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The flag of futurism: Musica Futurisa unfurls on The Sound Barrier

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Futurism is a movement that planted its first seeds in Italy around 1909. It began both as a social movement, and an artistic one, but spread soon beyond the visual arts to music, literature, architecture, dance, theatre, and even food. It was a defiant movement: defiant against everything that it saw as closed about the past, and instead called on people, especially young people, to move forwards boldly, aggressively, and quickly. It called on them to embrace new technology, to engage in violent revolt – against institutions that exalted the past, such as museums and libraries, and against morality and feminism – and to glorify war. It was an unapologetically confrontational movement, that intended to destroy the past and shock the present, as the only way to build the future.

All of this is proclaimed in the aggressive and defiant Futurist Manifesto, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909. It was followed only a year later by Franceso Balilla Pratella's Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, echoing similar defiance if not quite the same call to violence.

While Pratella's Manifesto does call for a revolt against established musical traditions, the composers it extols as the champions of change in countries other than Italy – Wagner, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Elgar, Mussorgsky, and Sibelius – hardly seem to reflect the sort of revolutionary values and radical upheaval that other parts of the Manifesto espoused, calling for 'the liberation of musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past' and 'to provoke in the public an ever-growing hostility towards the exhumation of old works which prevents the appearance of innovators, to encourage the support and exaltation of everything in music that appears original and revolutionary, and to consider as an honor the insults and ironies of moribunds and opportunists'.

Futurism gave rise to many movements in the decades that followed, and not all of them good. Italian Fascism claimed an affinity with Futurism, especially with its fierce nationalism and glorification of war. Others broke away to the left and applied the Futurist ideals within movements such as communism and anarchism. But, despite this, it was the artistic impacts of Futurism that have been its most prominent legacy and this still influences art and music today, unlike its political voice, which tended to peter out through the 1930s when it was taken up so much more strongly by the Fascists who ultimately rejected the same modern art styles created by the movement they had once embraced.

In art, Futurism had its offshoots in movements and styles such as cubism, surrealism, art deco, and in the anti-art movements such as Dada and Fluxus. In music, it led to the embrace of dissonance, of ugliness, and the introduction of noise, most famously through the intonarumori, the noise generators, constructed by the Russolo brothers Luigi and Antonio around 1913.

It was around this time that Luigi Russolo wrote his own Manifesto for Futurist music, The Art of Noises, which took up the defiance that Pratellla had voiced a few years earlier, but now with much more daring detail about what Futurist music should sound like, calling for an inclusion of ever newer sounds that had, until then, been excluded from music: proclaiming the 'enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds'.

Unfortunately, all of the instruments that the Russolo brothers constructed were destroyed during the Second World War, or lost, and the only surviving testament to what they sounded like is in a 1914 recording of Antonio Russolo's Corale and Serenata, which ended tonight's edition of The Sound Barrier.

Surely, however, one of the most significant pieces of work carried out in relation to these amazing instruments was the work undertaken by composer, and musicologist, Luciano Chessa, my guest on the show, who talked about his reconstruction of these astonishing instruments in his Noise Orchestra, from which we heard a performance of the only surviving written fragment of music composed for the instruments, a minute-and-a-bit excerpt from Awakening of a City, a work that caused a riot at its 1914 premiere – hardly surprising given the ruckus caused by Stravinsky's much tamer Le Sacre du Printemps only a year earlier in Paris.

Luciano talked also about the growth and influence of Musical Futurism throughout history, especially through the incorporation of noise into the musical soundscape. It is easy for us to forget how early this had begun to happen and that today, these sounds that were first introduced over 100 years ago, still can cause consternation in audiences who are, more often than not, unprepared for them. We hear some of this in Luciano Chessa's own compositions, some of which deliberately juxtapose noise more conventional musical forms – but not so much to shock and unsettle, but to make the point that now, further into the 21st century than Russolo was into the 20th century when he created his intonarumori, it is time for us to accept these once disparate sound worlds can now function, side by side.

Towards the end of the show, I played some modern realisations of Futurist writings, originally by F T Marinetti and by Fortunato Depero. These new realisations by Gabriella Bartolomei and by Ana Spasić (from whom we heard two slightly longer pieces from her astonishing album of Futurist sound art, FuturVoice) take on board the Futurist deconstruction of boundaries between art forms, integrating Futurist principles across artistic fields – in this case literature and music – and deconstructing traditional definitions of each. This became so enthusiastically taken up by the Dada movement that was beginning to emerge at Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich around the same time of the Italian Futurists, and then later in the Fluxus 'happenings' or 'events' that were being generated in the 1960s by people such as Mary Bauermeister in Germany and John Cage in New York.

While Futurism has had, and continues to have, a strong and enduring influence across the arts, it is often an influence that is unattributed to its origins in the first couple of decades of the 20th century in Italy. We have come to think of noise and musical deconstruction as new things or, at best, as things that emerged in the latter half of the last century.

It is, therefore, a good thing that artists and scholars such as Luciano Chessa and Ana Spasić are creating modern works that give a decisive and explicit nod to Italian Futurism, both through pieces that reconstruct or newly realise those of the Italian Futurists, or through entirely new compositions that acknowledge those Futurist principles, embrace them, and reapply them to the new contexts of the 21st Century.

My thanks to both Luciano and Ana for their generous time and contributions to my work in preparing tonight's special Italian Futurist edition of The Sound Barrier.

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