Intonarumori, Intonarumori, Intonarumori: The Futurist Roots of Sound of Noise

Sound of Noise (2010)

Sound of Noise (2010) | Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

The water was gone. The onion skins and loose blueberries—torn into nothing. The garbage had been disposed of, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the disposal. I was rocking to its motor, to that B-flat rumble under the mechanical flicks rattling in my ears. I flipped the switch and the disposal trailed off, blades coming to a slow stop, ending on a heavy click. I turned it on again, then quickly off. And on, and off. And on, and off. And on, and off. And on, and off. And on, and off. And on, and off. And on, and off. A rhythm. An instrument. An intonarumori. Noise. Glorious, hypnotic noise. (Music. Maybe music.) The radiator knocked and hissed. The engineered orchestra launched into a symphony of all the sounds I usually ignore. I’d just watched Sound of Noise, and the world couldn’t help being musical. 

For what is essentially a heist film, 2010’s Sound of Noise puts a lot of emphasis on the music. Directed by Swedes Johannes Stjärne Nilsson and Ola Simonsson, the story is anchored around a series of daring musical heists pulled off by six drummers who use their own names in the film. Instead of skidding away in unassuming cars with duffel bags stuffed with cash as the dashing criminals in Thief and Asphalt Jungle do, the drummers steal music from unsuspecting objects around Malmö, Sweden. They run around causing mayhem and making beautiful noise—manipulating the machines and patients at a hospital, deconstructing pavement outside a concert hall, and shredding money at a bank. The score was composed before the film was shot, but the drummers actually drummed the city. Nilsson and Simonsson have said they and the drummers recorded more than 23,000 sounds around Malmö over the course of a year, before Magnus Börjeson, one of the six drummers, began to edit it all down to the film’s magnificent score. 

As much as Sound of Noise is a heist film, it’s a musical too. The first song starts with a count. One! Two! Three! Four! A van speeds down a Swedish country road. A drummer in back starts up. Sanna Persson, at the wheel, shifts gears, and the engine starts to sing. Magnus Börjeson, on drums, pummels faster. Persson changes lanes and the car skids. They rock at the velocity of dependable infrastructure, creeping up to 140 kilometers an hour. And just as I’m getting into it, all revved up, the siren flips on. The motorbike cop pulls out of his secluded spot, where he was doing whatever it is cops do in their private moments, and gives chase. Sanna glides on the warning strips down the highway. It’s not just the van singing now, but the road itself. Magnus, still drumming, looks back at the cop through a murky window. He knows there’s only one way to end this song, so he throws open the back door of the van and starts tossing drums out, punctuated impacts sustaining a rhythm. The cop swerves around the falling instruments, but he can’t ride out the drum wave. He veers off the road, crashing head first into a bush. The musicians drive off, abandoning their van at the gates of the German embassy, leaving nothing behind but the ticking of a metronome, a musical time bomb.

The performance truly begins after the engine is turned off. An audience gathers around the ticking van and the police arrive. Finding refuge in the crowd, Sanna and Magnus watch as a detective walks up to the ticking van. His colleagues twitter in anticipation of an explosion, but Detective Amadeus Warnebring knows the sound of a metronome too well. (As the tone-deaf scion of a legendary musical family, he hates it. It drags him back to the music lessons forced on him in his childhood. “I really dislike music,” he tells a pedagogue later in the film.) He picks up the metronome and knows he’s in pursuit of dreaded, unpredictable musical anarchists. The musicians he grew up with were the classical elite—technically virtuosic, but urbanely authoritarian; deeply committed to their art, but entombed in their traditions. Warnebring knows that whoever left the metronome in the van broke free of these irrelevant trappings. The limitless anarchy of this new musical freedom is alien to him. Though he can only admit a festering repulsion, the fires of obsession are starting to flicker in Warnebring. He can’t imagine the scope of the drummers ambitions. The van is only a prelude. 

