Every day each of us lives through history. However mundane or ordinary our actions may be, each thing we do stacks up to form a picture of a place, a community, and a society. Over the last few weeks, almost every article, advertisement or social media post I have seen has referenced the ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unprecedented’ times we currently find ourselves in. We are more aware than ever before, of our daily contributions to a period that will be scrutinised for years to come. Increasingly, people are looking to the past for comfort and reassurance on how humans have adjusted to restrictions that for many of us are strange and unfamiliar; memories of Soviet-era constraints; accounts of historic quarantines, or the make-do-and-mend attitudes of war-time testimonies.
It’s hard for us to imagine today what an impact sound would have made to those living in the early years of the twentieth century. For the Italian futurists, the clamorous sounds of modern life heralded in a new age, while loudly eradicating what they saw as Italy’s ‘static, stultifying … long dead cultural heritage.’
In a largely agricultural nation like Italy, the draw of rapidly industrialising cities like Milan – the centre of the country’s rail, motor and banking industries – would have seemed a world away from rural traditions that had remained largely unaltered for centuries. Noise signified movement, which in turn pointed to progression – a constant, machine-like forward motion towards a more prosperous new era.
The word ‘futurism’ first appeared in a 1909 manifesto by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and was quickly adopted by a group of writers, composers and artists united in the triumph of man over nature, and the dismantling of so-called ‘outdated’ cultural institutions. In The Art of Noises, Luigi Carlo Filippo Russolo attacked the Western, formalist musical tradition. Music, he argued, had lost the power to excite and inspire audiences who waited for ‘the extraordinary sensation that never comes’. He encouraged composers to look towards the cities for inspiration, using ‘ears more sensitive than eyes’, abandoning conventional instruments and a musical language that had been in place for centuries, to create ‘noise-sounds’; a conversation with the cacophony of everyday sounds.
In Risveglio di una Città (Awakening of a City), Russolo’s score calls for eight different intonarumori (noise-making instruments) specially created to imitate the ‘crackles’, ‘growls’ and ‘rumbles’ of the everyday. As with futurist literature, this was a language which gloried in the speed of the modern world. Anyone who refused or was unable to keep up in this march towards ruthless progress, would be trampled underfoot.
Violence punctuates futurism. Russolo’s performances incited riots – at one of them, he punched a critic in the face – while Marinetti’s manifesto lists war as ‘the world’s only hygiene’, in the battle to purge society of the mistakes of previous generations. It was language that ran uncomfortable close to fascism. Indeed, many prominent futurists embraced fascism, and were instrumental in Mussolini’s rise to power, propping up a nationalist ideology that merged the exciting potential of the young nation’s socio-economic growth, with a nostalgic, Utopian vision of a united, Imperial past.
From the first hums of human interaction, to the roar of the jet engine, the idea of progress is so often defined by noise. While we may look on the futurists’ attitudes towards the modern world as – at best, eccentric and outdated; at times, abhorrent – their diagnosis of a ‘healthy’ society, marked by many of the sounds that much of us are now adjusting to life without, still rings uncomfortably true.