(In: UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers)

Futurism and Musical Notes
Daniele Lombardi

(Artforum, translated by Meg Shore)

Discussions of Futurist music have been incorrect and misleading because after the period,
musicians and critics have known only a concept of the music, which has been modified by
subsequent theorizing and interpretation. Everything that does not fit into the theories has been
regarded with suspicion, considered not to be music, and "relegated'' to the domain of the
visual arts or theater. History needs to be reevaluated in terms of avant-garde movements
such as Futurism so that those attempts that have opened the path to later artistic activity may
be distinguishable from those which have fallen back on themselves, and have therefore failed
to connect with the evolution of artistic thought.

Early in the 20th century the Italian musical world was characterized by the persistence of the
late Romantic tradition, The curtain had already come down many times on Parsifal and on
"program music'' but the "season" continued (with inferior imitations). During this time one
figure stands out as the initiator of a new musical concept (one that can be located at the root
of Futurism and other avant-garde movernents) Ferruccio Busoni, who was also one of the
greatest pianists of his time. Seeds of all the ideas that were later enthusiastically expressed by
the Futurists Balilla Pratella and Luigi Russolo can be found in Busoni's essay, Entwurf einer
neuen Astetik der Tonkunst (Sketch of a New Esthetic of the Art of Sound), 1907, published in
Trieste by Schmidl.

Busoni speaks of "renewal" through a re-reading and synthesizing of the past, In contrast to
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's "Let's destroy the museums and libraries,'' Busoni believed in the
importance of tradition:

The transitory qualities of a work constitute the "modern'' ' those qualities which
are immutable preserve it from becoming "old fashioned.'' In the ''modern'' as in
the ''old there is the good and the bad, the authentic and the false. In an absolute
sense, the modern does not exist-in art there is only that which is born earlier
and that which is born lateri that which flowers for a long time and that which
soon withers. There has always been the modern and there has always been the

This relationship to history is all that differentiates Busoni's programmatic principles from those
of the Futurists, Coinciding with Busoni's concept of renewal but more importantly revealing the
relationship between Futurism and anti-traditionalism, Pratella begins his second manifesto

All innovators have, logically, been Futurists in relation to their times, Palestrina
would have judged Bach mad, as Bach would have judged Beethoven, and as
Beethoven would have judged Wagner.

The significance of Busoni's essay lies in his statement that traditional instruments were "tired."
His intuitive recognition of new tonal possibilities allowed him to believe " …in abstract sound in
technique without obstacles: in the limitlessness of sounds.

Every effort, therefore, must lead toward a fresh source, a new beginning, "Six years later
Russolo applied himself to this process of innovation, writing: "We must break this restricted
circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." (This, also in order to
come to terms with Beethoven and Wagner but not through Busoni's solution of continuity.)

Microtonal research-which Busoni deals with amply (as do Charles Ives, Alois Hába and the
later proponents of electronic sound) is the basis for the application and practice of this new
musical concept which Russolo put into effect by constructing intonarumori or "noise-intoners."
This decompositive process first explored by early Futurists, then adopted by the Dadaists, to
finally become a characteristic of all the historical avant-gardes, is what really lies on the
threshold between the 19th and 20th centuries. A sharp change had occurred in the definition of
the nature of a musical work, now understood as a structure of sounds.

It is no accident that John Cage was one of the first musicians to be interested in Futurism and
in Russolo's experiments. In 1946, when he had already created works for a prepared piano,
he wrote:

In several of its important aspects, modern music of the twenties is known only
by hearsay. The Italian ''Art of Noise'' established by Luigi Russolo has totally
disappeared, in memory it is mistakenly associated with Marinelli. The work done
with speech orchestras, divisions of the half-tone and electrical instruments is, for
the most part, forgotten Many composers exist today only as names.

Cage was absolutely correct; musicians like George Antheil are little-known, and the history of
20th-century music ought to be rewritten, giving a greater emphasis to the many artistic
experiments of musicians who were neither appreciated nor encouraged during their lives.

Contemporary music owes Busoni and the Futurists considerably more than has been
acknowledged. They are responsible for fundamental innovations which were later developed in
numerous ways throughout the 20th century:

1 Noise-sound, tone-research which led to the introduction of noise as a musical

2 Micro-spacing, research which has since been adopted by electronic music

3 Improvisation, practiced since Russolo by most Futurist musicians and set out
as a theory in a manitesto written in 1921 by Bartoccini and Vantia

4 Simultaneity, an attempt at interweaving sound fragments at the time this was
an attitude parallel to and contemporary with that of Claude Debussy and Anton
von Webern, although pointing in a contrary direction.