“What they deserve is a real bomb,” Sanna says as the musicians walk away. Magnus, ever ready for the next étape, hands her a manuscript: “Music for One City and Six Drummers.” For years, they’ve tried to make the world as musical as the rhythms running through their heads. Magnus’ manuscript contains all the schemes they’ve ever dreamed of rolled into one: music to reanimate a world grown tone-deaf and muted. As she reads the score, time bends in. Sanna sees the wave of the future and hears echoes from a century ago. 

In the summer of 1913, a magician whirled around his workshop on the Via Stoppani in Milan. Visitors to Luigi Russolo’s laboratory penned ecstatic poems evoking his experiments with X-rays and oscilloscopes. “In the flooding fluorescence,” went one, translated by composer and Russolo scholar Luciano Chessa, “we free ourselves again and outside of ourselves we can contemplate exposed plates and calculate the irradiations.” But Russolo wasn’t born into such a thoroughly irradiated world. Before taking up magic, he’d been a painter. He got his start painting over da Vinci’s Last Supper as part of a botched restoration attempt mercifully abandoned in 1908. He’d never painted professionally before that—he was just a kid who hung around the local art school, not even a student. His friend got him the gig. Years later, while describing the “creative” restoration process, in a long-missing lecture rediscovered and partly translated by Chessa, he’d joke about how “a painter’s genius affords him the right, the duty, to scrape away and destroy the frescoes of other artists of genius and substitute his own if they demand the same wall.” And though his amateurishness was of little service to da Vinci, its consequent freedom would lead to a supreme creativity that broke through the limits of music, and led to Sound of Noise

Russolo’s paintings were transformed after he read F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism.1 “The beauty of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,” Marinetti declared in Lawrence Rainey’s translation. “A roaring automobile that seems to ride on grapeshot—that is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Enthralled by Marinetti’s velocity, Russolo realized he could no longer devote himself to the preservation of Renaissance remnants; he’d have to blast into the future with motorized perception. He and a gaggle of artists met with Marinetti and asked to join the movement. Within a month, they published the Manifesto of the Futurist Painters. “Our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls,” they wrote, in percussionist Daniel Matei’s translation, “in the same way we must breathe in the tangible miracles of contemporary life—the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown.” Russolo’s art tuned in to a new frequency.

In the autumn of 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen set off another slower moving, more subtle, artistic revolution. His discovery of X-rays promised to reveal the hidden aspects of reality, an unprecedented way of seeing, electrically unveiled, uniquely modern. Details of Röntgen’s experiments with cathode ray tubes filtered out to the world through pop science magazines. Artists and magicians everywhere became interested in their consequences, perhaps none more so than Russolo. He got hold of some cathode ray tubes and began experimenting, quickly realizing that he could create an oscilloscope with the same tubes. Soon, according to Chessa’s research, he was using his oscilloscope to study music. If the musicians of the Futurist movement had thus far failed to wrench their music into a new epoch, perhaps it was because they’d failed to embrace the wonders of modern science. Russolo would not make that mistake. Ever the enthusiastic amateur, he started to record the waves of music, and then those of the noises of the city: rumbling engines, rocking trains, shouting crowds. When he put the oscilloscope readings together he found that their differences were insignificant next to their similarities. The noise of the city was music, too. The musicians just had to catch up.

As was the Futurist wont, he scrawled out a manifesto. The Art of Noises was full of bold sentences, written for bold readers, who wouldn’t object to unwarranted boldness—sentences that warned of slaps that would meet Russolo’s critics. In artist Robert Filliou’s translation, it was a magician’s proclamation from on high and an invitation at once: “Let’s walk together through a great modern capital, with the ear more attentive than the eye, and we will vary the pleasures of our sensibilities by distinguishing among the gurglings of water, air and gas inside metallic pipes, the rumblings and rattlings of engines breathing with obvious animal spirits, the rising and falling of pistons, the stridency of mechanical saws, the loud jumping of trolleys on their rails, the snapping of whips, the whipping of flags.” In a speech act on the level of the declarations of the nation of Kosovo and the Republic of Karakalpakstan, Russolo declared that the world was musical and music was never the same.

