Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti with the Intonarumori

Last modified 7-1-2009

In the early decades of the twentieth century, there arose in Italy an aesthetic movement known as Futurism, one of the precursors to better known early modern movements such as dadaism and surrealism. Futurism concerned itself with the fact that industrial technology had transformed modern life, and one of its tenets was that contemporary art should abandon the bucolic past and embrace the clangorous world of the machine age.

Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti with the Intonarumori

Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti with the Intonarumori

Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) was one who identified with the Futurist movement. In 1916 he published L’arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises), an aesthetic manifesto applying these ideas to music. He built and concertized with a set of noise instruments, to which he gave the name intonarumori, and these are the instruments that you see in the picture. They were named in accordance with the sorts of sounds they produced: there were hissers, bursters, rustlers, croakers and so forth. The instruments have not survived, but we do have some information on how they worked: it appears that most of them employed drumhead-like membranes with strings attached to the center, and these strings were operated upon in various ways to produce the sounds.

Russolo’s manifesto was reissued in English under the name The Art of Noises by Pendragon Press in 1987, and this picture is taken from that edition. In the Experimental Musical Instruments quarterly journal (Volume 4 #3, Oct 1988) we published a wonderful, wide ranging review of the book “in the tragic-ironic mode,” as author Tony Pizzo described it.

Of the original instruments very little remains. But there are a couple of surviving recordings from 1924 which can be heard on the limited edition CD Archivi Sonori del Futurismo 2 (alternative title: Futurismo Musicale 2) from the Italian company Fonotopia. This CD also features short sound samples from several of the instruments as reconstructed, in keeping with the best available written descriptions, by M. Abate and P. Verardo.

[Thanks to Emiliano Li Castro for assistance and information.]

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