5 Interdisciplinary activity, a theatrical concept whereby the music flows and
combines with mixed-media, taking forms other than traditional grand opera and

6 Mechanization, the myth of industrial society and of the machine, expressed
by insistent isochronal rhythmic structures

One of the first music critics in Italy to be interested in Futurist music was Luigi Pestalozza who:
in a lengthy preface to the Antologia della rassegna musicae (Anthology of Musical Reviews),
placed Pratella and Russolo in the broader context of Italian music.

Beyond any other consideration the originality of the Futurists was in having caught the
mechanistic and therefore technological spirit of the century the rise of a superindustrialized
mass society This had notable musical repercussions, although the Futurist contributions of
Balilla Pratella and Luigi Russolo in this field were, above all, theoretical.

In an essay published in 1971 that discusses the relationship between Futurism and
post-Second World War musicians, the composer Armando Gentilucci gives special attention to
Pratella's L'Aviatore Dro (Dro, the Aviator). 1920, which he defines as ''Future Expressionist.
'Although this long opera contains all the calls for spectacle of the early manifestoes (total
action-theater of lights, colors, sounds, etc.) it still suffers from Pratella's provincialism and his
idiosyncratic choices. His revolution was a storm in a teacup. (It is important to note that
Pratella had studied under Mascagni.) Although L'Aviatore Dro did introduce aviation as a
theme-one that continued on in such works as Luigo Dallapiccola's Volo dl notte (Night Flight),
1940-it is only an example of realism and popular entertainment.

Gentilucci asks: ''Is there a relationship, a thread, which connects the post-war experimental
avantgarde with Futurism? " He answers that one can assume a connection, citing Karlheinz
Stockhausen, Cage and Luigi Nono as exponents of three different attitudes which he claims are
all, in some way, related to the work of Pratella and Russolo. One could also answer his
question by mentioning Fluxus or the many performances in the 60s and 70s, which were
defined by the participants themselves as neo-Futurist. Pestalozza is absolutely right in saying:
"Russolo's experiments avoided the problems of modern music and outshone them in every
sense by proposing questions which were far too dangerous to handle." Russolo's background
was that of a visual artist. rather than a professional musician. He was. therefore, quite far
removed from the linguistic studies of the Conservatory composition classes and was the first
to have the courage to create something like noise-intoners even if the kind of precedent as
cited by Fred Prieberg in Musica ex machina did already exist:

The close relationship between exotic music and noise was made public for the
first time in the work of Carol-Bérard who was born in 1885 and was a pupil of
Isaac Albeniz He not only studied and was influenced by primitive music and
instruments, he also composed a Symphony of Mechanical Forces in 1910 some
years before Futurist interest in music Moreover, he experimented with noises as
music he developed a notation system for noises and wrote on the problems of
the instrumentation of noise music It is not known however, whether he was a
forerunner of or if he formed later relationships with the Futurists.

Prieberg adds no further information. We know nothing more about Carol-Bérard and the
Symphony of Mechanical Forces has not been found.

Noise, according to this new definition, has two essential musical uses:

1 an onomatopoeic function as a signal which has precise connotations;

2 as a structural element in composition, and therefore a further toral evolution in
certain ways tied to late 19th century symphonism

The first of these uses developed out of the Futurists Poesia sonora (Sound Poetry), such as
Battaglia di Adrianopoli (Battle of Adrianople) by Mannetti, or Onomatolingua
(Onomata-Language) by Fortunato Depero. The second use was taken up by Russolo. In a
manifesto of March 11, 1911 he says:

It will not be through a series of lifelike noises but through the fantastic
associations of these various tones and rhythms that the new orchestra will obtain
the most complex and new sound emotions Thus every instrument will have to be
able to vary its tone and will have to extend its range to some degree

In writing music of the city of the present and future, Russolo uses descriptive techniques which
are somewhat similar to Debussy's realizations of pre-Raphaelite / Symbolist / Impressionist
compositions which evoke mood by ''stopping'' time, Russolo's noise of the city is different from
Debussy's dreaminess but it is nonetheless still a dream-the myth of the machine. Russolo's
work has always been examined and judged by comparing the theories of the "Arte dei rumori''
(Art of Noises) with the only existing document of noise-intoners, the 78 rpm recording, His
Master's Voice, R6919120 which contains two passages, Corale and Serenata. But these two
compositions are by Antonio Russolo Luigi Hussolo's brother, a professional musician who used
the noise-intoners together with other instruments. The record is misleading because the
noise-intoners are used tamely, giving the impression of a commercial operation using his
invention like at Bal Tabarin, which is harmful to Luigi's reputation (The various scores that Luigi
wrote have all been "lost or perhaps misplaced" by his brother Antonio, whose own work, on
the other hand, has survived.)