“I am not a musician,” he wrote at the end of the manifesto; “I am a futurist painter who projects on a profoundly loved art his will to renew everything.” But Russolo was never one to leave the exploration of an idea to others. According to Chessa’s investigation of this period, he shut himself away in his workshop. Whirs and putters could be heard emitting from the Via Stoppani, and an air of mystery began to converge upon the street. Within a few months, Russolo emerged with the first of his intonarumori. Allegedly, it was a musical instrument which imitated the sounds of engines and other machines of the city. Each instrument consisted of a mysterious box with a megaphone jutting out. On the side there was a crank, and on the top there was a lever that could be adjusted to moderate pitch. Russolo’s hyperspeed tinkering allowed him to create an entire intonarumori orchestra of 22 distinct designs. The magician had cast a spell and turned himself into a musician. 

The classical music elite of Italy, which included Russolo’s conservatory-trained brothers, would never know what hit them. Like detective Warnebring, they would flail and strike out, before being unwittingly absorbed into Russolo’s musical project. On June 2, 1913, four days after the Rite of Spring riot in Paris, a crowd turned up at the Teatro Storchi in Modena to hear the instrument Russolo had invented, even more unprepared for what they were going to hear than Stravinsky’s outraged audience.2 According to both Chessa and Matei’s accounts, there was shouting even before Russolo started playing his instrument. He stood on stage trying to explain what it was, but they shouted him down. So he started playing. This particular intonarumori was meant to imitate a car engine, so it must have sounded a bit like the first song with the van in Sound of Noise. The intonarumori came so close to its inspiration that some portion of the audience flipped out, wailing like the cop’s sirens in the film. “It’s a trick, it’s a trick!” one is said to have yelled in Matei’s translation of an article about the event. “Open the box! You are passéist imitators! You want us to appreciate an imitation, while we could easily enjoy the original!”

Russolo did not “open the box.” He tried to explain that this engine-sounding instrument was just the first step toward a new world of noise. “You cannot imagine what a noise orchestra will be,” the magician told them in Matei’s translation. “That day you will have a great artistic voluptuousness.” The audience started throwing tomatoes and onions. And Russolo played on. Marinetti shouted that the audience were donkeys and peasants, but who could blame them? They’d parked their trucks, hung up their aprons, got off the factory lines—whatever it was they did—and stepped out for some afterwork entertainment, and there’s this guy trying to justify running an engine onstage as a diversion? Russolo’s plan only worked because they threw the tomatoes. What do tomatoes sound like when they hit a stage? What’s the sound of onions hitting a performer? How cold are those onions?

By the time Russolo and his fellow Futurists walked out of the theater, the audience had swelled into an angry 300-strong mob. The police tried to hold them back, but, according to Matei, Marinetti said, “Let them come!” If they followed the Futurists from cafe to cafe after Russolo’s performance, that was fine. It was an immoderate response to an immoderate project. By unleashing musical noise, Russolo set off more than a century of Dionysian immoderacy. He figured out how to pull people into his overwhelming musical conception—the mob, to their apparent dismay, was music too—and they would go on being pulled in, up to and including the characters in Sound of Noise, and maybe us. 

A year after the premiere in Modena, as Chessa noted, Russolo slapped a critic in the street and ended up laying out the history of the intonarumori and the theory of noise in court. 

The first musical assault on the city in “Music for One City and Six Drummers” takes place at a hospital and is called “Doctor, Doctor, Gimme Gas (In My Ass).” Dressed in scrubs and all-too-familiar surgical masks, the drummers storm the hospital, wheeling away a patient to a secluded operating chamber. The patient’s heart monitor provides the underlying rhythm, which is exactly what the great composer and quiet Russolo disciple John Cage discovered when he stepped into an anechoic chamber that shut out all outside sounds. Cage wrote, in a statement on Experimental Music included in his book Silence, that he heard “two sounds, one high and one low.” The engineer outside told him that the low one was his blood circulating and the high one was his nervous system. Cage loved that. “Until I die,” he wrote in Silence, “there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” Sixty years after Cage’s book was printed, we can watch the drummers adopt surgical trays and gas canisters as percussion instruments to accompany the patient’s pulse. A robotic voice from one of the machines in the room with them regularly intones “don’t touch the patient.” 

