Last Friday, I attended Metal Machine Manifesto—Music for 16 Intonarumori at the Yerba Buenca Center for Arts here in San Francisco. This concert, a joint performance of SFMOMA and Performa, was part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the launch of futurism, or more specifically the Italian Futurist movement launched in 1909. A century ago, the futurists were producing art, music, architecture and performance that still feels very modern, even more so than some of the more conservative post-modern art of recent decades.
In the area of music, one of the most influential composers and writers was Luigi Russolo, who wrote the Art of Noises, and developerd the intonarumori or noise makers. The work of Russolo and others in futurist music paved the way for experimental and technologically-focused music from George Antheil to the electronic experimental and noise music of today that we at CatSynth perform and celebrate. Indeed, RoseLee Goldberg in her introductory remarks to the program refers to the music of the futurists as the “original DNA of noise music.”
The intonarumori were hand-cranked instruments designed to produce “noises”. Their sounds included whirrs and buzzes, clangs, scrapes, and also sirens and mechanically plucked strings.
For this performance, Luciano Chessa, a “foremost Russolo scholar” oversaw the recreation of 16 intonarumori, which were used to perform both pieces by the original futurist composers, and contemporary pieces for these instruments.
The recreated intonarumori looked much like the old pictures, with simple wooden boxes and large cones for sound projection. You can see and hear some of the futurist noise makers in this video from Chessa and composer/performer Mike Patton:
After the concert I a chance to see the intonarumori up close and even try a couple of them out. This medium-sized instrument produced repeated plucked-string sounds.
This one was purely mechanical, though another that I tried which produced automobile noises appeared to have an electric motor.
The concert itself featured Luciano Chessa as conductor for most of the pieces, and members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra under the direction of Minna Choi.
It opened with Paolo Buzzi’s 1916 piece Pioggia nel pineto antidannunziana. This was a rather theatrical piece, with dramatic conducting by Chessa and various words in Italian shouted through a megaphone. The noise intoners here were used to literally reflect the urban noises of the time such as sirens and the whirring of machinery.
In the the more contemporary pieces, the noise intoners were used in other contexts rather than as simulation and expression of the modern noisy environment, but as instruments that could be played subtly and expressively. Such was the case with Theresa Wong’s Meet me at the Future Garden. Hits and clangs and mechanically plucked strings were set against Wong’s percussive vocals and Dohee Lee’s more dramatic low voice with loud vowel intonations. From Wong’s program notes: “2 a.m. sharp, in a primordial cooperation of pulsating forest, I will sing you a song tactitle tick tocking of residual harmonies, caution manifest launching the dominance of mutual respoect and hypersensitivitiy this message sent from my iphone [sp].”
let us return to the old masters, a collaborative composition by members of sfSoundGroup, took its inspiration directly from a quote of Francesco Balilla Pratella ‘s Manifesto of Futurist Musicians to “destroy the produce for ‘well-made’ music”. The piece itself was composed during the rehearsals for the concert. The sfSoundGroup members have excelled at extended technique and performance of complex compositions with their traditional instruments, and brought that skill to the intonarumori.
The first half of the concert ended with one of the most disinctive pieces of the evening, Donno Casina by Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi. The performance featured two the larger “bass” intonarumori, along with Kihlstedt on vocals and violin, Bossi on accordian, and Moe! Staiano playing a large drum and collection of colorful metal objects. The distinctly futurist sound of the intonarumori was blended with Kihlstedt’s more contemporary extended vocal and violin techniques, and Moe!’s intense and theatrical percussion performance.
In addition to having the best title of any piece in the concert, James Fei’s New Acoustical Pleasures (A Furious Meow) was the most subtle. It was made of “quiet noises” with lots of empty space between sounds and relatively little movement, and reminded me of some of John Cage’s more static pieces. The short, soft tones from the intonarumori were quite a contrast to the loud blaring representations of modern life of the original futurist pieces.
While listening to John Butcher’s penny wands and the native string, I came up with the word “scrapier” to describe the piece. And I am pretty sure that is not a real word. Nonetheless, the piece was “scrapier” than the others. The performance, which featured Gino Robair, included lots of scrapes and grinding sounds building up to a crescendo and then coming to an abrupt stop. After a brief silence, the scrapes and grinding sounds resumed. This pattern repeated a couple of times, with variations in each repeitition.
After Fei’s and Butcher’s pieces, the full ensemble returned for Mike Patton’s << KOSTNICE >>. All sixteen intonarumori were played together to produce a thick “orchestral” sound along with drums.
Luciano Chessa’s L’acoustic ivresse (Les buits de la Paix) also featured the full ensemble plus bass vocalist Richard Mix. There were similar thick clusters as in << KOSTNICE >>, but this time framing Mix’s vocals. There were moments when the vocals and ensemble played off on another, with Mix’s strong bass voice and traditional singing style simultaneously blending and contrasting with intonarumori. This performance received one of the longer and more spirited rounds of applause of the concert.
Elliott Sharp’s Then Go, which featured Dohee Lee, received a similar reaction. This was another full-ensemble piece, where the noise tones were very well synchronized to Lee’s dramatic singing. She also tapped (or stomped) her feet in time with percussive sounds from the ensemble in a strong rhythmic pattern. Through the rhythm, piece seemed to connect both the futurist sounds (as archetypically modern sounds) with something much more traditional, even primal.
The concert concluded with a realization of a fragment from Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Risveglio di una città. Like the other original futurist work in the program, this piece directly referenced “sounds of the modern world” like cars and sirens. This very short fragment of a piece abruptly ended with Chessa dropping his baton.