I say this after having partially reconstructed seven bars of Risveglio di una citta (Awakening
of a City) from the ''Rete dei rumori" (Network of Noises) which Luigi Russolo published in 1914
in the magazine Lacerba. In 1977 when the Historic Archives of Contemporary Arts of the
Venice Biennale organized an exhibition of Russolo's work, the curator, Gian Franco Maffina,
had five noise-intoners reconstructed for the occasion. (Russolo's original instruments had all
been destroyed during the Second World War.) This permitted me to partially perform the
fragment written by Russolo, "partially" because I was unable to use all nine types of
noise-intoners indicated in his score. With a multi-track tape recorder I was able to realize only
eight of the 12 "voices,'' and yet despite this, and in spite of living in the '80s, after electronic
music, the impact of the sound + emotion which had previously been expressed only
theoretically in the manifestoes, was impressive. (The comparison to Igor Stravinsky's Le
Sacre du printemps, published in 1913, is inevitable. While they are quite different in
realization and expressiveness, these two pieces of music have analogous intentions. The
noise-intoners must have had an incredible effect on the average listener of 1913, perhaps
even stronger than that provoked by the Sacre.)

Just how can critics presume to judge these works without having ever heard even those 25
infernal seconds of Risveglio di una citta, confusing the works of Antonio with those of Luigi?
And ignoring the fact that Luigi's "Spirali di rumori'' (Spirals of Noises), was the first
noise-intoners concert probably introducing a practice of improvisation guided by outline? This
practice, one of the fundamental tenets of Futurist esthetics, is the form that comes closest to
achieving the art of events in progress, of extemporaneous and unrepeatable gesture.

The 1921 manifesto of Bartoccini and Mantia represents the first theoretical enunciation of the
idea of improvisation in music, and opened the way for this practice, which has become so
widespread in the last 30 years. In a report to the 1924 Futurist Congress Franco Casavola

As song and rhythm, music rises out of an improvised intoxication Also in current
music, the necessity of playing it imposes upon the performer a collaboration with
the author in such a way that the performance envelops a necessary integration
of the musical idea. The Futurist ideal is to identify the performer with the creator,
to bring improvisation to everyone. The extemporaneous ingenious element of
music, conceived as being the real art of eloquence, frees music from traditional
forms and modes.

These statements, together with those of Russolo, are probably the most important of the
Futurist esthetic. The three theoretical manifestoes by Pratella, which gave impetus to so much
else, contain more passionate judgments than conceptual innovation (with the exception of the
third manifesto, in which the discussions of rhythm touch upon an important theoretical aspect
of music).

It is interesting to quote what Guido M. Gatti has said about Pratella's manifestoes:

The distruzione defla quadratura (destruction of the framework) of 1912, which
is almost Pratella's war cry, emerges immediately after the more general
manifestoes, and is directed, more than anything else, toward teaching and
artistic conventions. Let us immediately say that everything in these pages can be
accepted without fear of excommunication: in the year of our Lord
nineteen-nineteen we have seen considerably more daring work in the musical
avant garde. So much so that Pratella's manifesto is not Futurism at all, but
merely the recognition of a rhythmical freedom which every musician, from
Wagner on, has achieved day by day, shedding his habits and his mental

Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Paris and Vienna, other composers accomplished much
more profound transformations of the compositional method. Pratella, however, retains the
distinction of having started a new vision of the musical esthetic in Italy with his first manifesto
of 1910.

In Futurist music, the "implosion/explosion'' evident in the paintings of Umberto Boccioni and
Giacomo Balla was attempted, but the energizing of space and the sense of speed, the
simultaneity and interaction. found no suitable equivalent in the music. Polyrhythmics sound like
just another rhythmic composition, the result of the sum of the partial rhythms which constitute
it; sound fragments, because of their linear nature, offer the listener "sequential'' development,
giving the impression of a series rather than the action of sounds. Silvio Mix's short Profilo
sintetico musicale di F.T. Marinetti (Synthetic Musical Profile of F. T. Marinetti), 1924, is one
example. The 36 bars are made up of 10 different parts. The execution of the passage does not
give a clear sense of the interactiorl of fragments, but rather, the impression of an alogical,
surreal juxtaposition. The Profilo sintetico musicale is an example of what must have been the
kind of improvisations which Mix often did at Futurist soirees. Antonio Marasco, a Florentine
Futurist painter and a friend of Mix's, referred to one of them:

