The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

Tony Herrington: Turn that Noise down!

March 2014

Tony Herrington crashes Noise of Art's bogus celebration of 100 years of electronic music.

According to an entity styling itself Noise of Art, April marks the centenary of the birth of electronic music – and this UK "cross platform collective", whose main activity seems to be running a series of club nights in which some lower league dance music producers get to ply their trade, have appointed themselves the official party starters. Moreover, this self-appointed status appears to have been endorsed by the guardians of the UK’s cultural establishment.

Apparently, the epochal birth took place during one of the most mythologised moments in the history of modernism, the inaugural Art of Noises concert, which was staged in Rome in April 1914 as part of the Italian Futurists’ assault on the Romantic 19th century aesthetics still dominating early 20th century European culture (inevitably, it ended in a riot). It was there that Luigi Russolo premiered a new set of custom-built instruments capable (or so he hoped) of realising the ideas he had published a year earlier in his Futurist manifesto for a new music fit for the age of machines (he was thinking of war machines and the internal combustion engine rather than tone generators). These were the intonarumori, of course, or noise intoners, which, according to Noise of Art, were "prototype synthesizers".

Even ignoring that highly contentious assertion (the intonarumori produced acoustic ‘noise-sound’ by purely mechanical means and have also been theorised as supersized hurdy-gurdies, or as upgrades of Leonardo da Vinci's Renaissance designs for a mechanical viola organista), retroactively citing that Art of Noises concert as ground zero for electronic music is a piece of self-serving ahistorical propaganda that demands a response.

The original intonarumori were all destroyed during the Second World War, which is one reason so many myths have accrued around them. Steampunk theorists might argue the case that they were mechanical synthesizers, but even that leaves them and the Art of Noises trailing in the wake of a very convoluted history.

There are documented examples of music being produced by mechanical means going all the way back to the third century BC, and by means of harnessing electricity from the mid-18th century onwards. But if we take electronic music to mean music that is produced by the amplification of electromagnetic waves into soundwaves, then 1874 might be a more significant date for Noise of Art to mark. That was the year Elisha Gray, an American electrical engineer who may have been the true inventor of telephony, demonstrated his Musical Telegraph, which generated sounds using rudimentary oscillators triggered by a small piano keyboard (its patent was titled Electric Telegraph For Transmitting Musical Tones).

This demonstration took place four decades before that first Art of Noises concert.

(Not to be outdone, Alexander Graham Bell, who beat Gray to the punch with that telephone patent by just a matter of hours, responded to the advent of the Musical Telegraph by building his own Electric Harp.)

23 years later, in 1897, an American inventor named Thaddeus Cahill submitted a patent, titled Art Of And Apparatus For Generating And Distributing Music Electronically, for a new instrument which was a byproduct of his own researches into early telephone technology. This was the telharmonium, or dynamophone, which, as Mark Sinker put it in The Wire 139, resembled “a church organ mated with a weaving loom”, weighted around 200 tons, and was intended to transmit ‘teleharmony’ across the US using local telephone exchanges. More to the point, the telharmonium produced sound by the process of additive synthesis, one of the basic principles of electronic music production, and so named because it creates complex timbres by combining individual sine waves, which were generated in the case of the telharmonium by a vast array of electromagnetic dynamos.

“The telharmonium was a revolutionary instrument in numerous regards,” stated the late UK electro-musicologist Hugh Davies, noting the way it anticipated both Muzak and the mass distribution of music across a network, before adding that it “can rightfully be considered the first modern synthesizer.”

The electronic telharmonium was patented 17 years before Luigi Russolo built the first of his mechanical intonarumori.

Two years after Thaddeus Cahill submitted that patent, in 1899, a British physicist and engineer named William Du Bois Duddell invented the Singing Arc, which emerged from his attempts to reduce the noise emitted by the carbon arc lamps that were pressed into service as 19th century streetlights. Discovering that he could control and modulate the frequency hum emitted by the lamps by adjusting the electrical current running through them using electrodes, Duddell hooked this control mechanism up to a piano keyboard, and the following year delivered a lecture to the London Institute of Electrical Engineers during which he played (what else?) the National Anthem, making this the first known public performance featuring an instrument whose sound was created entirely with electricity.

