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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

All of these approaches to direct “electroacoustic” synthesis of music (to use what later became the standard term) had a considerable prehistory by the middle of the twentieth century. It can be traced back even before the invention of electric current, to music boxes and more elaborate mechanical contrivances such as the Panharmonicon of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772–1838; best known as the inventor of the pendulum metronome), an automated orchestra powered by weights and cylinders, for which Beethoven wrote his “Battle Symphony” (a.k.a. Wellington's Victory) in 1813.

The advent of electric power was a spur to many more such inventions, like the Telharmonium (alias Dynamophone), a two-hundred-ton apparatus for producing “scientifically perfect music” in any tuning system, assembled by the inventor Thaddeus Cahill (1867–1934) and exhibited in New York in 1906. An article on this machine in a popular magazine came to the attention of Ferrucio Busoni, the famous pianist-composer and perhaps the most influential teacher of the time, who saw in it the promise of musical emancipation at the dawn of the new century. “Music was born free,” Busoni declared in his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1907), paraphrasing Rousseau's Social Contract, “and to win freedom is its destiny.”5

Through the use of machines like Cahill's, music might yet defeat the limitations that less advanced technologies had imposed on it, and at last achieve its true aims, “namely, the imitation of nature and the interpretation of human feelings6 (italics original). That would truly be an “absolute music,” Busoni rhapsodized. His fantasy of a free music—never achieved but hinted at in “preparatory and intermediary passages (preludes and transitions)”7 like the introduction before the final fugue in Beethoven's big “Hammerklavier” Sonata, op. 106—chimes peculiarly with the utopian spirit of the midcentury avant-garde:

What a vista of fair hopes and dreamlike fancies is thus opened for the ear, and for Art! Who has not dreamt that he could float on air? and firmly believed his dream to be reality?—Let us take thought, how music may be restored to its primitive, natural essence; let us free it from architectonic, acoustic and esthetic dogmas; let it be pure invention and sentiment, in harmonies, in forms, in tone-colors (for invention and sentiment are not the prerogative of melody alone); let it follow the line of the rainbow and vie with the clouds in breaking sunbeams; let Music be naught else than Nature mirrored by and reflected from the human breast; for it is sounding air and floats above and beyond the air; within Man himself as universally and absolutely as in Creation entire; for it can gather together and disperse without losing in intensity.8

That vision of freedom and naturalness inspired many artists and inventors in the early part of the twentieth century to imagine and experiment with all kinds of artificial contrivances. The noisiest, most picturesque faction was the musicisti futuristi, a group of Italian artists who sought a musical application of the principles enunciated in the Futurist Manifesto of 1909. This document, by Filippo Marinetti (1876–1944), a poet and novelist, was probably the most radically antitraditionalist proclamation of its day. It called for the erasure of artistic memory—in practical (but not necessarily serious) terms, for the destruction of museums and concert halls—and the consecration of art to the celebration of the highly romanticized dynamics and dangers of twentieth-century life: warfare (“the world's natural hygiene,”9 according to a Marinetti manifesto of 1910) and conquest on an unprecedented scale, and above all the machines that would provide the means to realize these ferocious ideals. (Not coincidentally, Marinetti was one of the founding members of the Italian Fascist Party.)

Futurismo found direct expression in literature and the visual arts, media in which all it took was imagination and descriptive or illustrative skill to create the appropriate artifacts. Music, however, required equipment; and in the absence of such accouterments, machine music remained at first, for the most part, a utopian fantasy. It gave rise to a little manifesto of its own in 1913 (perhaps significantly, the year of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring), issued in Milan by Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), a painter, and dedicated to Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880–1955), the “grande musicista futurista,” who had just composed a raucous choral work called Inno alla vita (“Hymn to life”). Russolo's manifesto reached its rhetorical climax in a passage that may have been resounding in Cage's inner ear (its frequent bellowing capitalizations dazzling his mind's eye, too) when he delivered his remarkable prediction in 1940:

In the nineteenth century, with the invention of machines, Noise was born. Today Noise is triumphant, and reigns supreme over the senses of men. The art of music at first sought and achieved purity and sweetness of sound; later, it blended diverse sounds, but always with the intent to caress the ear with suave harmonies. Today, growing ever more complicated, it seeks those combinations of sounds that fall most dissonantly, strangely, and harshly upon the ear. We thus approach nearer and nearer to the MUSIC OF NOISE. We must break out of this narrow circle of pure musical sounds, and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.10

Russolo ended his manifesto with a “scientific” classification of noises into six families, to be produced mechanically by means of some as yet uninvented technology, from which the orchestra of the future would make its music:












Voices of





obtained by

animals and






men: Shouts




on metals,





wood, stone,







obtained by





In 1913, Russolo was back with a book, L'arte dei rumori (“The art of noises”), which included the first designs for futurist instruments called intonarumori, “noise intoners.” Together with a percussionist named Ugo Piatti (possibly a pseudonym; the name means “cymbals”), Russolo began constructing them in the form of boxes of varying size, with acoustical horns like the ones on early phonographs attached to their fronts, and with some sound-generating mechanism inside, activated by turning a crank at the rear. They included a crepitatore (crackler), a ululatore (hooter), a gracidatore (croaker), a gorgogliatore (gurgler), and a ronzatore (buzzer). Between 1914 and 1921 Russolo conducted some concerti futuristichi with these instruments in Milan and Paris. A typical composition for them was titled Il risveglio di una città (“The awakening of a city”). Except for the several measures reproduced in Fig. 4-1, from an Italian arts magazine of 1914, the scores and parts are lost; the intonarumori were speculatively refurbished by Italian musicologists for a recording in 1977.11 The music was, by all reports, of a loudness sufficient to elicit exciting opposition from the audience; on one occasion irate listeners mounted the stage and attempted a violent intervention, no doubt very much to the composer's taste.

Perhaps inspired by the nightingale episode in Respighi's Pines of Rome, Marinetti tried a new tack in 1933: he had some “field recordings” made on 78-RPM discs, including landscape noises, street music, human nonverbal vocal sounds (“the wheh wheh wheh of a baby boy,” “surprised Ooooooh of an 11-year-old girl,” etc.), rhythmic environmental noises (dripping water, keys turning in locks, electric doorbells), individual tones produced on various musical instruments, “pure silence” (i.e., the sound of the phonograph needle in the groove), and so forth, and assembled the sounds into collages performed by assistants, standing at phonograph turntables, who played the records on cue.


(5) Ferruccio Busoni, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, trans. Theodore Baker, in Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), p. 77.

(6) Ibid. p. 76.

(7) Ibid. p. 79.

(8) Ibid. p. 95.

(9) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Le Roi Bombance (1910).

(10) Luigi Russolo, “The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto,” trans. Stephen Somervell, in Nicolas Slonimsky, Music since 1900 (4th ed.; New York: Scribners, 1971), p. 1298.

(11) Musica futurista, Fonit Cetra FDM 0007 (2 LP).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004003.xml