noise-sound. This need and this tendency cannot be satisfied except by the adding and the substitution of noises for sounds…”

Over the last century, our ears have indeed grown accustomed to the sound of the industrialized and now post industrial soundscape. That a sampled beat might be sourced from one machine, processed in another device and finally performed from yet another is not just no longer a novel idea, but in some genres, de rigueur.

But what Russolo did not foresee is that when we have at last subjugated noise –when we actually become masters of it; when we learn to enjoy it; dance to it, and even to sing along with it– that it no longer retains its shape as a continuously surprising cacophony, which is what he longed for. Nor could he predict that this so-called art of noises might perhaps reach it’s highest apex in the repetitive and musical looping of something we call hip hop.

But I think that he would be very pleased to know that noise-sound instruments, which he called ‘intonarumori’, would one day underscore the global zeitgeist. For evidence of that, tune one’s ears no further than to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Because it was then and there that FIFA President Sepp Blatter noted that one ubiquitous intonarumori in particular, the vuvuzela, contributed much to the "…noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment" of the event.

But could Russolo have possibly imagined how well the art and conquest of noises might lend itself to the art of sonic branding?

For today, not only have composers learned how to integrate noise into what we now might consider relatively conventional musical compositions, but they also routinely use an assortment of analog and digital intonarumori in the creation of varied sonic designs, whether for score, device application, venue installation or audio mark. Not to mention the now common use of conventional instruments employed in unconventional means, producing controlled noise for color or effect.

Amazingly, along the way, audiences have also simultaneously developed the ability to intuit non-verbal messaging from these noise-built audio constructions.

A roar of a Harley Davidson V-Twin engine, for instance, is not just the distinctive sound emitted from a particular motorcycle, but it also signals the drive, power and freedom felt and projected by the owner of the vehicle.

Our ears, it turns out, are capable of decoding multiple layers of semiotic and emotive meaning from a single sonic event, even from a single beat.

Consider that whatever its construction, a sonic logo is nothing less than a carrier for symbolic data. And not unlike a small work of origami created from a torn page of a scared artifact, once unfolded (and translated or decoded using common cultural assumptions), it will reveal a world of meaning within it. Similarly, no matter how fastidiously edited, a mere sliver of sampled pop music from our youth can transport each and everyone of us back through time and space.

Interestingly, no matter how much our current compositions resonate with Russolo’s noises, nor how accurate his vision of the future; and despite our synthesizers, samplers, or the zeitgeist and the vuvuzelas; neither the kalimba nor the violin has become obsolete. This I find a particularly profound topic for further consideration. Not to mention how the guitar itself has also performed a neat trick by evolving into a hybrid sound design tool, capable of serving as both traditional instrument and electronically processed noise-maker.

It is all, somehow, music to our ears.

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Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara

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