I publish this blog post with some nervousness, as I’m not a historian or musicologist. This is something I feel strongly about though, and as ever am very happy to receive feedback and corrections in the comments, either on this post, or on the fediverse or facebook.
Luigi Russolo was an Italian painter and composer who wrote the Art of Noises manifesto in 1913, which has become influential particularly in the academic, electroacoustic music genre. He gave the first concert of futurist music the following year, together with his collaborator and the founder of the futurist movement, Filippo Marinetti.
To understand the context of this work, we can read the Manifesto of Futurism, one of Marinetti’s manifestos published some years earlier, in 1909. The manifesto points are below, translated into English from the original French version by R.W. Flint. You could probably skip the first points and jump straight to point 9, which gets to the heart of the matter.
- We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
- Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
- Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
- We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
- We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
- The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
- Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
- We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
- We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
- We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
- We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.
So, futurism, as expressed by its founder and Russolo’s close collaborator, was about violence, the glorification of war, destruction of museums, libraries, academies, and the fight against moralism, and feminism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Benito Mussolini was a fan of Marinetti’s writing, and when Mussolini founded the fascist movement in 1919, Marinetti co-wrote the fascist manifesto.
So although the wider picture is of course complex, the history of Italian futurism can’t really be separated from the history of Italian fascism. There has however been some academic effort to do so, particularly with regard to Russolo’s image. The one book written on Russolo, by Luciano Chessa and published in 2012, briefly covers this whitewashing:
Russolo’s documented involvement with fascism has until now been erased from Russolo scholarship; his participation in the Duce-endorsed futurist exhibit at Turin’s Quadriennale in May 1927 has been thoroughly suppressed, as has his involvement with the exhibit at Milan’s Pesaro gallery in October 1929. His fascist connection is further covered up with the designation “antifascist,” which Giovanni Lista first applied to him in 1975. Lista supported this designation with a number of disputable post–World War II testimonies, and he claimed that in 1927 Russolo voluntarily went into exile in Paris to protest fascism.Chessa, Luciano: Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult. University of California Press, 2012.
What led Russolo to Paris were professional opportunities, not politics. In fact, his permanent return to Italy in 1933, as well as some of his subsequent writings, signal first acceptance of and then allegiance to the fascist regime. Yet the fable of his antifascism runs through all Russolo scholarship—it is still maintained in Tagliapietra (2007) and Lista (2009)—with no convincing evidence to support it. In fact the opposite is true: for instance, on the title page of the publication Arte Fascista, published by the Sindacati Artistici Torino in December 1927, Russolo’s name is prominently displayed.
The Arte Fascista title page is shown in the image at the top of this post. It’s worth mentioning that Luciano Chessa himself is writing here to explain why Russolo’s life and interest in the occult isn’t much written about, the context of fascism being one of the reasons. Chessa points out that Russolo wrote his Art of Noises in 1913, whereas the fascist manifesto wasn’t written until 1919; on this basis, he argues that the former couldn’t have been touched by fascism. This argument doesn’t seem to add up when you consider that the futurist manifesto came first, was full of fascist sentiment, and was written by Russolo’s close collaborator in 1909. The Manifesto of Futurist Painters, co-written by Russolo the following year in 1910, was marked with similar calls for violence.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Russolo and the wider futurist movement should be wiped from the history books, after all destroying libraries is what the futurist manifesto advocated. But I do feel that futurism should be explained in context. Russolo is frequently and uncritically referenced by academics and others simply as the founder of noise music. There is even an international prize for electroacoustic music named in his honour, the Prix Russolo. When I asked why the prize was named after a fascist, their facebook page maintainer simply said he wasn’t one, because Russolo (the prolific writer of manifestos) was simply a mystic who didn’t have any political thoughts.
Nodding towards the chip on my shoulder, I suppose music academics really love a dead white European or American male genius to associate themselves with, building an origin story for their music culture. In electroacoustic and computer music circles, the same half-dozen influences come up again and again. These male geniuses often do themselves cite diverse influences, from Ghanaian timelines to Indonesian Gamelan, but it’s their name that becomes associated with these influences, from a Western perspective synthesising vibrant, continually developing cultures into a fixed body of recorded or notated work, attributed to a single person. Our obsession with the creativity of singular authors rather than cultures of practice works not only to misappropriate, but also to limit creativity. Especially when an idea as rich and open to possibility as noise art gets associated with a singular, deeply problematic man like Russolo.
As an example, this breathless article claims that Russolo was the first person to make music from noise. This is clearly a ridiculous claim in denial of percussion, humans were making noise music by hitting things long before futurism or fascism came along. For example Al-Jazari made robots that would not only serve drinks and danced but “perform with a clamorous sound which is heard from afar”. He published his designs in his “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” in 1206, some 679 years before Russolo’s birth. Furthermore it didn’t take a singular genius to turn industrial noise into music; this seems to have been a universal human response, from the e.g. African and Italian diasporic music communities that founded house and techno in the USA, to the clog dancers responding to inhumane working conditions in cotton mills to create repetitive, and frankly astonishing noise music through dance that mimicked the machines (full performance here if you’re curious!).
So how to conclude.. I suppose I wonder that when people uncritically cite Russolo and Marinetti as influences, are they aware of the history? Indeed are they calling for the destruction of history, to make culture afresh? Is an unapologetically institutionalised practice such as electroacoustic music, really founded on the principles of a movement that calls for institutions, museums and libraries to be destroyed? I don’t think so, and perhaps twenty years ago, it was more understandable that people would cherry pick otherwise palatable ideas from fascists, while brushing the violence and destruction under the carpet. With far-right politics seemingly in the ascendancy in Europe and elsewhere, I think academics should be more careful, though. Either separate the ideas from the person, or carefully acknowledge the history in order to move away from it. But don’t award music prizes in the honour of fascists.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I received some pushback from this post, including in the comments below. In his talk “Russolo’s antifascism revisited“, Luciano Chesso (who is quoted above) goes into much more detail about Russolo’s close relationship with fascism. He clarifies many things, including the reason why Russolo didn’t participate in the founding of the fascist party (he was out of action with a fractured skull), why he spent so much time in Paris (he had a mistress there), that he nonetheless still performed in Italy and wrote for fascist newspapers during this time (so not at all in exile as often claimed), that when he returned to Italy in 1933 (which he would definitely not have done had he been an anti-fascist) he received a pension via Mussolini himself, and so on. The testimonials in support of him were all made post-war, by people who had their own links to fascism to obscure, and so were therefore unreliable. Personally I find his account much more convincing than that of Russolo’s supporters.