Thursday, October 22, 2009

Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners

The coolest music concert of the year was held last Friday evening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Entitled "Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners," it was part historical recreation of an Italian Futurist concert from 1913, and also a leap into the present with contemporary composers creating music for 16 reconstructed "intonarumori."

According to a short, interesting Wikipedia entry, "Each instrument was constructed of a parallelepiped wooden sound box with a metal radiating horn on its front side. Inside the box was a wheel that, when turned by means of a crank or electric button, caused a catgut or metal string to vibrate.

The wheel could be made of either metal or wood, and the shape and diameter of the wheel varied depending on the model. At one end of the string there was a drumhead that transmits the vibrations to the speaker. The pitch of the vibrating string was controlled by both the speed that the wheel was cranked and by the tension of the string, which was controlled by a lever on top of the box. The lever allowed the performer to play glissandos or specific notes, and also allowed the performer to change the pitch by small intervals. The intonarumori often had a range of more than an octave."

Futurism was a short-lived, wildly influential art movement of the early twentieth century which flourished in Italy before the advent of World War One. The poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote the infamous Futurist Manifesto in 1909, which among other things, "rejected the past, celebrated speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry; and sought the modernisation and cultural rejuvenation of Italy." His musical equivalent was Luigi Russolo who wrote a manifesto in 1913 called "L'arte dei Rumori," or "The Art of Noises" which is an amazingly prescient work that anticipates the ideas of John Cage among many others.

Here's another excerpt from Wikipedia:
"Russolo claims that music has reached a point that no longer has the power to excite or inspire. Even when it is new, he argues, it still sounds old and familiar, leaving the audience "waiting for the extraordinary sensation that never comes." He urges musicians to explore the city with "ears more sensitive than eyes," listening to the wide array of noises that are often taken for granted, yet (potentially) musical in nature. He feels these noises can be given pitched and "regulated harmonically," while still preserving their irregularity and character, even if it requires assigning multiple pitches to certain noises."

The period holds a fascination for many people, particularly RoseLee Goldberg (above), who wrote a book in 1979 called "Performance Art from Futurism to the Present," which is still in print in its third edition. After a career as a curator in London and New York, principally at The Kitchen in the latter city, she created a biennial arts festival six years ago in New York City called PERFORMA, which is having its third edition this November. The theme this year is Futurism on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Marinetti's Manifesto.

The organization is attempting to branch out to other cities and institutions, so that this year there was a week-long symposium at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called "Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism's First 100 Years," with Friday's concert at the Novellus Theatre the obvious highlight. Goldberg was extremely fortunate to partner up with the Berkeley-based Italian composer, scholar, conductor and performer Luciano Chessa (above) who has also been fascinated by the period all his life. He not only wrote a doctoral dissertation at UC Davis on Russolo, but has just finished the upcoming UC Press book, "Luigi Russolo Futurista. Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult."

Chessa, directing instrument builder Keith Cary with additional help from Dna Hoover, recreated the whole set of 16 intonarumori for the first time in history since their destruction in World War Two, a process which required a lot of detective work.
"A major breakthrough was realizing one of Russolo's primary sources was the set of Leonardo da Vinci's noisemakers," Chessa states in the program.

I went to the concert fearing it would be painfully loud but instead the opposite was true. As Chessa wrote to me when I asked if there had been any amplification used at the concert:
"Absolutely no amplification of any sort for anything, including voices, etc., not even a subtle reinforcement. It was all 100% acoustic. These instruments were originally built for Italian opera houses. It's not that they are soft (we had to run rehearsals in the evening because, in the place where they were housed, the neighboring 9 to 5 offices complained!) but of course they are not as loud as stadium amp towers. I quickly realized playing them in large spaces, instead of being an issue, offered my project another angle: I decide to embrace their features. There is plenty of ear-popping loud music out there. Why couldn't this project be different? Not weaker: just softer and subtler? This was not about blasting loud noises, was not about power: it ought to be about the depth of the grain of noises. More than simply aural education, it was about sustainable, organic, gourmet noises..."

The concert started with a reconstruction of a 1916 piece by one of the original Futurist composers, Paolo Buzzi, called "Pioggia nel pineto antidannunziana." It began with Luciano striding onto the stage with a megaphone, loudly declaiming a parody written by the composer of a famous poem (La pioggia nel pineto) by Gabriele d'Annunzio, "who the futurists hated because he was too traditional and neoclassical (later, d'Annunzio became the main poet for Mussolini's regime). It's a surreal abrasive poem about pine needles, with a chemical formula of an acid, and a reference to Turpentine, etc..."

Chessa then turned around and conducted San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra, who were playing the various intonarumori with skill and evident delight, evoking Russolo's "six families of noise":
1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Humming, Crackling, Rubbing
5. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
6. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs

Thirteen pieces written expressly for this concert by a range of composers followed, with varying success. A few of the pieces were dull and self-indulgent (I'm looking at you, "Text of Light") while a few others sounded like instant classics. The most successful for me were pieces that integrated the intonarumori orchestra with traditional instruments, such as John Butcher's "penny wands and native string" featuring the composer on saxophone, Elliott Sharp's "Then Go" with the Korean singer/dancer Dohee Lee giving a mesmerizing performance, and conductor/curator/composer Luciano Chessa's "L'acoustique ivresse (Les bruits de la Paix)" which was a beautiful song for bass (Richard Mix, above left) and noise intoners set to a poem by Buzzi called "Russolo."

My favorite piece that used the orchestra of intonarumori alone was by Mike Patton, a former rock star with the groups Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. Entitled KOSTNICE, the music was strange and exquisite.

You only have two more chances to see this concert, once at Town Hall in New York City in November as part of the Performa 09 festival, and again in Milan in December. San Francisco's Magik*Magik orchestra will be traveling to Manhattan for the concert, but reportedly not to Italy, which is too bad. There were a few funny moments when some of the young performers, furiously cranking their wooden box instruments, looked like they were in one of Wilhelm Reich's infamous orgone boxes. I'd love to see what they look like when even more expert on their various noise intoners.


ginorobair said...

Correction: The saxophonist was John Butcher himself. Gino Robair (me) played Rombatore Acuto and another instrument in the improvised mid-section of the piece.

Civic Center said...

Dear Gino: Thanks so much for that correction. I'll change it in the post. And congratulations on being part of such a success.

ginorobair said...

Thank you for giving the concert so much attention, (and for making the correction so quickly). I'm glad you enjoyed the music. It was a really fun event, overall.
I'll be curious to hear what New York thinks of the intonarumori...

Joe Lynn said...

You probably already know about this, but I thought Matt Gonzalez's essay on Russian futurism was pretty interesting.

AphotoAday said...

What an interesting post... Quite an invention... I Googled for a few YouTube videos -- sounds pretty weird alright...

Axel Feldheim said...

This did look interesting. I'm so sorry that this concert slipped under my radar. It's not clear to me what those intonarumori sounded like. Was it mainly noisy, or are some of the sounds interesting & even beautiful? I'm also wondering whether there is any notated music for it from that 1913 concert. Or are they just making guesses as to how it was played?

Civic Center said...

Dear Axel: Because they weren't amplified it was more "interesting and even beautiful" than noisy. As for whether it was notated, that's a good question and I'll try to find out the answer.