Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult

Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult

by Luciano Chessa

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Luigi Russolo (1885–1947)—painter, composer, builder of musical instruments, and first-hour member of the Italian Futurist movement—was a crucial figure in the evolution of twentieth-century aesthetics. As creator of the first systematic poetics of noise and inventor of what has been considered the first mechanical sound synthesizer, Russolo looms large in the development of twentieth-century music. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In the first English language study of Russolo, Luciano Chessa emphasizes the futurist’s interest in the occult, showing it to be a leitmotif for his life and a foundation for his art of noises. Chessa shows that Russolo’s aesthetics of noise, and the machines he called the intonarumori, were intended to boost practitioners into higher states of spiritual consciousness. His analysis reveals a multifaceted man in whom the drive to keep up with the latest scientific trends coexisted with an embrace of the irrational, and a critique of materialism and positivism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520270640
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/31/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Luciano Chessa, a composer and musicologist, teaches music history at the San Francisco Conservatory.

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Luigi Russolo, Futurist

Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult

By Luciano Chessa


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95156-3


Futurism as a Metaphysical Science

It is surprising how little the common perception of futurism has changed since 1967, when Maurizio Calvesi complained about the "reductive general idea of Italian futurism as a simple exaltation of the machine and superficial reproduction of movement." Although the futurists did not always agree among themselves on a definition of the movement, they certainly would not have shared a view that reduces futurism to merely materialistic terms. If a similarly reductive attitude can already be found in Varèse as early as 1917, the reduction of futurism to a materialistic movement within post–World War II art criticism was likely determined, as noted in the introduction, by a need to downplay the uneasy relationship between futurism and fascism.

Yet futurism was a movement animated by contradictory ideas, constantly oscillating between science and art, the rational and the irrational, future and past, mechanical and spiritual. Indeed, it may well have been these very tensions and frictions that gave futurism its dynamic force.

Defining the futurist movement and analyzing its aesthetics is not an easy task. To the casual observer the futurists seem to present a united front, unified by the charismatic personality of Marinetti, but analysis shows them to have been highly diverse intellectual personalities, each with slightly different opinions and conceptions of life and art and sometimes in open and violent opposition to one another. They may have found themselves (for reasons of convenience, if nothing else, and perhaps sometimes opportunism) under one ideological roof, but individually they maintained autonomous physiognomies and attitudes and peculiarities of their own. It seems, then, impossible to hope to find coherence inside the different poetic positions of the futurists, let alone to formulate an organic presentation with which they would have been satisfied.

Marinetti's work and personality succeeded in maintaining a certain order, at least in the beginning. It is well documented that Marinetti initially subsidized all the initiatives of the movement (including publications and exhibitions), and, like a good impresario, he reserved the right to supervise the work of the other artists of the group, to the point that all the first futurist manifestos unquestionably ran the gauntlet of Marinetti's censorship; this explains their similar tone. But in the privacy of living-room discussions or personal correspondence—or anywhere outside Marinetti's public control—the futurists' aesthetic visions diverged synchronically and diachronically; they were in continual growth and in a restless state of becoming, changing along with the shifting alliances within the movement.

Critically the most lucid figure among them was probably Umberto Boccioni. Perhaps owing to a predisposition of spirit, and despite the brevity of his career, which almost did not leave him time to conclude a cycle of thought, Boccioni was one of the very few futurists to produce a volume that presented his poetics systematically.

The other exception was Luigi Russolo. Although he was not as socially exuberant as Boccioni was, his thought was characterized by a surprising coherence of themes—many so extraordinarily close to those of his friend Boccioni as to suggest a sort of intersecting pollination between the two. Russolo was to repeat these early themes, unchanged in their substance, for the rest of his life; being spiritual in character, they corresponded well with futurism's occult side.

To summarize all the instances that show connections between futurism and esoteric preoccupations at various levels—ranging from spirituality to interest in and practice of the occult arts, and also including black and red magic and spiritualism—would be an ambitious undertaking. Here I shall simply create a backdrop against which to project the fruit of research on Russolo's interest in the occult and my reinterpretation of his sound-related activities in the context of this interest.

I am not the first to mention the influence of the occult arts on the futurist movement. Sporadic references to this influence can be found in volumes, catalogs, and essays on futurism and the visual arts edited by Calvesi and Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco. Until a few years ago the only contributing monographs available were a brief article by Germano Celant titled "Futurismo esoterico," published in Il Verri in 1970, and Calvesi's very brief article "L'écriture médiumnique comme source de l'automatisme futuriste et surréaliste," published in Europe in 1975, in which Calvesi shows connections between mediumistic phenomena and the poetics of the automatic writing adopted first by Marinetti and then by the Surrealists. To these should certainly be added Calvesi's above-mentioned 1967 classic Il futurismo: La fusione della vita nell'arte, in which occult and spiritualist themes, however eccentric, occasionally color the overall discussion.

