Textures of sound
Communist Students member Dani Thomas, composer of the electro-acoustic piece 'Coalface', describes his response to both the energy and rashness of the early 20th century futurists
In 1909 in Italy, Filippo Marinetti wrote his impassioned manifesto for futurism. The unordered, awkward syntax of the writing is as representative of the outwardly reckless nature of his pleas as the language itself:
“We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multicoloured and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals; the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons; the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers; adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds.”1
It is a jumbled and confused piece, but brimming with energy and uncompromising pace. His championing of “the great crowds agitated by work” and industrial noise is evocative of the period in British history I became interested in exploring after my visit to the Big Pit heritage site in Blaenavon. The monumental cacophony and seething humanity of the industrial revolution seemed a perfect subject to inspire my piece.
On visiting the Big Pit coal mine, one is first struck by the stillness and calm of a place once so full of movement and noise. The silence seems incongruous, hanging in the air like an almost palpable force. This feeling of suppressed energy is reinforced by the piles of heavy industrial material strewn across the site, rusted and held down by weeds, becoming part of the landscape itself. The idea then came to use these materials and the machinery on the site as the basis for my work. My thought was to give them movement and record the results, then organise the sounds in such a way that recalls and reinvigorates this once dynamic and thrilling human enterprise.
An aspect of the industrial revolution which I felt should not be overlooked in my project is this element of human enterprise, the mass body of the workforce and all that entails: on the one hand the exploitation of an emerging working class, but on the other hand the incredible explosive energy that comes from an increasingly self-conscious mass body. To breathe some humanity into the piece I decided to explore Blaenavon further, talk to some of the town’s residents and see to what extent the industrial labour that took place at the coal mines still lingers in cultural memory.
My search brought me to Blaenavon Male Voice Choir, which has been rehearsing and touring for nearly a hundred years and still includes a number of former miners. The recordings I made with the choir not only provide a textural contrast to the sounds recorded at Big Pit, but I also hope that they begin to infuse the piece with a feeling of mounting human spirit, to reflect the struggle of the workers in the south Wales coal field, of which Blaenavon was an epicentre.
Marinetti’s ‘Futurist manifesto’ and its affiliated texts provided inspiration for the project in a number of ways. The boundless energy of its mandates and its prescribed freedom from the artistic and aesthetic constraints of the past set a useful precedent for attempting to construct an homage to the exhilaration of industrial noise and mass movement. Futurist musical texts such as Ferruccio Busoni’s ‘In sketch of a new aesthetic of music’ (1907), with its proclamation, “Music was born free, and to win freedom is its destiny”, and Luigi Russolo’s ‘The art of noises’ (1913) were important reference points for combining textures of sound.
Russolo’s work in particular is a very interesting text which exhibits both the theoretical strengths and weaknesses of futurist musical expression. His theory of our once silent world being filled with industrial noise and thereby affording our ears a greater capacity for dissonance and complexity is compelling. He states: “Ancient life was all silence. In the 19th century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men.”2
The author speaks of the joy that can be found in walking through a modern city, allowing one’s ears to guide and composing imaginary symphonies of “mental orchestrations” and musical patterns from the multitude of sounds that envelope us: “... the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags.”
The tremendous excitement that must have ensued with the realisation of the infinite combinations of sound available to the composer ready to embrace noise as his musical material is wholly apparent in the text. Despite being a lay musician, Russolo had already begun categorising noises and imagining the different combinations of texture, and appeared to have a rather sophisticated understanding of how noise compositions should be conceived: “Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.”
It is the futurist’s capacity for imagination and what Aaron Copland terms the “sonorous image” that I most admire, and will return to later. Even though noise music eventually developed in vein somewhat divorced from Russolos’s early and ill-received experiments with noise instruments, his influence in developing the thought process behind the genre cannot be ignored. The advent of the tape recorder allowed the exploration of noise to develop in a different medium.
On the other hand, I want to emphasise that, while the work of Marinetti, Busoni and Russolo was indeed an important reference point, it was never my intention to construct a neo-futurist project. This decision arose firstly from an understanding that the futurists, who despised anything of antiquity, would not have looked favourably on my historical choice of subject matter, but I also have a number of aesthetic objections.
A critical flaw in the futurist ethos is the acerbic rejection of education and culture from a position that simply could not have been reached without it. Moreover, just because we have decided to accept the stimulating vibrancy and possibility of noise into our musical palette, it does not follow that we should completely abandon all consonance in our compositions. I made the decision early on to include elements of what Busoni would describe as “absolute music” in my piece, to underpin the structures I was building from the industrial sounds I had collected and to help suggest structure in the work.
The futurist ethos represents a rashness that, while adept at retaining energy in an artwork, undermines compositional form and structure. This is best exemplified by Marinetti’s writing style. His letter describing the sonic thrill of a war zone, which Russolo quotes in ‘The art of noises’ is written in a representative style which Russulo describes as “marvellous free words”. While it does begin to capture the confusion and intensity of a war situation, the piece ultimately loses its effect and focus: “Violence ferocity regularity this deep bass scanning the strange shrill frantic crowds of the battle Fury breathless ears eyes nostrils open! load! fire! What a joy to hear to smell completely taratatata of the machine guns screaming a breathless under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tumb weirdness ...”3 Marinetti’s style of poetic expression exhibits an impatience inherent in the futurist condition which I find to be detrimental to successful composition.
