The Futurists’ assault on our lugholes

Most of us associate Futurism with painting, but as Radio 3 recently revealed they made music - well, noise - too.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

The Italian Futurist movement of the early twentieth century is usually seen as an artistic movement devoted principally to employing painting and sculpture, to exploring and championing notions of speed, danger, technology, urbanism and above all, humanism.

Futurism, in this view, is a kind of visual extension, or corruption, of Nietzsche’s exhortation to ‘live dangerously’. Like Nietzsche, Futurism is a movement with a propensity to be appropriated by fascists. But most of us don’t associate Futurism with music.

The Art Of Noises (BBC Radio 3, Tuesday) sought to address this balance (1). It reminded us that only a year after the first Futurist Manifesto was signed in 1909, Italian composer Francesco Pratella wrote The Manifesto of Futurist Musicians. His vision, as the programme reminded us, was to revolt against the ‘decadent’ and ‘sentimental’ music of late-nineteenth century Italy, which had a ‘dictatorship of melody’.

Futurism contrarily sought instead to promote ‘inharmonic’ noises. This, in turn, was taken up by Luigi Russolo, who wanted music to resemble the ambience of the modern world, to sound like cars and factories, and who consequently built instruments that sounded exactly like these industrial machines.

I’m glad that the presenter Robert Worby mentioned Napalm Death and Black Sabbath during the programme, and pointed out that early Futurist music was like ‘modern heavy metal music’ and ‘electronic music’. These last two genres, ostensibly so different, are actually similar in that they are essentially experimental, deliberately difficult and largely stripped of all sentiment. And both are, in spirit, reactive.

The heavy metal explosion of the early 1970s (Black Sabbath et al) was a gloomy reaction to the failed hippy dream of the late 1960s, just as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the early 1980s (Iron Maiden et al) was giving two fingers to punk. The thrash metal music scene that came from California in the mid-1980s (Metallica, Megadeth) emerged in revulsion to the misogynistic glam-rock scene epitomised by Kiss and Mötley Crüe.

Likewise, the bleak and austere electro music of the likes of Kraftwerk in the late 1970s was a reaction to the schmaltz and saccharine disco music of that time, just as the electro house phenomenon of the late 1980s (Prodigy, Altern-8, etc) emerged as a reaction to the sickly sweetly sentimental melodies of Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW) which permeated and haunted the charts right up to 1989.

Likewise, Futurist music did not appeal to the emotions, but to the senses, in that it sought to generate a combination of frenzied mania and ecstasy. It’s not music you hear, but music you listen to. But herein lies the problem. While Futurist or Dadaist or Abstract painting can be cerebrally challenging and intriguing, Russolo’s music just hurts the ears. If you thought Stravinsky’s jaw-droppingly awful The Rite of Spring is a bit difficult on the lugholes (it started a riot upon its premiere in Paris in 1913; I’m surprised it didn’t start a war), then I do not recommend Italian Futurist music. I may be contradicting myself by admitting that I still find Napalm Death’s first two albums brilliant, when most people find their music baffling nonsense, but at least you can still mosh to them.

The essential problem with Futurist music is that it considers sentimentalism a dirty word. What’s wrong with art that can make you laugh or cry? That doesn’t cheapen it. It’s only art for heaven’s sake. Anyone who hasn’t been moved by Casablanca or The Lord of The Rings or Sibelius’s second symphony isn’t human in my opinion. It’s very fashionable to deride Tchaikovsky, presumably because by admitting that you like the old gay dead Russian you may be perceived as a bit simple and vulnerable.

And sentimental music from the 1970s and 80s is still rather good, if you consider Abba, Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’ or Carl Douglas’s one-hit wonder ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, just as SAW songs weren’t all that bad. Come on… you must admit that Rick Astley’s ditties had a certain charm to them. And people can cuss John Williams all they like for being derivative and ‘commercial’, but he has penned some of the finest and most memorable film scores of our times. His soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan speaks for itself. And don’t forget that Wagner was ‘commercial’ too, having his own patrons for whom he worked.

This doesn’t cheapen either the music of Black Sabbath, The Clash, Joy Division, The Sex Pistols, The Orb and many others, all of whom strove to make music a bit difficult. It’s not a question of art being aesthetically appealing, or intellectually challenging. Surely it can work either way? I can just as much admire Carl Andre’s pile of bricks and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal as George Elgar Hicks’s Derby Day or Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. I love Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, although it is essentially unreadable, but its wordplay is phenomenal, just as the English translations of Asterix are also superb.

Similarly, bad art can be both low- and high-brow. While they are very different, Virginia Woolf, Peter Andre, Tracey Emin, Sylvia Plath, Stockhausen, John Barnes rapping and Katie Price’s ‘autobiographies’ are all rubbish.

It is tempting to regard Futurism as epitomising all the worst excesses of those who placed blind faith in the Enlightenment and all of the promises of modernity, which philosophers such as Zygmunt Bauman and Michel Foucault believe to be responsible for the Holocaust: the obsessive belief in rationality, reason, machines, ordering, regimentation. In denying sentiment, melody and harmony, Futurism faces the charge that it wanted to deny humans our humanity altogether.

But The Art Of Noises showed us that the Futurists may have been naive, hopelessly optimistic, and that they did indeed make some awful music, but they weren’t trying to give us solutions to humanity’s problems. Instead, they were merely trying to raise questions. Like the metal heads and punks of the 1970s and 80s, or indeed the Pre-Raphaelites, they pretended to have a stance, but in truth they principally only stood for what they were against. Like Duchamp, they were just taking the piss.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

Read on: spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Art of Noises, BBC iPlayer

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Topics Culture


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