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  April 15, 2002

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Early 20th Century Experiments in Art and Music
By: Michael Casano

II. Early 20th Century Experiments in Art and Music
By Michael Casano

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ushered in a flood of experimentation with electronic principles and their application to the transmission, production, and amplification of sound. Here are some highlights of this technology and its application to music.

In 1897, Thaddeus Cahill patented the Telharmonium, which was an instrument that used shafts and inductors to produce alternating currents of different audio frequencies. These signals were controlled by keyboards and other devices. The first completed model was exhibited to the public in 1906, in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The Telharmonium weighed about 200 tons and was sixty feet in length. Unfortunately, no recordings of the Telharmonium exist.

In 1906, inventor Lee DeForest created the Triode Vacuum Tube. This invention, within the realm of radio technology was capable of creating audio frequencies by combining two high frequency signals in order to create a lower frequency within audible range. This is known as the heterodyning effect. DeForest also collaborated with Thaddeus Cahill as early as 1907 in broadcasting early performances of the Telharmonium using DeForest's radio transmitters.

The problem with the heterodyning effect was that when the human body neared the vacuum tubes, its presence caused variations in the frequency. In 1917 Leon Termen turned this problem into a solution by developing the Theremin. The Theremin was an instrument by which the musician manipulated pitch by simply changing the distance of their hand from a vertical aerial.

The developer of the ondes-martenot, Maurice Martenot, was a cellist and radio telegraphist. Martenot met Termen in 1923. This meeting led to Martenot's design of the ondes-martenot, which was patented on April 2, 1928. It produced sound from the modulation of two oscillators ( fixed and variable frequencies), using a keyboard. There were also controls to change timbre and volume.

In the spirit of the history of industrial music, there were developments just as relevant though they had nothing to do with electronic music. The experiments, the manifestos, and the tireless output of artists, such as the Italian Futurists and the Dadaists, had a tremendous impact on the development of industrial music.

The Futurist movement in Italy was founded by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti as he released The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism on February 20,1909. The idea behind Futurism was to embrace technology and speed away from the oppressive dogmatic grasp of Italy's past and into the promise of Italy's future. Unfortunately, when traveling that fast in flight, you often cannot anticipate nor avoid the consequences that await. What was waiting with open arms was an oppressive fascist regime.

"The Futurists turned their backs on the sheltered life of the cultured intellectual. They ridiculed both the servile respect paid to men of fossilized learning and the rejection of society implicit in traditional bohemian withdrawal. Instead, … they opted for the public arena and demanded instant reaction. Whether this reaction was favorable or not was of secondary importance, and this is something to be borne in mind when any historical appraisal of Futurism is attempted. The essential thing was to involve a public that was no longer rendered passive and submissive."
(Tisdall, Bozzolla 1977, p.8)

The Futurists, in an attempt to free themselves from the oppressive atmosphere of the Church and of the stuffiness of academia, used confrontational and controversial ideas to stimulate a dormant public by manipulating the many aspects of the communications medium. In essence, by publishing ideas in pamphlets and newspapers, by giving speeches, by organizing and exhibiting works of art, by exploring new ideas within the fields of music, architecture, city planning, design, film, and fashion, the hope was to reach as many people as possible. At this they were very successful.

"Noise was Futurism's contribution to music. The principle of noise was not introduced by a musician, but by the most eccentric of the Futurist painters, Luigi Russolo… Noise did not mean just din and cacophony, though this too held its attraction. The wealth of sound in the world ignored by the conventions of music ranged from the primary noises of nature to the roar of life and machines in the modern city… Russolo's attempts to put some of the Futurist theories of music into practice brought about some of the most extraordinary musical experiments of the pre-First World War years: the Noise Intoners or Intonarumori. The Noise Intoners produced some of the novel noises of the modern world and added others besides." (Tisdall, Bozzolla 1977, p 111)

Luigi Russolo's manifesto The Art Of Noises, was published on March 11, 1913. It basically introduced the concept of noise as the new dimension of music. He theorized that there were six main families of noises, and the machines that produced them were to be the basis of the Futurist orchestra: 1. Rumbles, Roars, Explosions, Crashes, Splashes, Booms 2. Whistles, Hisses, Snorts 3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbles, Grumbles, Gurgles 4. Screeches, Creaks, Rustles, Buzzes, Crackles, Scrapes 5. Percussionary noises from metal, wood, skin, stone, etc. 6. Voices of animals and men: Shouts, Screams, Groans, Shrieks, Howls, Laughs, Wheezes, and Sobs.

