from: Emergence at the frontiers and in fringes & trenches of contemporary music
“We must listen to the voices that seem useless.
In brains full of long sewer pipes
of school wall, tarmac and welfare papers
the buzzing of insects must enter.
We must fill […] the ears of all of us with things
that are the beginning of a great dream […]
and stretch the corners of the soul like an endless sheet.”
(from: Andrey Tarkovski’s Nostalghia, 1983)
One may wonder whether not at all times in history mankind has been looking back upon the era spanning her generation and the two, three that came before hers as that one very special period. The time’s window in which man’s prospects, her knowledge of and outlook on life, the world, the universe and everything (42) were transformed in ways that eclipsed all that came before. (Including your own, the lifetime of three generations is about the period in history that during your lifetime you may get to know and learn about by oral delivery from contemporaries and next of kin.)
Leaving aside whatever attempt to answer whether and in which sense we might consider this to be or not to be the case: it is how we look back upon the past century AD, which saw the onset and coming to bloom of a still continuing avalanche of scientific discoveries, conceptual disclosures and factual revelations, leading to a (physico-mathematical) description and understanding of (quantifiable) properties of the whatchamacallit (the ‘universe’ or ‘multiverse’) which — our senses tell us — are with-in and with-out us, that turned out to be uncannily effective and precise, in a wide range of ways (including the more than one way for governing and other powers that be to at will unleash apocalyptic powers, comparable only to those that used to be reserved to nature and thought to be but the privileged means that mythical gods could — and according to our many legends often did — put to use, to punish and to reward).
Many thought-of-as-certainties, acquired in the course of ages, continue to come tumbling down as we set out on a relentlessly rough ride, rushing our planet with all that is on and around it onwards from evermore highs to ever deeper lows, as if it were hit by a perilous case of bipolar disorder. The myriad profound and seemingly irreversible — social, political, economical — revolutions and developments that mark humanity’s recent history were driven and enabled by corresponding revolutions and developments in science and technology. These in turn are paralleled by and reflected in the equally revolutionary changes and developments that overturned most of our long-standing ideas on the nature of the visual and sounding arts: for whereas science is like our world’s reasoning brain and technology its musculature, the arts (in its broadest possible sense, including literature, music and works in whatever medium) are our world’s conscience.
(Some art critics and theoreticians consider the changes in our ideas about what is art and its use to be radical to such a degree, that it has led them to proclaim that art came to its end. It no longer expresses a ‘universal human unconscious’, but has ‘degenerated into an expression of narrow ideological ideals’ (Kuspit, 2004). Instead of ‘order’ it came to reflect ‘chaos’. We here would rather interpret this as a faithful reflection of a current global state of scrupulousness-without-direction. On a more abstract level, it is equally tempting to interpret such observations as an expression of the fact that we may think of ‘art’ as a kind of non-linear dynamical system.)
With the exception of (fully or partially) improvised jazz and popular music genres with African-American roots (and a number of other important, noteworthy pioneers notwithstanding), until the years following the Second World War the western art of music has continued to be firmly based on a two-step process, consisting in (first stage) composition in the form of symbolic representation on paper, and (second stage) these symbols’ interpretation, their making-into-sound by specialists — musicians — using specialised tools — musical instruments — many of which were developed and perfected already centuries ago.
The appropriation by the Allies of the technique for high quality audio recording on magnetic tape that was developed in Nazi-Germany in the years before and during the war, and its subsequent introduction for general use in the global broadcast and recording industries proved to be a major turning point.
Frontiers and fringes delimiting the field of what is music and how it is, or could, or should be made, however, were being probed and pushed for quite some time already.
The (hi)story of the awakening of novel musical and sonic sensibilities in the era of fast spreading and far-reaching industrialisation and mechanisation (not only in, around and between our cities, but notably also on the battle fields delimited and bared by our continuing wars, has been told and written many times, in many ways and from many a different angle. We will not attempt to add to, repeat or try to summarise some such story. But it will be useful to review a few very early venturers into then as yet fully untrodden, bare and unknown artistic territories, where the very first steps can only be compared, really, to those set on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s … “Hippity-hoppity, hippity-hoppity, hippity-hoppity, over hill and dale … Da da da da da da da da da da da da da … Hippity-hoppity all along …” (As sung — approximately — by Eugene Cernan, commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission and at this time of writing the last man to have walked on the moon.)
