On Noise and Building a Noise Machine
Your first milestone project will be building a noise machine, and creating a brief performance using your machine. The concept of a ‘noise machine’ dates back to the Italian Futurist artist and composer, Luigi Russolo (1883-1947). With all of the new machine noises in the environment, he argued in his 1913 manifesto, new instruments, and new timbres would be necessary to stir human emotion in the modern age. To that end, he created his Intonarumori, or noise machines. We are lucky to have a few facsimiles of these machines lying around the Studio for Creative Inquiry. Take the time to play these and look inside since you will not come across them very often. Please read his Art of Noises to gain a better appreciation of his vision for the ‘future of music’.
To my knowledge, none of the original Intonarumori have survived, however some additional facsimiles exist:
Of course the Intonarumori also inspired some artists to make new versions:
Speaking of the future of music, I’d also like you to read John Cage’s (1912 – 1992) Future of Music: Credo, written in 1937. Though Russolo was perhaps the earliest composer to explicitly call for an ‘Art of Noises,’ he was by no means the last. Born the year before Russolo wrote his seminal work, the American composer, John Cage is among the most influential composers of the last century. His influence on experimental musics and sound art cannot be overstated. In particular, his 4’33” is one of a small number of exceedingly important works that, taken together, opened the world of music up to the potential of any and all sounds. Take a moment to listen.
The piece was premiered at the Maverick Concert Hall in 1952, just outside of Woodstock, NY.
The narration at the start is by the composer. The performer, David Tudor, who also speaks briefly at the end of the clip, gave the premiere of the piece, and is also an important composer. Love him or hate him, Cage was an extremely significant figure in 20th century music and art. His body of work spans a wide variety of practices, and so we’ll be seeing more of him throughout the semester.
New music pioneer Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) had yet another take on the noise machine. In The Liberation of Sound, a compilation of excerpts from lectures he gave throughout his life, he imagines a machine that will realize a composer’s graphical scores and provide new timbres, scales, and complex rhythmic relationships that were previously unattainable with human performers. In 1957-1958 he had a unique opportunity to experiment with his vision in creating a tape work specifically for the Philips Pavilion, which was designed by Le Corbusier-though managed primarily by Iannis Xenakis–for the Brussels’ World Fair in 1958.
Though this was a relatively early example of electronic music, it remains an important work to date. Incidentally, Xenakis was not only an architect but yet another important composer. Among many other things, he created the UPIC, a device that generates sound from drawing–not entirely unlike Varèse’s description of his ideal machine, and yet another interesting source of potential inspiration for your noise machines.
One truly amazing piece (and you have to experience it in surround sound to get the real effect) that uses the UPIC, among many other electronic tools, is Xenakis’ La Legende d’Eer.
Other Fun Stuff
Admittedly, What I’ve presented above is a very narrow introduction to noise and music, focused primarily on the avant-garde composers practicing within the classical realm. The avant-garde composers of classical music DO NOT have a monopoly on noise. Check out the examples below for some additional inspiration. Also: have I missed something you love? Please feel free to add your own examples to the bottom of the page. If you do, be sure to indicate who you are, what you’re adding, and why you love it.
Merzbow – Famous Japanese Noise Artist
Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music
By the way, check out this piece by La Monte Young. Some similarities, no?
Of course, there was also Jimi Hendrix:
Just for fun: A dramatization of Roald Dahl’s The Sound Machine
And, as long as we’re introducing other media, I’m kind of curious: aside from the Dahl, these are all musical examples. How does noise translate to other media? Any examples come to mind?
Also, another quick item for Monday 1/20/2014: find one example of a noise machine that you find interesting, and post it to the blog. Include a brief explanation of what stood out to you, and your critical assessment of the machine’s strengths and weaknesses. This does not have to fit into any narrow definition of what a noise machine is…in fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. Go forth and google.
To make a noise machine, the first task on our agenda is to make some noise. For this first lab, therefore, we’re going to dive right in and start making sound with some simple electronic components. See the lab hints for some additional guidance. If you are completely new to electronics, check out the ‘electronics for newbies‘ tab.