I organized Futurist evenings at the Salone Materazzi in Via Martelli, and at
Botto's in Via Cavour, or else I participated in those of the bookseller/publisher
Ferrante Gonnelli who opened the first Permanent Futurist Gallery. During the
exhibition Silvio Mix made extemporaneous interventions at the piano,
improvising on themes dictated by the public On some occasions there were three
pianos and another friend of Mix's from Trieste would participate, along with
Maestro Boghen, the Professor at the Conservatory. a strange sort of artist
always under an enormous hat. When these ''improvisations'' were held the public
bought admission tickets which paid for everyone's dinner-a more lavish one for
Professor Boghen, while Mix invariably ate rice and milk.

The system of musical collage and polyrhythm took a different form of realization with Darius
Milhaud and George Antheil. The latter did not have direct relations with the Italian Futurists,
although his Jazz Symphony, 1925, and Ballet m6chanique (the sound-track of Fernand
Leger's film), are compositions which fit in perfectly with the Futurist esthetic. The answer to
this unsuccessful attempt to free musical timing is based on the belief in the myth of
"isochrony'' (contemporaneity), the symbol for the perfection of the new industrial world, which
Prieberg called the ''romanticism of the machine." The infuriating repetitiveness of the rhythm
was meant to shock, to cause the "intoxication'' described by Casavola, something that
certainly occurs in Maurice Ravel's composition Bolero, 1928.

The most famous work deriving from the esthetic of the machine is Pacific 231, 1923, by
Arthur Honegger, an orchestral composition which describes in music the movements of a

A brief but intense period of theatrical, ballet and pantomime activity opened with the advent of
mechanistic music. The stage had been set for it by years of utopian literature and science
fiction, and the new civilization of the machine appeared, mysterious, monstrous and
transcendental. by comparison with human, biological rhythms. Unfortunately, although we
know of the existence of such works as the Angoscia della macchina (Anguish of the Machine)
by Silvio Mix to the text of Ruggero Vasari, which appears to have preceded Fritz Lang's famous
film Metropolis, 1926, no examples of this activity have survived.

As in science fiction. futuristic worlds relate to the beginnings of the history of man. Images of
archaic civilizations, prehistoric upheavals, suggest a journey through time, as do the
innovations of the technological age. Along with the Angoscia defla macchina and Astrale by
Mix, or the Ballet Méchanique by Antheil, there is Le Sacre du printemps, by Stravinsky,
Création by Milhaud, and Tides of Manaunaun by Henry Dixon Cowell, another musician who
was not in direct contact with the Futurists but who was very close to them.

The fact remains that the provincialism of Italian culture at that time, maintained by a middle
class which supported Fascism, staunchly prevented the normal interchange of artistic
information and experiences. This was manifested as a return to "traditionalism.'' Russolo
strongly felt this involution, but saw no escape, and Casavola, after a lengthy interest in jazz.
retreated in the face of censorship and actually destroyed all his own Futurist work.

The most important example of Italian mechanistic music is an orchestral page from Cavalli +
Acciaio (Horses + Steel), mechanicavalcade for large orchestra, by Luigi Gral a composer
whom we otherwise know only by name. (A piano transcription by the composer was published
in 1935.) This composition, like Ravel's Bolero. develops by means of a rhythmical structure,
insistently repeats from start to finish and is made up of blocks of chords. The musical tempo
indicated is matto (crazy).

Marinetti, the poet-animator of all Futurism, was the first to realize noise scores, preceding by
many years Pierre Schaeffer's Concrete Music and Cage's compositions and anticipating the
use of wireless sets. His Cinque sintesi per il teatro radiofonico (Five Syntheses for the
Radjophonic Theater), is an application of the theories expressed in the "Radia" manifesto, and
is composed of verbal scores which indicate the types and durations of sounds. Noises are
assembled into a collage in which silence is an integral part. One of these syntheses includes a
silence of three mil utes-a completely new concept: a theater for radio, to be performed in a
manner which suggests the existence of imagined space-this, 20 years before Cage's 4'33".