Arguably the loudest early crying outs for a new art and a new music, enlarging and enriching the domain of musical sound, willing and able to confront directly the economic, social and political sides of the industrialised world that had been emerging from the early 19th century onward, came from Italian artist Luigi Russolo — “I am not a musician by profession, I am a Futurist painter” — who sought after a futur(ist)(e) music not just by adding worldly sounds (noises) to the palette of the classical orchestra, but by creating an “orchestra [that] will produce the most complex and newest sonic emotions […] rather through a fantastic association of these varied sounds […] We will amuse ourselves by orchestrating together in our imagination the din of rolling shop shutters, slamming doors, the varied hubbub of train stations, iron works, thread mills, printing presses, electrical plants and subways” (Russolo, 1913).
Together with his fellow Futurist painter Ugo Piatti, Russolo built an impressive number of mechanical sound producing devices (on the few known remaining photographs these show up as hand-operated man sized rectangular boxes with conic metal megaphones as sound outlets) that as a family were baptised intonarumori, noise intoners. Individually they were given names that corresponded to the type of sounds they were meant to produce, like crepitatori (cracklers), ronzatori (buzzers), stropicciatori (scrapers), gorgogliatori (gurglers), ululatori (howlers), sibilatori (whistlers)…
Russolo and his Futurist companions quite literally dug and roamed trenches along and beyond the frontiers of the arts and music of their age and days, in a world that was deeply wounded and marked by a ‘first’ World War. Russolo advocated his vision of the future of music over a period of at least 15 years, both in the intimate, unpublic, setting of home (sometimes witnessed by curious and adventurous composers the like of Igor Stravinsky) and in a series of public performances with the intonarumori in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. When Russolo demonstrated one of the intonarumori during an evening at the house of Futurist chief Filipo Tomasso Marinetti, Stravinsky “leapt from the divan like an exploding bedspring, with a whistle of overjoyed excitement,” recalls Francesco Cangiullo. “The frenetic composer hurled himself on the piano in an attempt to find that prodigious onomatopoetic sound, but in vain did his avid fingers explore all the semi-tones.” (Cangiullo, 1930)
[In a very early stage the Futurists ‘noisicians’ tour of Europe got interrupted by the 1914 outbreak of the War, when Russolo and other Futurists artists enlisted as volunteers, not in the least to experience at first hand “the very new noises of Modern Warfare” (Davies, 1994). In 1917 Russolo suffered a head wound requiring cranial surgery and a year of recuperation.]
Other than by like-minded fellow artists, the Futurists’ endeavours were usually met with hostility. They led to brawl and uproar of the attending crowds and even physical fights with members of the public. Reporting on the Italian noisicians’ first London performance, the London Times on June 16, 1914, wrote that the music brought forth by Russolo’s instruments “resembled the sounds heard in the rigging of a channel-steamer during a bad crossing. […I]t was, perhaps, unwise of the players […] to proceed with their second piece , ‘A Meeting of Motor-cars and Aeroplanes’, after the pathetic cries of ‘No more!’ which greeted them from all excited quarters of the auditorium”, (Morgan, 2015) finally suggesting that maybe « Futurist music had better be kept for the Future »…
All this took place at a time when sound recording technology was still in its infancy and far from ubiquitous, so there is little else than some photographs, the first two pages of a (remarkable!) [graphic score] for an intonarumori piece called (Ris)veglio di una cittá (Awakening of a city) and a great many words left for us to try and feel how Russolo’s Futurist music sounded. None of the original intonarumori used by the Futurists have survived the first half of the century, and the music and sounds they produced we may only imagine from recent, often diverging, attempts at reconstructions based on the remaining drawings and photographs. It is, however, quite safe to conjecture that compared to nowadays standards, the volume, the sound pressure, that the intonarumori managed to produce must have been rather modest. The only known phonographic recording (of decidedly low quality) that lets us hear the Futurists’ original instruments dates from the early 1920s. In two short pieces, Corale and Serenata, the intonarumori’s growls, howls, gratings and scrapings can be heard as a blurry noisy background that rather unconvincingly is interlaced with pretty tame and conventional tonal instrumental music composed by Antonio Russolo, Luigi’s brother. It is thinkable that