Main menu

Two rather interesting articles on the incorporation of machines into the realm of music performance are The Art of Noise (Russolo 1913) and The Liberation of Sound (Varèse 1966). Both of the authors spoke of the evolution, or rather revolution of the music of yesterday to what they perceive to being the necessary future of the art. The two authors at times envision the future in similar precepts, yet at other times are rather contrary. While I tend to agree with the latter more than the former, both have their merits. It all comes down to the authors trying to answer the question, "what will we call music tomorrow?"

A mechanical palette

Luigi Russolo, a self-proclaimed Futurist painter, is coming to the question with an outsider's perspective. By outsider I refer to his claiming he is not a musician, has no acoustic preferences, nor works to defend. I would argue that no one can really say they are not a musician, for in many ways everyone is musical. This is more of an issue of the walled-off nature that the world of "proper" music uses to delineate the work they feel suitable and sophisticated from that of a commoner, but I digress. In his letter to composer and musicologist Francesco Balilla Pratella, he was explaining that while he would not be called a musician by the public, he has a vision for the next generation of music and would like professional assistance to realize his dreams.

In this manifesto for the new musical order he calls for the sounds of industrial noise to be embraced and taken into a musical context, for as he says, "today noise reigns supreme." This integration of noise-sounds is but the next logical progression in the development of music.

Before man, nature was characteristically silent, aside from the occurrences of storms and natural phenomena and even these were not often intense or prolonged. This subdued environment led to man being captivated by his first sounds from primitive woodwind and string instruments. Sound was seen as a powerful element and became absorbed by the realms of religion. This was mistake one, for its control by the structures of religion caused music's development to move slower than the other arts. The early Greeks led by Pythagoras, while notable figures in music's history, also led to delaying the growth. Their fondness for the purest consonances imposed an implicit limitation on the expanses of melody and harmony by shying from dissonance. The Middle Ages led to some growth, but music was still focused purely on the horizontally-linear progression of tones. Chords and vertical thinking slowly developed and dissonance became utilized even more slowly. Contemporaries were then reaching their limits and using the most complex dissonance that are approaching noise-sound. Russolo argued that this expansion was only finally possible because listeners had finally evolved a acclimation towards and started to enjoy those modern sounds. In fact, listeners were craving more stimulation and the current musical sounds could not meet this demand. The funny thing about that last observation is that he accurately identified, and tried to fulfill, the sensory perception that was the crux of the "loudness war" that was not to come for another eighty years.

He argued that the options available to a composer from the orchestra were too limited, akin to what I imagine he might view as trying to paint with only a few different colors available. He distilled the orchestra down to five primary categories: rubbed strings, pinched strings, metallic winds, wooden winds, and percussion. It is his industrial noise-sounds that must be included to go beyond these limitations. Although the "old masters" were appreciated, he felt that their style no longer held up to the current culture and change was necessary. The orchestral instruments needed to be replaced with a new breed of machines. He was expecting objections at first to these noises but believed they would be futile and the populous will adapt and develop greater appreciation. His new orchestra of noise-sounds would consist of new instruments, which aren't too hard to create. The most important thing that he stresses about these new sonic sources is the ability to vary these aspects, which can be easily controlled by analyzing what is actually creating the sound and applying the laws of acoustics to discern how to get the desired alterations. Together, this group would be able to produce new and the most complex sonic emotions.

 To combat the old palette of five sound categories, he offers six from his new orchestra:

1 2 3
  • roars
  • claps
  • noises of falling water
  • driving noises
  • bellows
  • whistles
  • snores
  • snorts
  • whispers
  • mutterings
  • rustlings
  • grumbles
  • grunts
  • gurgles
4 5 6
  • shrill sounds
  • cracks
  • buzzings
  • jingles
  • shuffles

percussive noises using:

  • metal
  • wood
  • skin
  • stone
  • baked earth
  • etc.

animal and human voices:

  • shouts
  • moans
  • screams
  • laughter
  • rattlings
  • sobs

The examples he uses for these categories and lack of description leaves the delineation up to interpretation. Originally, I believed that these categories left way too much open be marked unclassifiable. However my perception changed once I tried to break down what these categories actually represented. My distillation of the new noise-sounds are: textural pads with a dispersed origin, unvocalized aerophonics, textural pads from focused origin, percussives, and vocalizations from animals and humans. These are the six categories of sounds that he desires to reproduce mechanically. He goes on to say that "the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction." Without that caveat he could very well have been fighting to usurp the traditional orchestra for no other reason than change. Instead that line, which is supported by his requirement that every noise be controllable in pitch and rhythm, goes to depict him as a visionary for a new realm of music. The main fallacy of his whole plan is the belief that this new orchestra would supplant that which already existed.

Worker of rhythm, frequencies, and intensities

Edgar Varèse took a similar stance in arguing that the new directions for music are but a continuation of history. His approach and points of focus were however slightly different from those of Russolo. It doesn't matter whether Varèse benefitted from already being in and therefore better understanding the circle of the music world or by the sheer fact that he had an additional fifty years of history from which to learn. I found his arguments more compelling and easier to get behind.