Futurist music did not have composers of the stature of Alban Berg. Schoenberg and Webern
because, except for Pratella no ''professional 'musician of any importance supported Marinetti s
ideas which were too advanced for the official musical climate of the day. As we know Russolo
was a painter, Mix a talented self-taught musician: Casavola. the professional. suffered a crisis
and destroyed his Futurist scores in 1927. Virgilio I was briefly a Futurist. as the improvisor in
the Teatro della sorpresa (Theater of Surprise) and as the composer of the amusing Foxtrot del
teatro della sorpresa. Although he is often classified as a Futurist (insofar as he was Modernist),
Alfredo Casella, the musician who in some people's eyes could today be considered perhaps
the most important figure of Italian music in the 20th century. in fact never adhered to the
Futurist movement. Pratella states in his essay, Musica per pianoforte italiana. March 19. 1916:

If even on the surface Casella s music seems harmonically and esthetically more
daring than Futurist music. one must nevertheless not mistake it for Futurist
music since it is substantially removed from this, as indeed it is from the music of
the French or Russian avant-garde.

Casella's work is still within the realm of impressionism and the exceptional effort
of sensitivity the music in flux. starts out from an intimate musical state of mind
stimulator of a lyrical deformation and a purely musical and not programmatic
and coloristic construction By this I do not mean to lessen the intrinsic worth of
Casella s music I mean only to define and to distinguish it.

Casella lived in Paris during the years 1910-15 and there breathed a freer cultural climate than
that of Italy. His Trois pieces pour pianola. 1917. is one of the most important expressions
which, in large part derive from Futurist theories.

Russolo and the other Futurists, with the advent of Fascism, were restricted, not so much by
Marinetti s artistic choices, but because the regime, from 1922 on, favored a policy of historic
self-justification and put the mechanics of tradition into motion, attempting officially to tie
musical experimentation to the schools and to categorize precisely defined styles which
concentrated on reviving academicism. The Corpol delle Nuove Musiche (Corporation of New
Music) was founded in Rome in 1923, with Gabriele D Annunzio, G. Francesco Malipiero and
Alfredo Casella as its directors and Bernardino Molinari and Ildebrando Pizzetti as advisors. The
numerous aims of the corporation were the complete antithesis of Futurist theories. In the
course of time Fascism supported precisely those musicians like Franco Alfano. Casella
Malipiero, Pizzetti and Ottorino Respighi who forged a compromise between past and future with
works and themes which lay within the linguistic and semantic boundaries that the Fascist
regime did not deem dangerous. These musicians were responsible for the systematic
elimination of all traces of Futurism, and Russolo's noise-intoners paid the price. The musical
spectacles with which the Futurists experimented were totally replaced by sweet little operas
and cumbersome grand operas that tried to align themselves with the kind of ''sacred values
that were slowly reduced to a mockery in travertine architecture.

Russolo's decompositive attitude was an easy target for charges of dilettantism while Respighi's
FountaIns of Rome and Pines of Rome, although works of unquestionable value, could be used
by the Fascists as evidence of ''quality' and of the value of the "new Italian musical style'' which
these musicians championed.

In La prora (The Prow), Casella ends his essay with:

Besides. the future will sooner or later have its say, and it will know how to
brilliantly set apart the few real ''creators' of today-for whom the new sound
technicalities are nothing more than simple means which are indispensable for
reaching unknown forms of beauty-from the innumerable false revolutionaries,
who use these same means in a clumsy and naive way with the sole aim of
achieving immediate and ephemeral celebrity.

The reference to the Futurists is clear enough, even though Casella's tactic, followed by most of
the others was systematically to ignore all artistic activities which stemmed from Futurism.

As early as 1911, Pratella's manifestoes had been checked to the extent that Pizzetti wrote to

Regarding what you wrote me concerning the necessity of having faith in a better
future for the fortunes of us young Italian musicians, and concerning the need to
unite in a compact group, acting for the common interest, /-I repeat-am
somewhat skeptical As regards myself, I am and shall always be ready to give of
myself, with my own energy and with my own work, to do everything of which I
am capable, but who else will know how to do the same? Will you be there? All
right, I believe you will Will Bastiani be there? Very well we shall be three. And
then? Just think my friend, against us there are already musicians like Zandonai
and Pratella-that is, sly profiteers and crafty ignoramuses dozens of them' And
we I at least, we are naive compared to them!

In essence, Futurism grew so weak that it disappeared with the advent of Fascism. which
favored the kinds of artistic expression that would consolidate its power. It is also true that
among the Futurist musicians there was no one figure who managed to establish himself or the
esthetics of Futurist music by producing anything of truly great significance. The poet Francesco
Cangiullo wrote in his autobuography:

…apropos the musicians Casavola and I (whose names have only been touched
upon In this book but can be found in the last Futurist lists) and the painters
Deperc, and Prampolini, that Casavola and Mortari musicians of unquestionable
value, in reality never did know how to compose what might have been Futurist
music, nor did Baililla Pratella The unsurpassed innovative composer of that
period was Stravinsky.

© Daniele Lombardi