these and maybe similar ‘mixed’ composition were part of a deliberate strategy of compromise, in an attempt to seduce the general audience into a readier acceptation of the Futurist more radical aims. [Though arguably incomparable in their artistic intentions, in a way these particular Futurist sound documents curiously recall and predate some more recent ‘classical remixes’, like for example Pierre Henry’s La 10ème Remix (Beethoven) from 1998 or Dracula (Wagner) from 2002.] It was for similar reasons that on the occasion of the 1914 events in the London Coliseum, in view of the dramatic reception of the Italians’ opening night, the theatre’s manager Oswald Stoll obliged the Futurists to include a gramophone playing records by the then very popular English composer Edward Elgar in the remaining of their in total twelve performances at the Coliseum (Rainey, 1999), a fact that, though unintentional and in hindsight, should but increase our esteem for the Futurists’ London appearances’ level of sheer ultramodern avant-gardity…
It is quite likely that the mixed pieces that survived on record were among the works that the Futurists performed in June 1921 in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. This may account for the surprisingly negative or just about lukewarm reception of the Futurist music by the community of modernist artists that attended the concert. “The Dadaists who attended did not fail to express their feelings — and very loudly,” recounts Parisian ur-Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, who observes that the works performed “were pale, insipid and melodious in spite of Russolo’s noise-music”. (Ribemont-Dessaignes, 1931) Present as well at this Parisian Futurist concert was the Dutch ultra-ultramodern and self-acclaimed neoplastic painter Piet Mondrian. Also Mondrian was not convinced by what he heard that day in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, though he appreciated the Futurists’ efforts. The concert inspired him to write an essay on the future (of) music that appeared that same year in two parts, in the August and September issues of De Stijl, the (Dutch) journal of the neoplastic movement published by painter, designer, writer and critic Theo van Doesburg. “Just as the Futurists only did one step towards ‘the’ new in the art of painting, for now they also did only one step towards that new in music. It is however a significant step,” he wrote in the first part of the essay. “In music ‘the’ new advances even more slowly than in the visual arts. ‘The’ new in music demands far more than just supplementing traditional musical pitched tones by sounds and internalising tone through the generation of different timbres (as did the Futurists with their bruiteurs).” Sound is like colour, Mondrian observes, it has no volume. “Considering music as ‘visual’ art should, in the new, lead to its conclusion. Turning neoplastic, music will stop being predominantly imitation of nature and become truly abstract, in as far as sound, music’s basic imaging agent, permits.” (Mondrian, 1921a)
In the second part of his essay he stresses that a new music needs new instruments, but these should be instruments that “1° produce tones of which the wavelength and vibration remain perfectly constant for the time of their duration, 2° are constructed in such a way that tones stop sounding instantly.” (Clearly Mondrian is thinking here of a tone as the sonic equivalent of a perfect straight line; a contemporary musician will probably hear an electronically generated pure (sine) tone.) These conditions, he writes, are not satisfied by the Futurists’ intonarumori, many of which are still constructed so as to enable the execution of scales, like on a traditional musical instrument. Mondrian interestingly also compares the Parisian Futurist performance to that of a jazz band (he loved jazz music). “In a different way the Futurists proceeded like a jazz band. Also a jazz band uses new instruments alongside traditional ones, even though in a jazz band such new instruments are less complex. A jazz band provides an interplay of old and new: and so do the Bruiteurs, but by playing ‘new’ the old way. Nevertheless, a jazz band already nullifies old harmony more than did the Bruiteurs … maybe that is because the jazz band does not need to worry about ‘making art’.” (Mondrian, 1921b)
At the end of his quite fascinating analysis (Mondrian, 1921b), Mondrian concludes that the Futurists’ music “of old harmony performed on new instruments will turn out to have a great impact on the coming music [as] it clearly shows that the old harmony is unworthy of this era. It may help us to sooner realise that the old music (in general) is perfectly equivalent to naturalistic painting.”
Fringes, frontiers and trenches … The case of Luigi Russolo and his Futurist music at the time was pretty much isolated phenomenon in the very early history of twentieth century art.