It occurred to me that if the vitality and excitement of the futurist position could be retained but tempered by a more considered and well rounded approach to composition, then greater results could be achieved. In his book Music and imagination Aaron Copland discusses many of the processes behind musical composition, but also a wider appreciation of the nature of the medium and how it is enjoyed in contrast to the other arts. A better understanding of how we listen to and appreciate a composition could perhaps help to reign in and bring structure and focus to the wild impulses of futurism.
Copland treats the subject of the listener as a very high-priority topic. In fact, he begins his book with a chapter entitled ‘The gifted listener’, in which he explores the very particular and unique way that a musical work acts upon the mind and gives utmost importance to the active imaginative faculty of both listener and composer. The author begins his appraisal by stating: “The more I live the life of music, the more I am convinced that it is the freely imaginative mind that is at the core of all vital music making and music listening.”4
This emphasis on freedom of imagination can be seen as analogous to the futurist view, but Copland treats the imaginative faculty not only as a spontaneous burst of creative energy, but as the central factor in what transforms sound into music. He argues that the most important ability in a listener, the one which enables him to take in a piece of music, is the gift of being able to concentrate on the individual elements of the piece as they flow by, while simultaneously building up an impression of the whole. He states: “Exactly in what manner we sort out and add up and realise in our own minds the impressions that can only be gained singly in the separate moments of the music’s flowing past us is surely one of the rarer manifestations of consciousness. Here if anywhere the imagination must take fire”.5
For a composer it can only be a fine thing to have such consideration and reverence for the mental process of listening to an extended piece of music. It is imagination that allows us to take possession of a piece, balance all the impressions made on us by its gestures and, as Copland terms it, arrive at a “unified and total image of the work’s essence”. Without this, it would be impossible to overcome the particular difficulties of music as an art form. In comparison to the other arts, music is more transient in a sense. With no chronology of events to follow, no momentary picture to focus on and in all its fluidity the sense of how we experience music can be difficult to grasp.
These insights from Copland highlighted to me the need to impose a more solid sense of structure on the futurist paradigm, and helped to inform my decisions as I constructed my piece.
There is a further aspect to Copland’s deliberations that relates to the notions of futurism more closely: the idea that, despite the curious mechanism it involves, we actually appear to experience music on a somewhat primitive level. This may be related to our inability to express all that we feel when listening to music because of music’s “incommensurability with language”.
Despite music being perhaps the most abstract of arts, it seems that we all listen on an “elementary plane of musical consciousness”. Whatever music we may be listening to, our reactions to it can be said to be somewhat basic. We feel tension as dissonance builds, and release as it dissolves; we detect changes in smoothness and density, are soothed by delicate figures and empowered by strident passages. The notion that we experience music in this primal way - that it speaks to our core in a sense - reinforces the futurist theme and informed many of my ideas for gestures in my work: the very vibrations of industrial noise, when selected, combined and organised by a sentient mind, are perhaps able to have a profound and fundamental effect on us.
Thus far, the focus of my deliberations on the imaginative faculty in relation to music has been on the listener, and I would be inclined to suggest that this consideration is imperative for successful composition. However, it is also important to emphasise the role of imagination in the composer. Both Ferruccio Busoni and Luigi Russolo recognised the importance of being able to imagine combinations of sounds, using our inner ear to mentally create textures and effects with layers of noise. The immediacy of futurist art, however, seems to portend to shorter compositions, whereas difficulties arise when the goal is to create a more extended piece. In this case, ideas must be developed and sounds must be placed in such a way that requires a more complete system of thought.
It seems in this instance also, it is necessary to impose a more considered and less rash approach onto futurist thought in order to render it useful. Aaron Copland suggests that a composer’s working mechanism should include a “full and equal appraisal of every smallest contributing factor with an understanding of the controlling and most essential elements in the piece, without allowing this to cramp one’s freedom of creative inventiveness - being, as it were, inside and outside the work at the same time”.
It seems futurist methodology would allow one to be resolutely ‘inside’ the work: a futurist would never allow their artistic inventiveness to be cramped by any means, but an absolute commitment to their philosophy would deny one the necessary patience to remain simultaneously ‘outside’ the work.
Therefore, in order to instil my work with the vigour of the futurist and thereby do justice to its subject matter without losing the structural and careful elements that would hopefully elevate its compositional success, I decided to adopt a fictionalist approach: to continue to draw inspiration from a system of thought and an ethos, without being fully invested in its contents.
1. FT Marinetti, ‘The futurist manifesto’: www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/T4PM/futurist-manifesto.html
2. L Russolo, ‘The art of noises’: artsaha.org/?page_id=77
4. A Copland Music and imagination Harvard 1959.
‘Coalface’ can be downloaded from the Communist Students website: communiststudents.org.uk/?p=1708