After the song, the tone-deaf Detective Warnebring arrives on the scene. He tries to talk to the patient, but can’t hear him. The patient has become too musical for his ears. He bangs a surgical tray against a wall, shocking a doctor, but he hears nothing. “They played on this and now I can’t hear it,” he tells one of his colleagues. Once it’s been used as a musical instrument, it goes permanently silent for Warnebring. It’s a sort of super power, though not one anyone I know would ask for.

In movement two, “Money 4 U, Honey,” the drummers burst into a bank. They’re wearing black suits, black ties, white shirts, and ski masks, too stylish to really blend in. Holding a metronome like a weapon, Sanna shouts, “This is a gig! We’re only here for the music!” They stamp windows, toss coins, crunch keyboards, and shred cash, incorporating the shrieks of bankers into their groove. In his manifesto, Russolo argues that “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.” He’s not just saying that we could potentially hear modern noise as music, but that we’re already used to hearing the sounds of modern life and have internalized their rhythms. Our music has to borrow the pulse of late capitalism—and where better than a bank to harness it? All this time, we’ve been living in the intonarumori. We just never noticed.

Perhaps the movement that would be closest to Russolo’s heart is the third: “Fuck the Music! Kill! Kill!” Detective Warnebring is attending a classical concert that his brother, the prodigy of the family, is conducting. The crowd struts in their penguin suits and finest dresses, and Warnebring has accessorized with earplugs. Russolo hated this setting, hated the sort of music played in it. He let his hatred spill out unmoderated. It came out as scathing in Filliou’s translation of The Art of Noises

Is there anything more ridiculous in the world than 20 men slaving to increase the plaintive meowing of violins? This plain talk will make all music maniacs jump in their seats, which will stir up a bit the somnolent atmosphere of concert halls. Shall we visit one of them together? Let’s go inside one of these hospitals for anemic sounds. 

Just as Warnebring is trying to settle into earplug-cushioned silence, a sound wave crashes through the hall. An earthquake? A bomb? It’s the six drummers, wiping out the anemic sounds of the orchestra with three bulldozers and an excavator drumming on the pavement outside. One stands on the steps of the hall, deferential enough to wear a tux, not enough to stop jackhammering the steps. Warnebring runs out to try to stop them. Their fighting breaks the jackhammer rhythm and alters the music. It’s the worst thing that could happen to the tone-deaf cop: he’s become an instrument. 

After the attack on the concert hall, the police chief glares into a TV camera, wild-eyed, spittle flying. “They won’t get away with this,” he roars. “We’re going to rid this city of musical scum!” So they round up anyone who might have ever picked up an instrument. Warnebring, in a Christmas sweater and noise-cancelling headphones, still in shock from his confrontation with the construction equipment, smashes guitars and metronomes. He can no longer hear himself. He’s an instrument, and he can’t escape his fate. He bellows out at a colleague, “Can you hear me?” He can’t even hear himself think. He’s possessed. A sonic grenade has gone off around him. 

I don’t know what Russolo heard when the grenade exploded. I hope to never know. Like many of his fellow Futurists, Russolo had joined the army because he believed that the Great War would be a display of modernity’s most extreme tendencies. Marinetti, between stints on the battlefield, kept up a stream of pro-war propaganda, which would eventually evolve into the fascist pro-Mussolini stance that darkened the legacy of Futurism. In one missive, translated by Chessa, he claimed that Russolo spent his time on the battlefield “studying the noises of the war and drawing from them improvements for his intonarumori.” But Russolo may have been too busy to focus on his former musical endeavors. On December 17th, 1917, he was knocked back by a grenade while defending a mountaintop in the Venetian Prealps. Whatever he heard when the grenade exploded was followed by a great silence. He spent the next year in a hospital recuperating from the cranial trauma. 

