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Luigi Russolo
An image of Luigi Russolo

Historical Avant-Gardes

Europe is the fertile floor that welcomes the first artistic avant-gardes  and literary movements: symbolism, expressionism, cubism, futurism, dadaism, which attempted to revolutionize the art language which is expressed and interacts with society, drawing in particular from philosophy and political ideologies.

Their attempts challenge not only the whole tradition, but the meaning of the word art. The music isn’t an exception to this change, rather, is shaken by innovative ideas like never before.

Arnold Schoenberg and Twelve-tone technique

In the early decades of the 900, innovators of classical music are dragged by a different fate from that of American music. The industry was not interested in selling a certain type of artistical music because uninteresting for a vast public. However, some years later, these same composers will become a source of inspiration for some of the greatest artists of rock music.

Probably the first to notice the impending revolution was the Italian Ferruccio Busoni, who in 1907 prophesied the use of dissonant sounds and electric musical compositions for the incoming future[1].

Meanwhile in Austria, Artur Schoenberg, a self-taught musician born in a poor Jewish family, professor of harmony and counterpoint in Vienna, speaks about his revolutionary theories that treat of writing music completely outside of the classic tonal system. On these same ideas Alexander Scriabin, russian composer passionate of Nietzsche’s theories about Overman, tries some atonal experiments.

These musicians resumed some trends shown by nineteenth-century composers such as Richard Strauss (Elektra, 1906), Maurice Ravel (disenchanted and ironic composer that was inspired by American Jazz) and Claude Debussy (maybe the most important initiator of twentieth century music, thanks to his original experiments on time and rhythm).

Although these composers was essentially anti-romantic, we have to take notice of some philosophical appurtenances with Richard Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), that he’d theorized in his essay “Art and Revolution” (1849). The term indicates an ideal theater in which converge music, drama, poetry and visual arts, in order to achieve a perfect synthesis of all different arts. Without being conscious, Wagner was imagining something very similar to what will become cinema or who attempt to do Diaghilev with his Ballets Russes. Very emblematic is the fact that he himself cites as highest expression of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ancient Greek Theatre, in particular Aeschylus tragedies.

During one of the first executions of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (one of the greatest examples of tonal instability), in Paris, sitting in the audience there was a young French composer who remained entranced: Edgard Varèse, which few years later leaves Europe to emigrate in USA.

Some Schoenberg’s practices, including the formalization of composition method and his habit to openly invite the audience to think analytically, will have an extraordinary echo that will resonate in all musical avant-garde movements throughout the twentieth century.

During the Nazi-fascism, Schoenberg music was branded as degenerate art, forcing him to flee in United States. Among his American students, there will be many great musicians, among which stand out the figure of the composer and music theorist John Cage.

Noise as music

In 1913, futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo theorized the use of noise[2] to make music that consists only of different types of noises instead of traditional harmonic turns, laying the groundwork for postwar avant-garde that will inspire noise rock and noise music.

During that time he held in Italy, France and England, concerts for noise-maker (from italian Intona-rumori), a musical instrument conceived by him, able to dynamically control volume and wavelength of different types of sounds.

1916, United States, Henry Cowell composed some quartets using combinations of rhythms and tones impossible to play for a man, inspiring the subsequent work by John Cage for prepared piano. One of his innovative techniques for piano, was to press clusters of keys, playing a set of notes very close with one another using an open hand, a fist, or the entire forearm depending on distance of keys. A very striking use of this technique can be heard in The Tides of Manaunaun (1911), which he wrote at age 14, or in Tiger (1928), inspired by the poetry of William Blake, The Tyger.

In 1913, Igor Stravinsky wrote a ballet for Ballets Russes created by Sergei Diaghilev, The Rite of Spring, which was considered extremely outrageous for its music and its subject, representing a pagan sacrificial rite immersed in a primitive atmosphere that leads to a demoniac fight. But it was a massive flop.

Eric Satie and Furniture Music

In 1917, Eric Satie composed the music for Parade[3], another ballet considered scandalous, with subject wrote by Jean Cocteau, sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Leonide Massine, which staged the loud and colorful world of street performers, fairs and circus.

In the early 20’s, Satie theorized the existence of a type of music not to be heard, called Furniture Music[4], with music no longer at center stage, but out of context, relegated to the background, to inspire in people an unconscious feeling of comfort and heat. Two decades later, American avant-garde composer John Cage, will say that furniture music “gives the sounds full freedom to express itself”.

In 1930, Cowell finished writing pages of his musical theory book, New Musical Resources[5] in which he explained in detail rhythmic and harmonic concepts he used in his compositions. The book became a powerful manifesto for American experimental music for decades after.

[referring to Cowell’s New Musical Resources] “…it had the most influence of anything I’ve ever read in music.”Conlon Nancarrow

In the same year, Cowell commissioned to the Russian inventor Leon Theremin, the first drum machine in history called Rhythmicon. He wrote with it many compositions and the famous Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra (1931).

As noble and impressive were conceptually, avant-garde music never arrive to achieve commercial success. On the other hand, would be trivial to criticize all mass music saying that it is now totally incorporated in the economic system, just like a good that has to be produced and consumed. Although that’s true and irrefutable, it’s a limited point of view on modern music: avant-garde and popular music are two sides of the same coin.

First, because it’s thanks to avant-garde that popular music was able to rise on very high peaks, and conversely, popular music allows avant-garde the emancipation from his role of “just an abstract madness” reserved for few intellectuals.

Second, capitalism was a painful but necessary step for the entire history of mankind. Without capitalism we would not have had the growth of science and technology sufficient to arrive at the current situation, which allows all of us to make music with a minimum investment, musical instruments, a computer and some software.

That is very positive for the creative spirit of masses. What really corrupts music quality is not the ease of making it, but the cultural ignorance to which masses are still subject for will of capitalism itself. But capitalism, using technology as a tool to obtain power, makes increasingly close its inexorable decline, because technological advances make culture accessible to people as never happened before in history.

In a few centuries the global scenario is about to change. It’s only a matter of time before that average cultural level increases exponentially, dragging our world, now balanced between barbarism and civilization, to a time when moneys will be only a luxury and not a necessity, because science and technology will guarantee to everyone an high level of welfare. We’ll work less and we’ll focus more on knowledge and spirit. It will be the time of new artistic renaissance that will bring the true meaning of art to its full splendor. It will be the time when pop-stars will decline in favor of Artists. The time when great avant-garde composers will be re-evaluated. It will be the moment when the Superman prophesied by Nietzsche finally will take shape and masses, not just intellectual elite, will become interested by all of these topics.


  1. Ferruccio Busoni – Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1907)
  2. Luigi Russolo – The art of Noise (1913)
  3. Satie, Cocteau, Picasso, Massine – Parade (1917)
  4. Here’s an example of furniture music performed by Webster University New Music Ensemble
  5. Henry Cowell – New Musical Resources (1930)