Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art
Unraveling the history of a medium somewhere between music, visual art, and literature
The Futurist Moment: Howlers, Exploders, Crumplers, Hissers, and Scrapers
In the midst of an art opening at a Paris gallery in 1902, ambient music was born. Erik Satie and his cronies, after begging everyone in the gallery to ignore them, broke out into what they called Furniture Music—that is, background music—music as wallpaper, music to be purposely not listened to. The patrons of the gallery, thrilled to see musicians performing in their midst, ceased talking and politely watched, despite Satie’s frantic efforts to get them to pay no attention. Cut to 1913, the year that the literary critic Marjorie Perloff calls “The Futurist Moment.” Across Europe, the avant-garde is peaking in its most extreme forms. Painting, sculpture, performance, poetry, dance and sound works are all pushing the limits. Let’s listen in to what was happening around that crucial moment.
In Russia, the experiments of Velemir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) and Aleksej Kruchenykh (1886-1968) were among the first to abstract language in a way that we would term “concrete” today (i.e. it’s more important how the words sound than what they mean). They even invented a name for it, zaum, which like its later incarnation, Dada, was shorthand for a “transrational” language. Listening to these poems, you’ll hear invented words, neologisms, fragments; in short, the whole of what came to be later known as “sound poetry” is contained in these pioneering works.
In Italy, the Futurists were working along similar lines. Futurist ringleader F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944) invented the concept of parole in liberta, which roughly translates into “words in freedom.” Marinetti’s scope included the page as well as the sound; he did some of the first typographical experiments—words floating around on the page, freed from the “tyranny” of the paragraph, stanza, or line. In a recording of his most famous poem, “Bombardamento di Adrianapoli,” (1926) we can hear Marinetti actually performing the sounds of the battlefield with his mouth: machine guns rattle and canons boom. The score for the piece, from which Marinetti reads, is a stunning graphic work, with letters of different sizes, all flying around the page.
Another important Futurist was Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto, The Art of Noises, opened the possibilities of incorporating “noise” into music. In it he claimed, “We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffle of crowds, the variety of din from the stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning mills, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.” His Awakening of a City (Risveglio di una citta, 1914) was played on a battalion of noise machines that he called intonorumori, designed by Russolo himself to mimetic industrial sounds. There were 27 different types of instruments, each producing a different racket. They had great names: “howlers,” “exploders,” “crumplers,” “hissers,” and “scrapers.” There’s a famous photo of Russolo and his assistant Piatti standing amidst a roomful of intonorumori: boxes of varying sizes, each fitted with a huge conical metal speaker. From the looks of it, you had to crank a handle – not unlike a Victrola – in order to get it to make a sound. Russolo’s work would prove to be essential; without him, the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse or Nine Inch Nails wouldn’t be possible.
George Antheil‘s Ballet Mécanique, written in 1925 to accompany an abstract silent film by the artist Fernand Leger was also key in terms of admitting extra-musical sounds into music. The racous score — which included a pianola, two or more pianos, three xylophones, four bass drums, tamtam, siren, a battery of electric bells, and three airplane propellers — caused a riot during its Paris premiere. American composers such as Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse were also hammering out new ways of thinking about sound, a movement which spread like wildfire across the Americas to include composers like Silvestre Revueltas in Mexico, Amadeo Roldan in Cuba, and Carlos Chavez in Mexico. So powerful was the work of these artists that they occasionally appear in concert-hall repetoire around the world.
There’s a wonderful recording of Marie Osmond reciting Hugo Ball‘s sound poem “Karawane” (1916) made in the early ’80s for a segment of the television show Ripley’s Believe It or Not. While she doesn’t do a great job with it (try Canadian Christian Bök’s for the definitive version), it’s a reminder of how this stuff is never too far below the surface of popular culture. Along with Emily Hennings, Ball (1886-1926) founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, which only lasted five months but spawned the Dada movement. “Karawane” was one of the last events held at the Cabaret. For it Ball place his texts on music stands scattered all over the podium and turned from one to another during the performance, raising and lowering the cardboard “wings” of his costume.
The Cabaret Voltaire was a hotbed of performance poetry, which was often recited by several voices, all screaming at once. The most famous of these poems, “L’amiral Cherche Une Maison à Louer” (1916) featured Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Richard Hulsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara all whistling, singing, grunting, coughing, and speaking at the same time. It was the first instance of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins later would call intermedia, which morphed into Happenings and later into performance art.
Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) invented what he called “optophonetics” which, like Marinetti, used typographic variations in size to indicate the spoken variations of pitch and volume of a score when performed. In 1916, after hearing Hausmann’s poems, Kurt Schwitters, too, jumped into the act and built up a totally abstract piece called “Sonata in Urläten.” Over the years, the “Sonata” grew in both size and variation, finally becoming the stunning Ursonate (1926). Often acknowledged as the greatest sound poem ever written, it clocks in at around 40 minutes. For many years, there had only been snippets of Schwitters reading his masterpiece, but in the early ’90s, a full-length tape recorded in the 1930s surfaced in an attic in Holland. It was finally released on CD by Wergo in 1993.
Although most people know Marcel Duchamp as a visual artist, few are aware of his small, but important musical output. Again, most of his activity in music was part of the Futurist movement, taking place between 1912 and 1915. He created an aleatory vocal piece for three voices, “Erratum Musical,” which was included in the Green Box Duchamp published in 1934. It’s undated, but historians have pinned it to somewhere around 1913. It was originally written with Duchamp’s three sisters in mind. To compose it, he made three sets of 25 cards, one for each voice, with a single note per card. Each set of cards was mixed in a hat; he then drew out the cards from the hat one at a time and wrote down the series of notes indicated by the order in which they were drawn. Another work, “La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même. Erratum Musical” (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even. Erratum Musical), belongs to a series of notes and projects that Duchamp started to collect around 1912. It was written using numbers, instead of notes, and Duchamp prescribes an elaborate mechanical procedure to generate the score. It’s an insane process: you need to get several open-top railroad cars, a set of numbered balls, and a funnel. Each ball represents a note (pitch) and these balls have to fall through the funnel into the cars passing underneath it at various speeds. When the funnel is empty, the composition is completed. Needless to say, it’s a different piece each time it’s “composed” and played. This lack of definitive versioning would resonate later in remix culture.
The photographer Man Ray, too, while primarily known as a visual artist, created a score called Lautgedicht “Sound Poem” (1924). The score is simply a poem that Ray found and crossed out, word by word. Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk did a fantastic rendition of it recently by interpreting the lengths of the crossed-out lines as durational elements; he simply intones every duration in an obnoxious, nasaly, guttural honk which lasts about seven minutes. I’ve played it in full on the radio on my WFMU show and it never fails to light up the phone, mostly with listeners begging me to take it off.