It was a pattern he would come to know too well. In the bombing of the Second World War, all of the intonarumori were destroyed. Along with them went most of Russolo’s musical output. The only recordings that survive of the original intonarumori are by his brother, Antonio, who set them whirring alongside more traditional compositions. Those sound like a tone-deaf orchestra playing with a truck, though the audio quality doesn’t help. Only one Russolo composition for intonarumori survived the inferno: two pages, seven measures—an excerpt from his much longer work, Awakening of the City. It survived because he’d used it as an example in a magazine article, but it couldn’t be played without the intonarumori.

For the rest of the 20th century, Russolo’s musical legacy was confined to the intellectual aftershocks of his manifesto. These surface in Sound of Noise. When Warnebring investigates Sanna Persson’s background at the Malmö Conservatory, he discovers that she’s tapped into a current in the Russolo tradition. “She tortured us with her ideas,” the head of the conservatory tells him. “She created music with paperweights, horse droppings, and God knows what else.” When Warnebring plays the beat up VHS tape of the “water concert” that got Sanna expelled from the conservatory, he sees just how close she came to her predecessors in the Fluxus movement of the ‘60s.3 Incorporating elements from Robert Watts’ Trace for Orchestra—in which the performers set their scores on fire—and Nam June Paik’s Piano Piece—in which the composer plays piano, dumps a bucket of water on his head, and plays some more—Sanna conducts, as a fellow drummer holds a candle up to a smoke detector, triggering the sprinkler system. The audience scatters and Sanna conducts the falling water.

A bit before Fluxus, John Cage took Russolo’s ideas a step further. Rather than recreate the sounds of the modern world with invented instruments, he made room for them. Warnebring embodies some of Cage’s explorations into silence. In a narrator’s interlude, the detective describes the moment his parents gave up teaching him piano. “I never wanted to play,” he says. “I wanted silence. I dreamt of music made of silence.” But the difference between the silence Warnebring is looking for and a piece like Cage’s controversial no-note “4’33”” is that Warnebring is essentially hoping for an unmusical world. “The sound experience which I prefer to all others,” Cage told a camera in 1991, “is the experience of silence. And silence almost everywhere in the world now is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven or Mozart, you see they are always the same. But if you listen to traffic, you see it’s always different.” Cage’s silence was, in the tradition of Russolo, about finding the music in everything; Warnebring’s is about the inability to find it in anything. 

Russolo himself seems to have embraced the silence that followed the war. In the years after, he abandoned his experiments with the intonarumori. Just as he’d moved past painting, he moved past music. He spent the following decades focusing on the occult, writing about spirit resonances, hypnotism, yoga, and magnetism—which might seem pretty remote from the earlier ideas that more clearly animate Sound of Noise. However, his late explorations shed light on the part of the film that I found most confusing on my first watch and most enlightening on my second.

Why, I wondered, did the objects the drummers had used remain silent for Warnebring after the performances? I understand that he can’t hear music—but if the objects were no longer being used to create music, shouldn’t he have been able to hear them? Russolo gave a clue in his last book. By the time he wrote it, he’d mostly given up making art, but he found himself returning to his first artistic experience: his restoration work on The Last Supper. He wrote, in Luciano Chessa’s translation: “The work of art is pure spirit and lives outside even its own material body, eternally young even though its body, which is matter, is aged, blackened, cracked, as is happening to Leonardo’s The Last Supper. It becomes in its pictorial materiality a nebulous and evanescent breath without having lost anything of its supreme spiritual life.” It seems that what Russolo meant is that a part of the artist lives on in their work, literally: an actual ghost, or spirit. The objects Warnebring picks up are still musical, still alive, because the drummers have left parts of their souls with them. In his last years, Russolo discovered that, as Chessa explained, “creation promises that spirit can triumph over directional time, and over matter, surviving even after the death of matter.”

