Luciano Chessa’s book, ‘Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult is as of this writing the only book available about the Italian futurist composer other than the composer’s writings themselves. I purchased this book with a sense of excitement having read about Russolo (1885-1947) in various references in books on 20th century music and being puzzled as to why this subject had not been dealt with in any real detail.
Well that is now no longer the case. Chessa’s book, published in March of this year fills this scholarly musicological gap quite well. The book provides a comprehensive picture of the cultural milieu of the Italian Futurist movement embracing visual as well as musical arts as it developed in the early twentieth century prior to, during and after the first world war and into the second.
The cultural milieu was heavily steeped in the Theosophy movement, an exploration of various ecstatic and esoteric spiritual practices which flourished as the practice of Spiritualism was waning in popularity. Both practices shared an interest in the after life but Theosophy was perhaps more comprehensive as adherents explored various eastern religions and practices in search of answers about consciousness before, during and after life itself as well as the interactions between the material and the spiritual. Both Spiritualism and Theosophy along with the immediate thought content philosophical theories of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) informed the futurists as they, along with the rest of society began to explore the impact and implications of the industrial revolution and discoveries like electric light, recording machines, x-rays and radio.
Having only a slight acquaintance with Theosophy and practically no acquaintance with Italian visual arts in the early twentieth century required a bit of time for me to absorb. But there is no question that these are essential to understanding the genesis and practice of the ‘art of noises’ as Russolo named it in his 1913 manifesto.
Chessa recounts an era in which this philosophy along with fascism were the formative underpinnings of the futurist movement at the dawn of the twentieth century. In only 230 pages of text (and 64 pages of notes and references) he provides a wealth of information most of which was new to this writer and will likely be unfamiliar to the average reader as well. This book opens virtually a whole new world begging to be researched and understood both for the arts the produced in that era as well as its influence on later developments in both art and music.
The futurists attempted to create new art forms that would more directly express or represent ‘thought forms’ as described by the theosophists and the world of the spirits. The industrial age, mechanization, new media like recordings and radio transmission, x-rays all held a mystique which resulted in the questioning of philosophy and religion as well as politics much as the atomic bomb and, later, computers would shake beliefs and ideas in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Prior to the publication of this book Chessa had recreated the lost ‘Intonarumori’ which were destroyed and/or lost during the second world war. Only one sound recording exists of this music and even the scores have been lost but Chessa has essentially resurrected the noise machines, performed with them and has had music written for them as well. This is music which in 1914 and 1921 that provoked riots comparable to the 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and presaged the work with noise by the likes of George Antheil and later John Cage.
There is no explaining the neglect of this area of art and music history but there is joy in this wonderful book which is both an intriguing tale and a fine reference work for further research. One wonders if Chessa might now embark on further explorations of this era and perhaps even a biography of Russolo but the essential ground work has been laid here for many researches to come on this fascinating era.
The book is available in hard cover, paperback and kindle editions. This reviewer downloaded the kindle edition which has been produced with the same care as the print editions.