No Noise Intoners have survived the Second World War, but there are photographs. These mechanical machines were solid boxes of various sizes, each with a large metal speaker. A diaphragm within the box was positioned accordingly and the tension varied in order to obtain different tones. A lever emanating from the side of the box was used to manipulate rhythm and pitch.

Historians have often linked the Futurist movement with Italian fascism. However, that is a bit of an oversimplification. Here are some facts that further clarify this point:

1. Marinetti was friends with Benito Mussolini. Mussolini, as a young man, was a journalist and committed socialist. Marinetti began to distance himself from Mussolini by 1919 as Mussolini's political views transformed and his goals became more apparent.

2. Futurism was never the official art of Italian fascism. However with the Futurist's grasp of the ability to manipulate and master all of the communications media at their disposal, they unwittingly laid out a blueprint for control that Mussolini was more than happy to adopt as his own.

3. The Futurists and Fascists did have some commonalities but these were, by the nature of the movements, coincidental:
A. They both had romantic yet shortsighted ideas regarding the use of technology in society.
B. They both had no fear of using physical confrontation as a means to an end.
C. They both were infatuated by the notion of youth as its hope for the future.

The advent of fascism in Western Europe was an ugly reality. The fascist governments used art, music, literature, film, and design to manipulate the masses, promote their ideals, and to make palatable the onslaught of true oppression. It is with this in mind that the importance of Dadaism
is introduced. As Futurism proclaimed the power and glory of art, the Dadaists claimed that power and glory as their own and, in essence, questioned the role of art in society.

The origin of Dada is uncertain. Raoul Hausmann believes he discovered Dada in 1915, though there has been some suggestion that the true originator of the art form was Francis Picabia.

"Dada's only programme was to have no programme… and, at that moment in history, it was just this that gave the movement its explosive power to unfold in all directions, free of aesthetic or social constraints. This absolute freedom from preconceptions was something quite new in the history of art." (Richter 1965, p.34)

"Dada's propaganda for a total repudiation of art was in itself a factor in the advance of art. Our feeling of freedom from rules, precepts, money and critical praise, a freedom for which we paid the price of an excessive dislike and contempt for the public, was a major stimulus. The freedom not to care a damn about anything, the absence of any kind of opportunism, which in my case could have served no purpose, brought us all closer to the source of all art, the voice within ourselves." (Richter 1965 p.50)

The Dadaists were not concerned with the future, with destroying an old system and replacing it with a new one, with the promises of technology, or with politics in general. This could not be better illustrated than anyone other than Marcel Duchamp who introduced concepts such as ready-mades and chance into the world of art. An avid chess player, Duchamp's intellectual endeavors were better suited for the battlefield of knights, queens, and kings rather than the pompous pseudo-intellectual arena of the art world. The notion of everyday sound being utilized in musical compositions by the Futurists is a line of reasoning brought to its logical conclusion by Marcel Duchamp and his concept of the ready-made. This was a rejection of artistic intellectualism in its most blatant form. Suddenly art was not derived during some lofty moment of introspection and inspiration. An object of art could be something as banal as a urinal (Duchamp's Fountain, 1915). The demystification of art had finally arrived. Others, such as Man Ray and Francis Picabia also aided the anti-art ideal. Traditional art supplies were abandoned as with the collage works of Kurt Schwitters, whose use of found objects became an obsession. A common theme explored amongst these anti-art Dadaists was the glorification of the machine. Unlike the Futurists, this glorification was devoid of political ideology. This fascination with the machine as an object of adoration was in direct opposition to the classical nudes and self-portraits that were caught in the web of academic tradition.

In the work of Max Ernst, "parts of machines become people, people become things, many hovering or rigidifying in a mechanical space… they create a world of monsters, brought to life by new artistic techniques, which become magic at the touch of his hand." (Richter 1965, p. 159)

"Ernst's work is one more illustration of the fact that Dada's anti-art tirades, although seriously meant, were impossible to put into practice. A work of art, even when intended as anti-art, asserts itself irresistibly as a work of art." (Richter 1965, p.164)

The ideas of electronic experimentation, the concepts of chance, found sounds, and ready-mades, and art as anti-art are all aspects found in industrial music. In the next article, a lineage will be drawn examining the link between the classical avant-garde and the progressive rock movement.

Copyright 2002 Michael Casano


Griffith, Paul, Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Music, 1986, Thames & Hudson
Richter, Hans, Dada - Art and Anti-Art, 1965, Thames & Hudson
Tisdall, Caroline & Bozzolla, Angelo, Futurism, 1977, Thames & Hudson
Indiana University School of Music, Center For Electronic & Computer Music
Comprehensive list of electronic musical instruments 1870-1990 - Dada online

 Written By:  

 Michael Casano


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