His first point of contention was the inadequacy of the music notation at that time. The current notation system limited how much detail a composer could provide and this resulted in the performer having to make decisions on the pieces performance. Similar to the move from Medieval neumes to staff notation, he saw a need for a new form of notation to give composers the tools to dictate in more detail what they hear in their heads. This new system would likely come out looking close to seismographic displays. Capturing every nuance of how a piece should be played is essential for the primary focus, incorporating machines into the act of music performance. A machine can only do as much as it is told and therefore every variance needs to programmed for reproduction.

He sees music heading towards a model of constant flow from the currently melody-driven style, primarily because that was what he desired. This type of flowing form was met with criticism from those who were fixated on the traditional musical forms. Varèse objected to people who thought of form as being a mold in which all music should be able to fit. He believed the form was but the byproduct of the compositional process and therefore his work could never fit any preexisting mold. To help validate this mentality he calls on the support of Samuel Beckett, "For Proust the quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or esthetics. Indeed he makes no attempt to dissociate form from content." In this new style, interest would be derived from changes of timbre, color, and loudness. Timbre and color is a delineating element and their manipulation would lead the listener through layers of sound. The importance of timbre in this new style of music is the primary reason machines are required. The potential timbres a machine can create are endless.

Other inadequacies which machines can overcome are: flexibility in tonality, spacial relationships, and the limits of humans. He argues that the tempered system has also been a detriment to music. By default there is a relatively minuscule option of tonality compared to what is possible within the frequency spectrum. The current acoustic instruments and performances were limited in the placement of sound sources during a performance. To be able to wrap the audience in sound from any direction can lead to deeper interaction and reception. Finally, there is the human element. As he calls it the "human-powered orchestra" is limited in how high, low, fast, slow, and the degree of precision and complexity to which it can perform.

Varèse's crusade for new instruments was incorrectly taken for a desire destroy the current musical instruments and their performers. Russolo clearly called for the replacement of the current instruments, whereas Varèse only wished to fortify the music with machines that could go beyond what a human was capable. Music has constantly added new instruments throughout its history. Why not have the next ones be electronic? Although he was gaining acceptance there were people who still asked, "but is it music." To this he responded by not calling his work music but rather "organized sound" and himself "a worker of rhythms, frequencies, and intensities." As he wrote, stubborn ear perceive all new sounds or anything they don't like as being noise. This redesignation of his art also championed against those who detested his flowing style and called it formless. 

Imagining the vision

Created between these two past visions of music's future was John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 1. This work is an example of his own direction for the new realm of music, which seems to parallel elements of both of the authors. The instrumentation definitely goes beyond that of the traditional instrumentation; calling on two variable speed phonograph turntables, a large Chinese cymbal, and a muted piano. His incorporation of these new instruments provide an expanded variety of timbres both authors would appreciate, but juxtaposes, instead of replaces, the old with new instruments to the disappointment of Russolo. These instruments also provide the performers the ability to reach for extremes in dynamics to beguile the audience. The phonographs provide a new degree of dissonance and a departure from the constraints of the tempered system. They also create long portamenti, which I'm sure amused Varèse and his preference for long flowing sirens. This abandonment of the old methodology for a product not previously possible is precisely what Russolo and Varèse desired.

In general the composition is closer to the system of Varèse than that of Russolo. This may be attributed to the fact the former can look back Cage's work while the latter preceded the piece. Imaginary Landscape No. 1 does not follow previous musical molds of form. The driving force in the composition is the constant change of layering textures. The unfamiliar sonic creations from new instruments and adapted usage of the piano leaves the audience unsure of what will come next. Going along with Varèse's reminder that machines are not miracle workers and can only reproduce that which are told, Cage utilizes machines for their ability to create what man cannot but leaves their control within the hands of an active performer. The notational system's limits are also a hinderance and Cage spends a page in the beginning of his score describing to performers how his untraditional markings should be interpreted.

In conclusion

Each of these musicians approached the same fundamental question, "what will we call music tomorrow?" and came up with their own responses based on the culture at that time. Russolo had the burden and privilege of coming first. As a result his vision was the most radical departure from the time in which he lived. He was not tainted by being invested in past definitions of music or by seeing how Cage or Varèse approached their limitations. Given the gift of time, Varèse could look back on Russolo's and Cage's work before formulating his new musical system. This led to a more grounded response with integration and supplementation being his primary focus. Despite his vision more toned down from a historical perspective he met much objection towards his new style of music. Perhaps this is because he was already within the musical sphere and perceived as trying to steer the whole towards the corner in which his music fit. To the chagrin of his opponents, Varèse did not back down but pivoted by removing the label of music from his work and continued to create his "organized sound."

Let me close this foray into what is music with Hoëne Wronsky's definition.

"[Music is] the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sound."

Further Reading

Russolo, Luigi . "The Art of Noise: (futurist manifesto, 1913)." Great Bear Pamphlet No. 18, 1967.

Varese, Edgard and Chou Wen-chung. "The Liberation of Sound." Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn - Winter, 1966): 11-19.