But not completely.
We should mention the Symphony of Factory Sirens by Russian composer Arseny Avraamov, composed for the sixth birthday of the October revolution, and performed twice, in 1922 and 1923, a megalithic piece of concrete ‘social realist art’. Avraamov’s orchestra included choirs (to be joined by the spectators), factory sirens, a steam whistle organ built from about fifty steam whistles, machine guns and cannons, foghorns, artillery guns and hydro-airplanes. The work was conducted by a team of conductors using flags and pistols, with the composer overseeing and leading the work atop a factory roof.
Avraamov’s symphony in turn has a mysterious maybe-precursor in the Symphonie des Forces Mécaniques (Symphony of Mechanical Forces) that is said to be composed by Parisian music critic and composer Carol-Bérard as early as 1908 or 1910 (well before the publication of Russolo’s manifest), in which use was made of ‘motors, electric bells, whistles and sirens’. The piece actually remains a mystery, as does much of Carol-Bérard’s biography. It is very unlikely that it has been performed in some form or other. It is also unknown whether some sort of a score existed. Maybe it was merely a (anti-)modernist ‘joke’? My personal investigations (around 2008) brought up little more than an item at a 2007 auction in Paris, sold to an private collector whose name was not divulged by the auction house that was involved in the sale. About the contents of that item, a ‘liber amicorum’, the pre-auction mentions: « Le compositeur Carol BERARD a exécuté en pleine page un important fragment de sa ‘Symphonie des Forces Mécaniques’ » (See http://berard.soundblog.net).
But Luigi Russolo and his Futurist music in the very early history of twentieth century art do provide us with some of the ingredients [noise making, instrument building, non-musicians, politics] that, be it on a far, far grander global scale, play a central rôle in the fringes, frontiers and trenches, of music-as-it-is today. It was this loudish outcry and musical outrage that became one of the hammers causing the first major cracks in the walls that in the course of several centuries had been pulled up in order to secure a bastion of the art/science of music, solidly standing on a basis of acquired melodic and harmonic knowledge, with a theory centred on the western chromatic series of pitches and metric divisions of time, that made ‘music’ the exclusive domain of learned specialists and highly trained (and talented) ‘musicians’.
Another powerful hammer was raised almost contemporaneously with that of Luigi Russolo’s, by groups of artists, intellectuals and bohemians (first as of 1915 in New York and in Zürich, Switzerland, then spreading out over Europe) who along the fringes of post-World War I capitalist society stood up against that society’s (ideo)log(y)(ic), its institutions, its art and aesthetics. They did so by embracing the absurd, anti-sensical and irrational in their actions and works, and rejected with a remarkable sense for hyperbole, drama and insult, all that what ‘art’ in their days was taught, thought and supposed to be. The movement’s name, Dada — found and agreed upon in Zürich — appeared in print for the first time in the one issue, published in May 1916, of the magazine Cabaret Voltaire, homonymous with the Zurich café that for a short but highly eventful while acted as the centre of the Dadaists’ endeavours. Being decidedly ‘anti-art’-art, Dadaists ignored conventional borders between artistic disciplines and operated on the until then pretty much un-trodden grounds that Fluxus artist Dick Higgins in the mid-1960s baptised intermedia. This included, of course, the use of the medium of sound, with a preference for the multiple sounds that the human voice is capable of generating, initiating what nowadays we’d call ‘sound poetry’. [The Dadaists’ initial use of sound and music appears to be partially based upon the appropriation of (interestingly, a misinterpretation of) the Futurists’ bruitism. (Kahn, 1999)]
Dada profited from the technological innovations, that in the beginning of the 20th century started to make global transport and communication ever faster and efficient, to actually set up [networks of artists] living and working in many different countries. They exchanged thoughts and ideas through postcards, letters and printed magazines, which often became works of art themselves, and eventually gave rise to novel artistic genres like that of ‘mail art’. (Le Bon, 2005) It was Dada that planted the seeds for the ‘networked art’ and the global networks of artists that we consider to be another among the key ingredients of the fringes and frontiers of music today. (Kusina, 2005)
[Dada’s call for an end to all culture, aesthetics and art over the years actually resulted in a near to grotesque proliferation of art and art-like means of expressions.]
