12 May 2009

Futurist presentation

I did my presentation lying on my back on the floor:

I want to begin with a story. Like all stories, it is a simplified and artificial construction.

Once upon a time, you could reasonably expect to live the same sort of life as your grandparents, and indeed as your grandparents’ grandparents. Society changed – the 17th century was obviously different to the 7th century – but it changed slowly, not so as you’d notice during your lifetime.

Then, all of a sudden, there was the Industrial Revolution, and all these new things appeared that had never before been seen in the world and that fundamentally changed people’s relationship to the world. Steam engines meant that we had significantly more power available to us than provided by wind and water and muscles. Electric light abolished the distinction between night and day. Accurate clocks meant that the day and night could be regimented. Telegraphy meant communications could travel faster, much faster, than by horse or ship. For the first time ever, the world was transforming before people’s eyes. Some people deplored this, and others embraced it. But no-one embraced it more than the Futurists.

In a lot of ways, Futurism was the first proper avant-garde movement. It set the model for all future avant-garde manifestations. It had all four features that Renato Poggioli, in his book ‘The theory of the avant-garde’, identified as defining an avart-garde movement:

1. alienation from bourgeois capitalist society
2. activism and antagonism towards the public and public institutions, especially official and academic art
3. a fundamental break with the past in favour of revolutionary utopianism
4. self-consciousness as an elite vanguard of the future.

However, Futurism did not spring fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s brow. It was influenced by Symbolism and Decadence, and particularly by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Here are a couple of quotes from ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’:

'And I bade them overthrow their old academic chairs and wherever the old conceit had sat; I bade them laugh at their great masters of virtue and saints and poets and world-redeemers. I bade them laugh at their gloomy sages and at whoever had at any time sat on the tree of life as a black scarecrow.'

'O my brothers, I dedicate and direct you to a new nobility: you shall become the procreators and cultivators and sowers of the future ... Not whence you come shall henceforth constitute your honour, but whither you are going!'

Let us compare this with Marinetti’s ‘The founding and manifesto of Futurism’:

‘It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.


‘So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!... Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!... Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!

‘The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!’

This work, this assault on tradition and the past, was all-embracing. There was Futurist painting, Futurist sculpture, Futurist literature, Futurist architecture ... and, of course, Futurist music.

The first manifesto to deal with Futurist music was by the composer Balilla Pratella, who was by all accounts fairly conventional. In his manifesto, we come across the usual Futurist rhetoric, but nothing truly revolutionary.

It was (of course) a painter, Luigi Russolo, who came up with the truly revolutionary approach to music, one that is as valid today as it was then (incidentally, the form of musical notation Russolo developed for his compositions is apparently still used). As he put it:

‘I am not a musician, I have therefore no acoustical predilections, nor any works to defend. I am a Futurist painter using a much loved art to project my determination to renew everything. And so, bolder than a professional musician could be, unconcerned by my apparent incompetence and convinced that all rights and possibilities open up to daring, I have been able to initiate the great renewal of music by means of the Art of Noises.’

The name of his manifesto gives us a clue to his insight. He wanted to extend the concept of music from precisely ordered sounds produced by instruments to the noises of the modern city. He wrote:

‘Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.’

Russolo’s is not a simple concept. The idea is not to imitatively reproduce noises. Noises may take their inspiration from machines and the modern city, but they are to be new sounds in their own right:

‘The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.’

The machines have multiplied, and it is up to us to combine them. We are the future! Future is now!

Then I played them some. That and some other selections from this.


rothkowitz said...

Think Einsturzende Neubauten are a kind of 'modern' exemplar? I like the miked-up air duct at the start...but not all the infernal clanging.


Incidentally, Joy Division used to use a aerosol can to mimic a high hat!

David Cauchi said...

Check out our live recording on Rose's radio show tomorrow night.

There'll be lots of infernal clanging for you.

visitors since 29 March 2004.