Noise as Art; Art as Noise.

This was a slap-dash article I wrote for History Class. I wish I had more time to write something more substantial, but one must do all they can with only a few hours. I should learn to stop procrastinating so much…

A discussion of a few basic differences between Futurism and Traditional art/music:

Futurism differs from Traditional music and art in many ways. A few worth discussing, which set these genres apart, are its musical intent, inspiration, and compositional techniques.

The intent of Futurist music can be readily identified through many “manifestos” and “artist books” written by the Italian and Russian artists who championed the movement. One such manifesto, The Art of Noise (Futurist Manifesto, 1913), by Luigi Russolo aptly discusses the underlying intent of the Futurist movement. Russolo states that:

Noise…comes to us confused and irregular as life itself, never reveals itself wholly but reserves for us [innumerable] surprises. We are convinced, therefore, that by selecting, [coordinating], and controlling noises we shall enrich mankind with a new and unsuspected source of pleasure.

We see the intent of the Futurist movement, through Russolo’s manifesto, as creating a bridge between what society conceives as noise an effectively juxtaposing it with music to create a new and homogenous sound.

These Futurist concepts and ideas are also very evident in visual art. In Umberto Boccioni’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, the idea of incorporating life into ones work is an essential part of its revitalization. This is much the same idea discussed by Russolo regarding music. Boccioni makes a clear point about the incorporation of ones physical environment with art, he says:

[Artist must render] their extension into space palpable, systematic, and plastic, because no one can deny any longer that one object continues at the point another begins, and that everything surrounding our body (bottle, automobile, house, tree, street) intersects it and divides it into sections by forming an arabesque of curves and straight lines.

The Futurist movement’s intent is very different from that of Traditional art, as we can see from these two manifestos. Traditional art was intended to invoke and inculcate certain emotions and humanistic pathos. On the transverse, the Futurist intent seemed more to homogenize the industrialized surroundings of ones life (speed, violence, machinery, etc.) with art, regardless of whether or not it created a pleasing aural and visual experience.

The inspiration of Futurist and Traditional artist also differ in a variety of ways. Futurist artists are “sated” with the works of Beethoven and Wagner and gain a “much greater pleasure from ideally combining the noises of streetcars, internal-combustion engines, automobiles, and busy crowds than from re-hearing, for example, the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastorale’.” We see that Traditional artist were inspired more by lyrical and melodic concepts, where as Futurists were more so influenced by the sounds of man-made machines. Many of Beethoven’s works (a composer inevitably pinned as a Traditionalist by Futurists) were inspired by more humanistic ideas. For example, Beethoven was inspired by heroism in composing his “Eroica” Symphony.

Traditional art and music are created by “traditional instruments,” were as Futurist relied more on the employment of new instruments. These new “noise instruments” or intonarumori were lead and designed by Russolo himself. They were intended to reproduce timbres of machinery, howling, automobiles, etc. The timbral effects of these instruments is, in itself, counteractive to the ideals of traditional music, where traditional instruments were created and designed to emulate the human voice, allowing each instrument to bring to fruition the meldoci and lyrical lines motives of composers.

We see the development of new concert guidelines and more extensive performance notes emerge with the advent of the Futurist movement. Most notable is Karlhienz Stockhausen’s “Helicopter String Quartet,” were he has written very detailed performance notes on how the work is performed, ensuring a smooth coordination between musicians, audio engineers, and helicopter pilots. Traditional music still upholds, as we see in today’s concert halls, same performance practice principles established many centuries ago.

Discussion of compositional elements of the “descendents of Futurism”:

In Zierolf’s article, he regards many works as descendents of the original musical Futurism. Two works mentioned in his article, Ruth Crawford’s “Piano Study in Mixed Accent” and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Helicpoter Quarter,” will be analyzed and discussed for their distinct characteristics that exemplify traits of Futurism.

Ruth Crawford’s “Piano Study in Mixed Accent,” composed in 1930 for piano, exemplifies the mechanistic aspects of Futurism. Imitating machinery was an essential aspect of Futurist music. Groves notes Futurists adherent “obsession with speed, machines and industry” in their compositions. Crawford’s work is
exemplary in manifesting and mimicking these practices, particularly the mechanistic sounds. In a review by Graham Simpson, he compares Crawford’s work to that of an Einstein equation, showing the works less than humanistic
qualities. Simpson writes that the work is “…a steely line of articulation across the keyboard which has the poise and self-sufficiency of an Einstein equation.

    “Helicopter String Quarter,” by Karlheinz Stockhausen, is a magnificent representation of the Futurist ideals. It incorporates both traditional musical instruments with the industrial sounds of a helicopter. Stockhausen can be seen as the predecessor to early Italian and Russian Futurist, using the technology and devices which were “unavailable to the earlier Futurists, [where] their “music of noises” remained an imaginative fantasy.” An imaginative fantasy, that Stockhausen made real.

The work, as noted in Zierolf’s article,
“requires four helicopters, each containing a member of a string quartet. Sounds made by the string instruments mix with the rotor sounds, all sent to the controller on the ground via radio then mixed in real time to produce the composition. The sound of the rotors spooling up is identical to the way an airplane propeller begins from stasis to ultimate RPM and pitch”. All elements defined by Futurism.

On Stockhausen’s website, he goes into detail about how the strings predominantly play tremolo to match the rhythmic undulations of the helicopter propeller. He writes, “Most of the time, the string players played tremoli which blended so well with the timbres and the rhythms of the rotor blades that the helicopters sounded like musical instruments.” The melding of these two sounds, both traditional and mechanical, or natural and un-natural, is one of the prominent characteristics of Futurism. Furthermore, Stockhausen goes into great detail about how the work should be performed, notating how the audio speakers are to be arranged in the concert hall to the responsibilities of each audio engineers on the helicopters and in the concert hall.

Merits and Shortcoming of Futurism:

No doubt Futurism has its merits: how it has influenced composers, how we as musicians perceive and listen to the world around us, to how it has propagated the development and experimentations of new timbral sounds. But all good things have their shortcomings as well; Futurism is no exception to this. Notably, its extreme performance demands to its lack of any real melodic or lyrical development.

Zierlof’s discusses, to a small extant, the lack of influence generated by Futurism, but on the contrary many composers have indeed been inspired by the movement’s limitless compositional possibilities. One such composer that was influenced by these Futurist concepts was Kristofori Pendercki, were feeds off of the machinistic aspects of violence and speed. Particularly Pendercki’s String Quartet No. 2 and his “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” which adequately portray Futurist ideals. Ligeti’s “Poeme Symphonique” for 100 metronomes, though labeled as chance music, is another work which upholds the concepts of Futurism. These being only a small hand full of works which had a direct influence from Futurists.

Futurism has its shortcomings as well. Conceptually, music has been a means of expressing human emotion for thousands of years. Earliest concepts of this can be seen in the Doctrine of Ethos by the Ancient Greeks, a doctrine that goes into great detail about the effects of musical sound on the human pathos and spirit. “Even Aristotle, in his Politics, explains how the different kinds of music, imitating specific feelings (anger, kindness, love), can affect a human behavior.” Futurist music lacks, in many forms, the capacity to inculcate basic human emotions, less that emotion be of confusion.

Aside from the lack of any melodic or lyrical material, the performance requirements for Futurist music can put a catastrophic halt on any concert. If we take not to the requirements for Stockhausen’s “Helicopter String Quarter,” one can see that such a production would be extremely difficult, costly, and dangerous.

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