Also Marcel Duchamp, the ‘alchemist of the avant-garde’, and key figure in the revolutionary transformation and ‘breaking open’ of the visual arts in the early twentieth century, was associated with Dada, which he and his countryman, the French painter, poet and typographer Francis Picabia introduced to the New York art world. With his provocative ready-mades Duchamp demonstrated how any object or image may become art through choice and will of the artist. In other words: any object or image becomes art if only we regard it as such. It reminds one of the ambiguous (reversible) figures like the infamous rabitduck, which can be seen either as a rabbit or a duck (but not as both). An apparently insignificant ‘switch of position’ has profound and irreversible consequences for the what and how of art.
Duchamp especially in the early days of his career quite deliberately sought to provoke scandal. He did so most successfully as chairman of the hanging committee of the First Annual Exhibition at the Grand Palace in New York from April 10th to May 6th 1917, organised by the then recently founded Society of Independent Artists of which he was one of the directors.
Modelled after the much earlier example of the French Société des Artistes Indépendantes (founded in July 1884), the New York society’s objectives will ring bells with many young (and even not so young artists) up to this very day. Similar initiatives indeed were taken worldwide by every next generation of aspiring artists, trying to gain recognition for their work and striving to enter into the realms, spaces and galleries held by the established art world, that obviously is unable to cope with the full avalanche of works of art that year after year is unleashed onto this world. On the title page of the exhibition’s massive catalogue one reads “No Jury, No Prices”, a policy that is explained further in the Foreword. All exhibiting artists had to become member of the society, thus earning a vote “for the directors and on the decisions made by the Society at its annual meetings”, but there were no admission requirements, “save the acceptance of [the Society’s] principles and the payment of [an] initiation fee of one dollar and the annual dues of five dollars”. The catalogue Foreword ends by stating that “[i]t is the purpose of the Society to become a common ground for the free expression of all the arts”. (SoIA, 1917)
Over a thousand visual artists participated in the First Annual Exhibition, which was set up in alphabetical order (probably by the artist’s last name), beginning with the letter ‘R’, a starting point that was “drawn by lot”. (Duchamp being the chairman of the hanging committee it is not unlikely that this alphabetical hanging order was in fact his idea.) The exhibition comprised over 2000 works, including two portraits by Pablo Picasso. The by far most famous and historically important submission to this 1917 New York ‘open to all’ exhibition, however, became so precisely because it was not allowed to be part of the show. Testing the Society’s ‘openness’ and the limits of its unconditional embrace of “free expression of all the arts”, Duchamp anonymously submitted his most well-known ready-made, a porcelain urinal signed by the fictional artist R. Mutt and entitled ‘Fountain’, probably too well aware of what would likely be the result of his act. And indeed the work was rejected for the presumed to be unconditionally ‘open to all’ exhibition, which in turn allowed Duchamp to show (whether real or played, we would guess it was both) outrage at this decision. Duchamp resigns as a director of the Society of Independent Artists, whereafter he takes his work of art to its completion in the second (and last) issue of the pamphlet-ish New York Dada magazine ‘The Blind Man’, edited by Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrix Wood, which shows a (staged) photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of “the exhibit refused by the independents”, together with a statement and an essay denouncing the Society’s hypocrisy, by Louise Norton. “[T]here are those,” she writes, “who seriously ask: ‘Is [R. Muttt] serious or is he joking?’ Perhaps he is both! Is it not possible? […T]here is among us to-day a spirit of ‘blague’ arising out of the artist’s bitter vision of an over-institutionalised world of stagnant statistics and antique axioms. […] Our ancestor-worship is without grace and it is because of our conceited hypocrisy (sic) that our artists are sometimes sad, and if there is a shade of bitter mockery in some of them it is only there because they know that the joyful spirit of their work is to this age a hidden treasure.” (Norton, 1917)
Visual art is in the eye of the beholder; it is a mental act.
Part of Duchamp’s deviously small oeuvre are three boxes (‘The Box of 1914’, ‘Green Box’ (1934) and ‘À l’Infinitif (The White Box)’ (1966)) with reproductions of drawings and handwritten notes — sometimes mere fragments — all related to what may be the most speculative of his works, the ‘Large Glass’ or ‘La Mariée mise à nue par ses célibataires, meme’ (1915–1923).