That’s definitely a man with a saxophone. And then there’s something like 16 intonarumori reconstituted on stage with him. A ghostly intonarumori orchestra with a saxophone soloist. Center stage, Luciano Chessa, our trusty Russolo scholar, conducts. On this night, on this stage, they’ve played the surviving excerpt of Russolo’s Awakening of the City, in what may well be its first public performance in almost a century. It whirred and puttered and sang. Where did Russolo get that vision of an electrified city? Everywhere feels electric for the auditory flaneur. I didn’t know until about five minutes ago that the word “electric” comes from the Latin electrum, which can mean “amber.” Apparently, if you rub bits of amber together you can get electrical effects. Amber reminds me of the colors of light bulbs, the most visible form of electricity. Sometimes, you find bulbs that make you feel like you’re in a cave huddled around a fire. Others make you feel like you’re on the moon when it’s close to the sun. If you’re lucky, you find bulbs that feel like a sunny day on earth. The thing you can say about all bulbs, though, whatever their color, is that they’re pretty steady. Even when they get to be unsteady, they’re pretty steadily unsteady. 

In the final movement of Magnus’ opus, “Electric Love,” the drummers play the power lines. Shutting off the electricity, they climb up and tap out their song with massive bows. It’s beautiful, a real high wire act, but it feels more theoretical than the previous movements. They’re playing the city, yes, but without the current carrying their rhythm they might as well be playing on ropes. They’ve localized the music, let their dreams stop at what seems safe and possible. If they could drum the world, I’d love that. Drum the Universe? The perfect fulfilment of Russolo’s vision. A musical universe. Warnebring, who has by now discovered the score, knows that his ears won’t stop ringing, and this won’t really be over until the drummers at least drum the city. He shows up at his brother’s house after dark, saying, “I’ve got to write music, I need your help.” After learning less than the basics, he begins to scratch out a song. He hands it to his brother. “Is it music?” he asks. “It’s got to be music or it won’t work.” His brother nods, “it’s very bad music.” 

Warnebring tumbles out of a car at the power station, and demands that the drummers play his song. “Don’t forget,” he says, “the electricity has to be turned on this time.” The drummers let slip nervous titters, but the detective has the best interests of the music at heart. He handcuffs Sanna and walks off with her, shouting, “play my music and I’ll let Sanna go!” When they enter the concert hall, he uncuffs her, whereupon she punches him and cuffs him to a table. “I wrote this music for you,” Warnebring pleads, holding out a copy, “you’re the soloist.” As the drummers tap the empowered electric lines, the lights begin to pulse with synesthetic music. Sanna counts off the beats. Lights all over the city are blinking rhythmically. Sanna sees Russolo’s unmoderated vision surging through the wires in the walls around her. She uncuffs Warnebring and they run into the streets, entranced by the music of the lights. On a rooftop, they watch the vista of light cresting on the skyline, taking in the whole of the massive electronic instrument. When the song is over, the lights of the city shut down. “And now silence,” Warnebring says, “no more music.” 

Sanna kisses him and lights on the skyline start to flicker back on. In our century, a hundred years after Russolo, people have started to rebuild the intonarumori. Luciano Chessa, drawing on his scholarship on the originals and on Russolo’s patents, has presented what may be the most accurate reproductions. They still sound radical and shocking when played together, a lot like the van at the beginning of the film, or my garbage disposal. We’ll never know what the originals sounded like exactly, or whether these match up, but that was never the point. The intonarumori—in all their winning jankiness—are mere tangible demonstrations of Russolo’s conception of music as an overriding force that irradiates the world and changes it, all of it, essentially. The intonarumori reanimators and the six drummers have taken up Russolo’s task, but it takes Warnebring, the tone-deaf amateur, to complete it. 

Everything is musical now. The city is awake, and so are we.

  1. Published on the front page of Le Figaro on February 20, 1909, Marinetti’s manifesto announced the arrival of the Futurist movement, which would soon extend its industrial-inspired aesthetic into all realms of artistic activity, from cuisine to architecture, painting, and music. The movement set the program for much of the 20th century avant-garde, inspiring everything from dada to surrealism.
  2. The premiere of choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was derailed by what has been described as a riot. There are varying accounts of the night. Some portray the audience shouting at something they didn’t expect, others describe objects being thrown at the stage and violence sparking in the theater. It’s unclear exactly what happened. The violence surrounding the premiere of the intonarumori is undisputed.
  3. Fluxus was an international, experimental, largely-performance-art based movement or community, whose proponents included Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and early and oft-cited Russolo translator Robert Filliou.