Luigi Russolo and the Futurists

Luigi Russolo

Luigi Russolo (1885 - 1947) was the foremost creator of Futurist music. Though trained as a painter, Russolo began his musical explorations in his 1913 manifesto, "The Art of Noise." In it, he issued a call to young artists to join him in his exploration of noise as music, with special emphasis on the sounds of a new, urban world. Dissatisfied with traditional orchestral instruments (and with tradition in general), Russolo set out to create a series of "intonarumori," or "noise instruments," to musically alter the sounds around him by use of dynamics and controlled, sliding pitch. Intonarumori concerts amazed and confused audiences in Italy and throughout Europe in the 1910s and 1920s, and the instruments were admired by Stravinsky, Ravel, and Varese. However, despite the attention they initially received, none of the intonarumori or their designs survived past World War II, and the instruments were largely forgotten.

After creating the intonarumori, Russolo invented a number of other musical instruments, including the noise harmonium (a keyboard which connected to several different kinds of intonarumori mechanisms), the enharmonic bow (a rod wrapped in coiled wire used for playing traditional stringed instruments), and the enharmonic piano (a piano whose strings were continuously bowed by a belt-like device).

Russolo's life was inevitably a product of his times. Like many of the other Futurists, he volunteered for service in World War I, in which he was seriously wounded. He pursued his work with the intonarumori in Italy both before and after the war, but moved to Paris in 1927 due to his opposition to Fascism. In the 1930s, after a brief stay in Spain, Russolo returned to Italy and abandoned his musical interests. He spent his later years painting (in a realist rather than a Futurist style), and studying and writing about occult philosophy.


Futurism was primarily a movement of visual and performance art. It was founded in 1909 by F.T. Marinetti, who was inspired by the avant-garde theatrics of Alfred Jarry in Paris. In his "Founding Manifesto of Futurism," Marinetti introduced key Futurist concepts, like the love of modernity and the desire to jolt complacent arts audiences to an alertness of the new world around them. Futurist paintings had much in common with Cubist work, often featuring multiple vantage points and a stop-frame depiction of movement. Futurist performances became notorious for their absurd take on variety theater and their adversarial attitude toward audiences. For instance, Marinetti endorsed activities such as putting glue in theatergoers' seats and starting fistfights with the crowd (as happened at an early intonarumori concert). The Futurists were also a verbose group, and left behind a large collection of manifestos, in which they explain the philosophical underpinnings and practical applications of their work, usually in bombastic, exclamatory language. Foremost among Italian Futurists were the painters Carlo Carra, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and Giacomo Balla.

Marinetti also inspired another notable branch of Futurism which began in Russia in 1912. Russian Futurists included the painters and poets David Burlyuk, Vladimir Burlyuk, Alexei Kruchenykh, and perhaps the most famous, Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Russian Futurists shared with the Italians a visual language of abruptly contrasting, brightly colored geometric forms. The Russians were intensely multidisciplinary and their activities ranged from outlandish street parades to high-concept opera. Like the Italians, Russian Futurists drew as much attention for their provocative, declamatory style as they did for the content of their works.

From "The Art of Noise," 1913

We Futurists have deeply loved and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the "Eroica" or the "Pastoral."

Away! Let us break out, since we cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality, with a generous distribution of resonant slaps in the face, discarding violins, pianos, double-basses, and plaintive organs. Let us break out!

We therefore invite young musicians of talent to conduct a sustained observation of all noises, in order to understand the various rhythms of which they are composed, their principal and secondary tones. By comparing the various tones of noises with those of sounds, they will be convinced of the extent to which the former exceed the latter. This will afford not only an understanding, but also a taste and passion for noises. After being conquered by Futurist eyes, our multiplied sensibilities will at last hear with Futurist ears. In this way, the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.