It is among these, as well as among a few other hasty notes and sketches that have remained unpublished during the artist’s lifetime, that one finds his ‘entire musical work’. It is of interest, because — even though all of it fits on little more than four, five small pages — we find there three other basic ‘seeds’ that blossomed into key ingredients of works of the musical avant-garde that developed much later in the 20th century. All three generally are taken to date from 1913:
- ‘Erratum musical’ is a (rudimentary score — there are no indications whatsoever for rhythm and/or durations) for three voices together with a brief set of instructions on how to perform it. For each of the voices, Duchamp wrote 25 notes on 25 pieces of paper, threw them into a hat, gave the hat a good shake, then picked the pieces of paper one by one out of the hat, and jotted down the corresponding notes on music staff paper, in the order of picking.
- ‘Sculpture musicale’ reminds one of the text scores that were produced abundantly in the 1960s (not only) by artists involved in the Fluxus movement, like La Monte Young’s ‘Draw a straight line and follow it’ [La Monte Young: Compositions 1960 — #10, ‘to Bob Morris’, October 1960]. Duchamp wrote: “Sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sounding sculpture which lasts.” (“Sons durant et portant de différent points formant une sculpture sonore qui dure.”)
- ‘La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même. Erratum Musicale’ sketches a mechanical procedure for generating a (rudimentary) score, to be performed “by a precision musical instrument (player piano, mechanical organs, or other new instruments that do not need an intermediary virtuoso”. The mechanical procedure is executed by a ‘machine that automatically records fragmented musical phrases’, sketched by the artist as a row of (five) open top loading carts, that like a little toy train passes under a funnel from which balls fall into the carts, each marked with a number that represents a musical note. In Duchamp’s manuscript the numbers are meant to correspond to the 85 keys of the (early 20th century) piano.
The use of [chance operations] and related [algorithmic composition] methods in order to generate musical scores and music surely did not originate with Duchamp’s ‘Erratum Musical’. The best known earlier examples are the so-called Musikalische Würfelspiele (musical dice games), which were quite popular in Europe in the 17th century, The goal of these musical composition games was to patch together short pieces of music written in a given well-determined structural form and style, e.g. a waltz or a minuet, by using the throws of dice or a similar chance method to select parts a set of pre-written fragments (Haupenthal, 1994), The freedom in choices generally is limited, but still e.g. the musical dice game that is attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart defines a set of several trillion ‘legitimate’ combinations of the pre-written fragments. Each of these is a ‘different’ C-major waltz though they all will feel to be very, very similar variations of the same basic thing, all of them counting 33 measures in 3/8, all of them ending with the same c-e-c descend down to the tonic.
In hindsight it is pretty evident though that in the early years of the 20th century new generations of artists, eager to re-invent forms & methods — sometimes even by rejecting any form of form — to replace traditional structures and ‘bourgeois conventions’ in the arts, were more than apt to let themselves be guided by choices made for them by ‘impartial chance’, through the use of aleatory methods that often — one should probably say: naively — were considered to be, on the one hand, pretty much value-free, and, on the other hand, often interpreted as an im-mediate expression of the artist’s subconscious and/or the unseen universal forces at work at the instant of their application (cf. the use of the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching, the Book of Changes). Many people were thinking about chance at the time, Duchamp says in one of his interviews with Pierre Cabanne. And: “Pure chance interested me as a way of going against logical reality”. (Cabanne, 1967) “Chance is the only way to avoid the control of the rational. […I]t’s a marvellous expression of your subconscious[…] If I make a throw of the dice, it will never be like your throw”. (Tomkins, 2013)
Music is in the ear of the beholder; it is a mental act.
[repetition] Erik Sate —
It took quite a while and at least one devastating global war for this erstwhile anti-traditional and anti-conventional re-appropriation and re-definition of the notion, the methods and the possible function(s) of ‘art’ by a number of isolated pioneers to turn into an avant-garde that planted the roots from which subsequently arose, ehhh’ … should we call it a … new wave … a nouvelle vague, a next … tradition?
[©Harold Schellinx, Paris, 2017–2021]
-to be continued-
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