This performance occurred 14 years before the first public appearance of Russolo's cranky contraptions.

Meanwhile, and apropos that original 1913 Art Of Noises manifesto, in 1907, the Italian composer and musicologist Ferruccio Busoni published Sketch Of A New Aesthetic Of Music in which he outlined his vision of a future music of infinite tonal variety and then cited the telharmonium, which he described as a "comprehensive apparatus which makes it possible to transform an electrical current into a fixed and mathematically exact number of vibrations", as the means to realise it.

Sketch Of A New Aesthetic Of Music was published six years before Russolo's own future music blueprint.

So whichever way you stack the dates up, the portents are not looking good for that Noise of Art party. But then the 140th or 117th or 114th or 106th birthday of anything isn’t quite so telegenic an event as its centenary. And anyway, who cares if some opportunistic club promoters try to make a name for themselves on the back of a bogus celebration?

Incredibly, one of the institutions providing a platform for Noise of Art’s propaganda is London's National Portrait Gallery, which has invited the collective into its hallowed halls to stage an event as part of the Gallery’s commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War. And if that isn't a sign there is something rotten at the core of the UK’s cultural establishment I don't know want is. Maybe I'll go along and start a riot.

According to the Noise of Art website, other institutions that have played host to its vainglorious conceit include such temples of high culture as the Tate, the BFI, the Royal Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre, the Hayward Gallery and the Glasgow School of Art.

For anyone concerned with such outmoded concepts as the actual historical facts of the matter, exposing the virulent spread of obfuscating propaganda laying claim to a disputed world-historical cultural moment is the only way to prevent history being hijacked by cynical profiteers and egotistical charlatans, not to mention the laissez-faire curators of the UK culture industry.


"For anyone concerned with such outmoded concepts as the actual historical facts of the matter, exposing the virulent spread of obfuscating propaganda laying claim to a disputed world-historical cultural moment is the only way to prevent history being hijacked by cynical profiteers and egotistical charlatans, not to mention the laissez-faire curators of the UK culture industry."

At which point you will be told that they were Just Trying To Open A Debate.

I think there is a difference in concept in the instruments described above.

On the one hand there is the way the sound is produced. Indeed: the intonarumori can not be seen as electronic instruments at all in that sense.

On the other hand there is the concept of the sound which is produced. With the intonarumori Russolo wanted to challenge the limitations of sounds produced by orchestras and aimed to incorporate machine and city sounds by creating these new instruments, whereas most of the electronic instruments mentioned above were often in fact emulating these mostly orchestral sounds (violin, piano, pizzicato etc).
The aim of both instrument (groups) are therefor conceptually different; one group is aiming to change the way 'how' the sound is produced, the other wants to change 'what kind of' sound is produced.

Yes, these instruments were conceptualised differently, although the differences were ultimately not as extreme as Roel suggests. Likewise, he repeats a common misinterpretation of what Russolo was actually trying to achieve. For anyone interested in understanding that, they can (and should) read 1913's Art Of Noises:

But they should also read Busoni's earlier, and in my opinion more profound and significant, 1907 Sketch Of A New Esthetic Of Music:

But please, let's not get sidetracked by repeating the mistakes made by the left in politics; let's not give the self-serving enemies of truth (in this case Noise of Art) succour by arguing among ourselves over semantics, while they laugh all the way to the bank. (And I would make the same point to those overthinking guilt ridden intersectionalists who commented on my recent Collateral Damage column on this site.)

The only point of my column here was to expose Noise of Art's opportunistic propaganda, and the fact that it has been lent weight by the UK's established cultural institutions. That's all I wanted to achieve here. Noise of Art's bullshit might seem insignificant in the wider scheme of things, but it is part of a increasingly deleterious trend to forget history, or to distort it to nefarious ends that serve no one but those who do the distorting. Of all the things to get angry about in the world, that trend, of which Noise of Art are but one tiny factor, feels like something worth resisting and then attempting to redress.

there's also the bit about celebrating an openly fascist group

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.