The story of one man’s adventure to rebuild the experimental orchestra conceived by Luigi Russolo, the 20th century’s first noise musician.
Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners, a Performa Commission, 2009. Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy of Performa.
Composer and musicologist Luciano Chessa desperately wanted to hear the music of Luigi Russolo, the Italian Futurist and visionary he had studied for a decade—the trouble was, none of Russolo's instruments or recordings had survived. All Chessa had was a lonely fragment from the score of "Risveglio di una città" (Awakening of a City), a piece performed by Russolo in 1913, the same year he developed his manifesto The Art of Noise. In order to bring those seven bars of music to life, he would have to recreate not one, but 16 versions of Russolo's magical instrument, the Intonarumori. This "noise intoner" was one of the first instruments capable of creating sound through mechanical processes, thus making it an early ancestor to all the electronic synthesizers in use today.
Russolo believed that, as industrialization changed the soundscape surrounding him and his contemporaries, the human ear would adapt to its new environment, and music would need to evolve to include more complex, dissonant sounds that challenged what was traditionally considered "musical." In his manifesto, he concluded that "we must replace the limited variety of timbres of orchestral instruments by the infinite variety of timbres of noises obtained through special mechanisms." He imagined an orchestra organized around various families of sounds, including roars, whistles, rustlings, shouts, and cracks, to name just a few. Using traditional instruments to materialize his vision—or even integrating them in any way—was out of the question. "The whole point of creating this orchestra was to replace standard orchestral forces with new futurist instruments that are capable of doing things that are very different," explains Luciano Chessa, on the phone from Venice. "He was focused on replacement—not alliance."
Russolo's various Intonarumori each brought to life one specific timbre. None of the original instruments survived—but we do have photos of Russolo in his studio, surrounded by Intonarumori, as well as a diagram from the patent he filed. These provide enough information to reconstruct a basic Intonarumori, which had in fact been done before Chessa's project—albeit with a completely different intent. "These attempts did not seem to entertain any guesses, and for the most part stuck with the patent drawing. Instruments got reconstructed mostly with the purpose of exhibition and demonstration," comments the composer. "My main goal was to play and hear Russolo's fragment, in a manner as close as possible to what he intended."
Chessa's rule of thumb was not to modify anything that was documented about the instruments, but to fill in the gaps—and he was ideally positioned to make educated guesses. When Performa commissioned him to reconstruct the orchestra for its 2009 biennial focused on Italian Futurism, Chessa had been studying Russolo for ten years as part of his doctorate at UC Davis, and had published a book about the artist. "I had a very extensive map of what he was after," he explains. "I knew where he was coming from scientifically and aesthetically. I had spent years recreating his environment, and I had plenty of sources, diaries, poems...I feel that all the guesses I made match Russolo's descriptions of the instruments quite well. For example, he described one of the instruments as the sound of water gurgling inside a pipe, and what I built sounds just like that." Chessa also made sure to only use materials and technology that would have been accessible to Russolo.
After a few months of work, with the help of a luthier in California, Chessa was able to unveil the orchestra in the fall of 2009, first for a performance in San Francisco, and secondly at the Performa biennial. The legendary seven bars from Risveglio di una città were performed for the public, as well as original compositions written for Intonarumori by Chessa and other experimental composers. Since then, an LP has been released, and Chessa continues to perform with the orchestra, which seems to be slowly moving away from historical reconstruction and becoming something else entirely. "We have done the philological part, so now perhaps it's okay to depart from it and create something new," Chessa tells us. Russolo was a futurist, after all, and it seems right to honor his legacy by pushing further towards the horizon.