July 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


Spirited Noise 'Round Town: Listening to the Futurists

In the last few years, I've been fortunate to attend a broad range of lively classical, jazz, and avant-garde musical performances. This has been due to the avid interest of my partner, Ava, who has a musical background and adventurous ear (and eye) for the rougher, edgier, out-there examples of artistic engagement. A striking observation she's made during these outings, particularly those at smaller venues, is how similar the scene is to the many poetry readings we likewise attend. Yet there's a significant lack of crossover among audience members, which is, if not entirely surprising, certainly unfortunate in terms of potential artistic cross-pollination. One byproduct of my own increased exposure to some new sound experiences is my latest publication, Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling), the actual composition of which derives from my lifting some material from Adorno's collection of essays Night Music, remarks of poet Basil Bunting concerning the musical sonata-like structure he sought in poetry, and a rather purposively na´ve attempt to engage with the structured noise I was hearing performed around town.

Last June we attended Luciano Chessa and Benjamin Kreith's performance of Garrett -- Confusing Salon Music and Noise Since 2013 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. The program consisted of the odd dozen or so pieces varying from original compositions to Erik Satie transcriptions and a Schumann intermezzo. Two of Chessa's solo performances that night particularly stood out: his realization of Fluxus member George Maciunas's "Solo for Violin" (1962) wherein the violin "plays" across the bow, as it were, rather than vice versa per usual, and his staccato recitation from Futurist Francesco Cangiullo's bombastic sound poem "Piedigrotta" (1913). Chessa then popped up later that year at a festive celebration of Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco, where he closed the evening with a performance of an original piece of music inspired by Pasolini's novel Petrolio. Even at this event happening just blocks from the poet-mecca City Lights bookstore, in North Beach, few poets (particularly younger ones) were on hand, other than notably Jack Hirschman who was representing poet-translators of Pasolini's poetry during a panel discussion.

The latest performance of music by Chessa we've had the luck to witness was earlier this year at Yuerba Buena Center for the Arts. This was the world premiere of his Set and Setting during which, in addition to performers at one point wearing jingling bells on their wrists as they played their instruments, Chessa himself was on stage barefoot in a white suit shouting through a bullhorn and there were "youth delivering scents of lavender and jasmine" to audience members by passing baskets filled with fresh samples of the flowering plants -- collection plate style -- down every row. It was also at this performance I became aware of Chessa's book Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult.

It turns out there's a regrettable lacuna in current-day understanding concerning the Italian Futurist art movement in twentieth-century modernism. Early on in my initial reading, I was turned off from further exploring their ideas by the rampant associations with Italian Fascism combined with a general fervency regarding warfare, a broadly celebrated sexism, and a powerful dose of juvenile braggadocio, all primarily owed to the writings of Filippo Marinetti. Among even the most discerning of would-be interested parties, few perceive the Futurist agenda as sharing in any intention to awaken the dead and thereby liberate artistic endeavor. Yet this is exactly the sort of surprising revelation Chessa unveils in his book.

Chessa does not set up Russolo in opposition to the controversially damning elements often broadly associated with Marinetti and the Futurist campaign noted above. Any such framing would prove inaccurate since Russolo was as intimately involved with various aspects of the group's beliefs as any other member. However, as Chessa does point out, "Futurism was a movement animated by contradictory ideas, constantly oscillating between science and art, the rational and the irrational, future and past, mechanical and spiritual. Indeed, it may well have been these very tensions and frictions that gave Futurism its dynamic force." What most drew Futurists together was the passionate vision they shared for retrofitting society by way of art.

For Futurists there were no rigid classifications of artistic discipline. An artist had only to identify with whatever various discipline or disciplines offered complementary means to achieve what was the commonly sought revolutionary end. Futurists practiced across all artistic fields, pursuing any and all modes of argument and critical thought. Chessa's insightful discussion lucidly enlarges the critical as well as historical parameters within which discussion of the Futurists might be placed. He offers fresh acknowledgment of how Futurist "[Ardengo] Soffici's claim that the psychic energy of the artist could not simply reproduce but must re-create reality was shared by all Futurists" and defying conventional modernist criticism announces "the Futurists had no qualms about acknowledging occult influence" thus broadening appreciation for the depth of the revolution they envisioned.