Renewed interest in the topic began first with the extensive catalog of a 1995 Frankfurt exhibition titled Okkultismus und Avantgarde, which devoted much space to the futurists; this was followed by Flavia Matitti's writing on Balla and theosophy, as well as by the handsome volume by Simona Cigliana (Futurismo esoterico), which takes its title from Celant's essay and is the most complete contribution to the topic to date. In contrast to the earlier sources cited, some of which are limited to a list of facts, Cigliana's book offers a convincing in-depth analysis of the futurists' occult frequentations, albeit primarily limited to the field of literature.

The futurists' interest in the occult can be attributed to their full immersion in the culture of their period, principally inspired by French symbolism, which was in turn a reaction to Comte's mid-nineteenth-century positivism and absolute materialism. In Italy, critiques of positivism and materialism also attacked idealism, and not just in rational and dialectic Hegelian formulations but also in idealism's mainstream Italian dissemination through the writings of the philosopher Benedetto Croce.

It has been maintained that interest in the occult arts and metapsychics can be attributed to the futurists' attraction to the then current understanding of science. There were those who, considering the future of scientific research, maintained that science should include among its fields of inquiry the study of paranormal phenomena and confer legitimacy upon it, since this was the natural direction toward which science was already tending. This view may be true, but it offers only a partial picture of futurism, and it bears the further defect of again putting science and technology at the center of the futurist poetic meditation, as if they were the end of this meditation instead of, as we will see, the means.

Already at this stage, however, it is clear that these occult interests were poles apart from an aesthetic conception preoccupied exclusively with the "simple exaltation of the machine and exterior reproduction of movement." The futurists' interest in science was not always exclusive or absolute, and it was not always blind idolatry. Calvesi addresses this point when he writes, "Boccioni did not want a scientific aesthetics, that is, definable into scientific rules, but only an aesthetics that took the acquisitions of science into account: which is very different." For Marinetti the situation was entirely similar: "Art assimilates science intuitively, analogically, by parallelism and also by benefiting from science's technical discoveries, but never by a substitution of methodologies." For the futurists, science was above all a means; it was not the end of their aesthetic vision.

The present and following chapters consider the movement's interest in the occult—alongside its interest in science and technology and its greatly underexplored interest in altered states of consciousness—as a means to achieve out-of-body experiences. Such experiences, in turn, would permit the futurists to observe reality from a hyperreal point of view, as well as to recreate reality through a new, spiritual mode of artistic creation. Subsequent chapters add Russolo's musical activity to those expressions of futurism that are indebted to the occult tradition.


Interest in the occult would seem to contradict the attention the futurists gave to the latest discoveries of the science and technology of the period. But from the middle of the nineteenth century on, interest in the occult was increasingly shared by scientists and occultists alike, generating such terms as "scientific occultism," which further muddied the waters. Increasingly spreading an image of the universe as an organism animated by mysterious and supernatural forces, new scientific discoveries made between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth showed that idealism, positivism, and materialism gave too restricted a vision of natural phenomena and the cosmos.

A more dynamic conception of experimental science led various intellectuals of the time to consider occult manifestations as phenomena not yet known because of imperfect human senses and the limitations of human research tools; sooner or later, however, the scientific community was expected to be in a position to measure, understand, and explain. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle would eventually limit, if not altogether undermine, this hope for accurate measurements.

Exhortations to avoid reducing existence (and so the world) exclusively to what human senses can perceive came from all sides, as exemplified by the famous astronomer Camille Flammarion's comment that X-rays were a further proof that "sensation and reality are two very different things."

Among the many attempts to systematize ways of understanding, ranging from alchemy to metapsychics to spiritualism, and drawn from sources as diverse as the Corpus Hermeticum, medieval mysticism, the neoplatonism of the Renaissance, freemasonry, and Eastern philosophies, was the philosophy of the Rose+Croix, which is worth citing for its direct influence on artistic disciplines. But even more relevant was the influence of theosophy.

Blavatsky's theosophy, with its comparativist and encyclopedic popularizing approach, which embraced Eastern philosophical thought as well as having numerous points of contact with scientific research, found fertile ground in the cultural context of the epoch. In fact, it became fashionable in those end-of-the-century artistic circles that still believed in romantic philosophical ideas or had aligned with the new symbolist trend. Theosophy famously called for systematic research of parascientific phenomena that would apply the same criteria used by scientific method to investigate other natural phenomena. Such spiritual research was never intended for utilitarian purposes but only for the spiritual advancement of humanity.

In Italy theosophy paid particular attention to the study of the human psyche. In fact, perhaps because of the charismatic presence of the celebrated Turinese psychiatrist and anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, psychiatry and neurology were in Italy the first disciplines to take an interest in various forms of the occult. Among these forms were parapsychology and parascience (telepathy, clairvoyance, possession, psychokinesis, ideoplastic), as well as correlated mediumistic phenomena. The need to push beyond the appearance of things to understand the world and the belief that mediums and artists were gifted with more highly developed spiritual faculties—both principles that betrayed connections with romantic aesthetics—were propositions that futurists maintained on several occasions.

