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Luigi Russolo, Futurist: The Art of Noise and How the Occult Fueled Innovation in Music and Art

What black magic has to do with John Cage and the secret of creativity.

Today marks the 127th birthday of Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), best-known for authoring the 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises (public library) and regarded as the first noise artist. The father of the first systematic poetics of noise, Russolo played a crucial role in the evolution of 20th-century musical aesthetics and influenced such music icons as Edgar Varese, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage. He was also one of the first theorists of electronic music and is even considered by some the inventor of the synthesizer. Yet despite enormous interest in his work, Russolo’s life remained largely unexamined — until now.

In Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult, composer and San Francisco Conservatory music history professor Luciano Chessa reconstructs Russolo’s life through ambitious archival research, uncovering and digesting esoteric and obscure texts to reverse-engineer how the artist’s eccentric interests influenced his creative output — something he shared with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini as well as some of history’s greatest scientists, namely an interest in the supernatural and, more specifically, in the occult.

Chessa traces the continuity of Russolo’s spiritual studies by comparing his early writings with those of his mature period to reveal that “Russolo’s interests did not change direction, and that he never really reoriented his aesthetics.” What emerges is a portrait of a man whose massive musical legacy and cultural impact manifested not despite his fringe fascination with theosophical mysticism but precisely because of it.

But perhaps most fascinating in Chessa’s account, and most resonant with recent discussions of how creativity works, is his focus on the combinatorial, cross-disciplinary nature of Russolo’s curiosity and intellectual imagination:

In analyzing Russolo’s writings and works what strikes us above all is the peculiar continuity and coherence of his concepts and how they migrate from painting to music to philosophy. Since the occult is an inquiry that often embraces synesthesia, a critical acceptance of Russolo’s continual interest in the occult reconciles the seeming conflicts among the various activities — and their related expressive sensory fields — that he undertook. Moreover his theosophical explorations reconcile his apparently irreconcilable interests in science/technology and spirituality/occult.

Whether the occult is a viable, or even appropriate, “fourth culture” is a question all its own, but Luigi Russolo, Futurist reveals in it a larger metaphor for the secret of all great invention: the need to dabble in the fringe and the esoteric, to push the boundaries of expectation, and, above all, to cross-pollinate wildly different disciplines and lenses on the world in order to synthesize a singular perspective that is at once entirely original and entirely constructed of its integrated parts, yet far greater than their sum.

Published April 30, 2012




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