Chessa is careful to note: "This book should not be perceived as an attack on modernist critical ideologies." He nonetheless concisely describes how both the reception and representation of Futurism within modernist critical quarters crucially shapes present perceptions of the movement that are if not inaccurate, nonetheless certainly incomplete:

After World War II, and once the general interest in theosophy had waned, modernist criticism of Futurism entirely missed the Futurists' equation "Occult = Science." By confusing Futurist science with positivistic science, these critics dismissed or even censored the references to the occult and the irrational, which can be found everywhere in Futurist works, and relegated all such references to the margins of critical discourse, instead forefronting a materialist reduction of machine and technology in their interpretive frame of the Futurist movement.

Working to realign the critical lens on Futurism, Chessa documents the readily evident occult phenomena present throughout Russolo's writings, visual artwork, and construction of music-making devices, referred to by Russolo as intonarumori.

Lamenting the fact that "most scholars familiar with Russolo's late writings consider them to indicate a departure in his thinking" going on to "label them regressive" and charge Russolo with "abandoning the technologically inspired modernity of Futurism for esoteric gymnastics" Chessa in response demonstrates that any such so-called esotericism is prevalent from the very beginnings of Russolo's artistic activity. He delineates how Russolo clearly worked out a detailed representation of his strong occult beliefs concerning the ability of sound to manifest itself in significant spiritual as well as physical results.

These beliefs are visually demonstrated in Russolo paintings such as "Music" (1911), in which an organ player's arms and hands multiply in octopi-like display across the keyboard as a colorful assortment of masked spirit-faces bombard toward him in a fanning motion round his head while the background is one giant set of circles representing sound waves from the music he plays that radiate out from the player's head as if forming a gigantic interstellar speaker connecting the living with the dead. Chessa also heavily references the importance of Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater's book Thought-Forms (1901), which has "a famous series of color plates painted by various artists on indications furnished by the authors after experiencing trances." The book provides ideal accompaniment and encouragement to Russolo's great faith in achieving alchemical transubstantiation of the physical form, connecting inner and outer worlds, via the aural experience.

Despite the generally held thought that the Futurists despised history and any thought of learning from the past, Russolo's intonarumori owe significant debt to Leonardo da Vinci and his "notion of the (infinite) divisibility of a musical interval into infinite pitches." Chessa points out that "Leonardo was interested in this phenomenon for a long time, and he designed a series of instruments (including many variable-pitch percussion instruments) that could produce infinite pitch divisions." Continuing to succinctly argue "Leonardo's instruments had features that Russolo would have described as enharmonic, and this may be the reason why Russolo drew on them for his own constructive principles." After all, it is the "principle of continuity with which the intonarumori spiritualized noise" that lies at the heart of the potential transformational powers Russolo believed the devices of possessing.

The intonarumori manifest continuity in time because the noise was held, sustained, and therefore continuous; more important, it is continuous in the infinite pitch-space continuum because the "liberated" noise, intoned enharmonically, could inhabit the continuous and infinite space of all microtonal pitches, and in this space occupy any position within the range of the instrument. It is no surprise that Russolo gave the essence of enharmony the Leonardine name dynamic continuity.

While none of Russolo's intonarumori survived into the present day intact, Chessa has recreated these devices and held public performances. I missed the latest performance, which was held during one L@te Friday events night at the Berkeley Art Museum last December, just a couple of months prior to the Yuerba Buena gig when I learned about this book. Ironically, that same night in Berkeley there was a poetry reading upstairs in the museum from the performance space as well. Poets I know were even among the featured readers! There's hope there was some mingling amongst the two audiences.

Chessa doesn't report back concerning any personal encounters of occult nature with regard to his own experiences working with his intonarumori, yet his own musical compositions I've heard him perform demonstrate his exposure to and abiding interest in Russolo's endeavors. Reading his book has only broadened my appreciation for the directions he's pursing in his work. In addition, the contribution made to the ongoing recovery of the elemental spirituality lying behind so much of modernism is quite remarkable.

Once squashed by misplaced intentions of white-washing over embarrassing truths "wishing to save the Futurist movement from its uncomfortable connections with any form of fascism, modernism tended in the process to erase any reference to spiritual or irrational philosophy," the realities past critics and historians denied, "the fact that the Futurist future was by and large a spiritual one, and that Futurist machines were only the medium through which to explore spirituality," are finding new life. There's now an alternate doorway leading from off modernism for all the arts. The future remains as unwritten as ever. Those readers and listeners willing to venture into unexplored present realms owe it to themselves to keep company with work by the likes of Chessa. He's of our own breed, an essential companion to join in with traversing the unknown.