In this "sounding out" of reality the new frontiers of science were certainly helpful. Among the scientific discoveries of the age, that of Röntgen's X-rays in 1895 was one of the most suggestive, because its application implied a complete revolution of the perceptive act itself. Unlike the theories on the fourth dimension or the study of non-Euclidean geometries that affected the representation of the perceptive act, X-rays revolutionized the very act of seeing. This discovery was fundamentally important in the development of theories of the pictorial avant-garde in the first years of the century—and not only for the futurists.

X-rays bore a metaphoric weight: they encouraged one to view things profoundly rather than occupy oneself with the surface perceptible via the five senses. And an even closer relationship with mediumistic phenomena circulates in the scientific literature of the time: Lombroso, Flammarion, Ochorowicz, and Zoellner all drew a direct connection between Röntgen's research on the vibration of ether waves and the phenomena of ectoplastic condensation. 15 It is not surprising, then, to learn that X-rays thoroughly fascinated Boccioni, Balla, and Russolo, and that they offered a concrete way of achieving (through the extension of human senses of perception) the futurist interpenetration of planes they promoted in the manifestos of futurist painting.

The futurists' fascination with this new technology is first documented in a passage in the technical manifesto of futurist painting of April 11, 1910: "Who can still believe in the opacity of bodies, while our acuity and multiplied sensitivity makes us intuit the obscure manifestations of mediumistic phenomena? Why must one continue to create without taking account of our visual power that can give results analogous to those of X-rays?"

The futurists were convinced that X-rays and X-ray-like clairvoyance could help to register otherwise invisible aspects of reality, such as the residual traces of the movement of bodies or the luminous emanations produced by the brain and projected in the surrounding aura—emanations that theosophists called "thought-forms." This protocol of perception based on light and movement permitted one to grasp the spiritual level of reality. The technical manifesto claimed that "by the persistence of the image in the retina, objects in motion multiply, deform, following one another, as vibrations, in the space that they pass through [i.e., of their trajectory] [...]. To paint a figure one does not need to make the figure: one needs to render its atmosphere. [...] Motion and light destroy the materiality of bodies."

These convictions would be summarized at the end of the manifesto in the concept of complementarismo congenito (congenital complementarism), a notion that the art historian Marianne Martin, in her Futurist Art and Theory, considered "an occult spiritual experience bringing the artist in closer touch with the universal forces." The term complementarismo congenito readily promotes a union of opposites that rings distinctively alchemical, and thus occult.


An examination of the critical texts of Calvesi, Fagiolo dell'Arco, and Celant reveals that all of the most representative futurist artists were to varying degrees concerned with the occult. This is certainly true of Marinetti. By celebrating action and movement—a celebration clearly intoxicated with Nietzscheanism —his aesthetics celebrated the energy manifested in every vibration of the cosmos, that is, energy itself.

Far from being a proposition of materialistic thrust, Marinetti's obsessive celebration of movement and vibration reflects an occult, symbolist-derived substratum. Central to this view is the idea that matter is constituted by condensation of waves vibrating at different intensities; as such, through movement, matter either vanishes or better reveals its implicit spirituality. Basing his ideas on Nietzsche's theory of action, his personal reading of Bergson's vitalism, and Einstein's theory of relativity (which Marinetti probably encountered by way of the popularizing work of Minkowsky), the founder of futurism derived a conception of the world in which, if only because we lack absolute parameters to show stasis, all is perpetual movement.

According to Marinetti, "absolute space and time do not preexist, nor do any absolutely immovable points nor any objects in absolute movement, because there is no absolute term of reference: object and subject are, always, correlatively but discontinuously mobile." According to Calvesi, futurists did not regard "spirit and matter (and therefore [...] intuition and intellect)" as separate; they saw them as a unity, under the "same principle of energy." As is also true of Boccioni, Marinetti overcame Bergson's dualism of matter versus movement. Matter never exists as absolute inertia: "Matter and movement, rather than contradictory ends, became ends that could be brought back to one single principle."


Excerpted from Luigi Russolo, Futurist by Luciano Chessa. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Part 1 Luigi Russolo from the Formative Years to 1913

1 Futurism as a Metaphysical Science 13

2 Occult Futurism 43

3 Spotlight on Russolo 71

4 Painting Noise: La musica 98

5 Russolo and Synesthesia 110

6 Russolo's Metaphysics 122

Part 2 The Art of Noises and the Occult

7 Intonatumori Unveiled 137

8 The Spirali di Rumori 151

9 The Arte dei "Romori" 169

10 Controversial Leonardo 197

11 Third Level 209

Conclusion: Materialist Futurism? 225

Notes 231

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From the Publisher

In the spirit of the project, a review of it could simply read (to paraphrase a portmanteau word made up by Futurist Giacomo Balla in 1920): Chessa splendidwavesintonednoiseswordsluminousssss!"—The Wire

"The most comprehensive source of Russolo available in English."—

"Reconciles Russolo's artistic temperament, spiritual awakenings, and philosophical entanglements."—Performa Magazine

"Luciano Chessa reconstructs Russolo's life through ambitious archival research, uncovering . . . how the artist's eccentric interests influenced his creative output."—

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