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The Art of Noises: Experimental Composer and Musicologist Luciano Chessa Talks Mechanical Synthesizers and Noise Intoners



Though the mechanical Intonoarumori — "wooden sound boxes, each with a cone-shaped metal speaker on its front" — might seem rather primitive, there's plenty you can do with the instrument. World-renowned musicologist Luciano Chessa knows. He revealed his Intonarumori Ensemble in October 2009 at San Francisco's YBCA's Novellus Theater and that same year presented a performance at Town Hall in New York for PERFORMA 09.

He's been busy ever since. That 2009 concert, which received a "Best of 2009" mention in the New York Times, has spawned numerous concerts with the Intonarumori, which Chessa describes as "a mechanical synthesizer," and Cheesa has presented world premieres written by a wide array of cutting edge composers and ensembles that includes Blixa Bargeld, John Butcher, Tony Conrad, James Fei, Ellen Fullman, Ghostdigital with Finboggi Petusson and Caspar Electronics, Nick Hallett, Carla Kihlstedt + Matthias Bossi, Ulrich Krieger, Joan La Barbara, Pauline Oliveros, Pablo Ortiz, Mike Patton, Anat Pick, Elliott Sharp, Jennifer Walshe, Theresa Wong and Text of Light.

Chessa has also collaborated with people like Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and conducted the New World Symphony with Ranaldo for the premiere of his It All Begins Now! This week, he brings the ensemble to the Cleveland Museum of Art for a one-of-a-kind performance. After a week of rehearsals that are open to the public, Chessa's Intonarumoi Ensemble will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at the museum. Chessa, who teaches music history and literature at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, recently spoke to us via phone about the performance.

Jeff Niesel: Talk about the performance that will take place in Cleveland.

Luciano Chessa: It's a performance that centers on the Orchestra Futurist Noise Intoners. Basically, it's a concert that centers on the reconstruction I made in 2009 of the earliest intoners. Luigi Russolo was first a painter and then a part of the Futurist movement. In 1912, he started to move toward sound. Working for a few months on these ideas, he came up with this new plan of shaping sound in the context of a concert that he called it the Art of Noise. "The Art of Noises" Manifesto came out and in a few months there were a number of instruments he had developed to produce the kind of sound he had written about.

The first presentation of the instruments happened in 1913 on Aug. 11. It was a press event that Marinetti, the father of futurism, had arranged to show Russolo's new instruments. He was building them in the summer of 1915 and had probably started building them while he was working on the manifesto. In that first concert, 16 instruments were used.

In 2009, I was asked to rebuild that first orchestra. It was a smaller one and a starting point. What I produced in 2009 was the first reconstruction of Russolo's orchestra and was what I could make on the basis of what I had available. It was mostly based on my research. I had written on Russolo and that eventually became a book but not until 2012. I had all this information around me and I had a sense of what was available and what should be guiding me. The concert in Cleveland is a performance with this reconstructed orchestra.

JN: How did you reconstruct the intoners? Did you modernize them?

LC: I like to refer to them as mechanical synthesizers. The idea that they're synthesizers is not mine. For a while, I was interrogating myself to what extent they were synthesizers. I think it's true but I came up with the idea that they were mechanical synthesizers so that differentiates them from electronic synthesizers. Everything is mechanical, even the circuitry.

It's not designed to produce any electronics but they were forefathers of electronic music. The approach he took of building the instrument was to designing each box with a certain timbre. It's what we would do later with electronic instruments. They only use electronic motors and the rest is cranks and wheels. It's mechanical and made with wood and drum skins and strings.

JN: And you've commissioned composers to write music for the instrument?

LC: When I got the commission in 2009, I knew there was no repertoire for this instrument. The instrument disappeared in World War II and the repertoire disappeared too. There were a handful of pieces written after the war. They were a curiosity and there is a piece for a string quartet with the idea of imitating the sound of the rain. I wasn't interested in reviving that. I was more interested in the machine inspired works. He wanted to mix the sound with an orchestra. Going on with the idea that Russolo was against creating a memetic sound and with the ideas he expressed in the manifesto, I realized that none of those original pieces from 1913 to 1915 were available, other than Russolo's fragment, which is only seven bars. Even conducted very slow, it doesn't last more than a minute. It's not enough to make a concert.

I wanted to commission new pieces. That's why we have a repertoire. We could ask composers to write new pieces. It was never intended to be some kind of nostalgic throwback in time. What would someone interested in electronic music do if they were asked to leave at home all the electronic wizardly and deal with raw, mechanical sound. That was the idea.

JN: So talk about the compositions that will be performed in Cleveland.

There will be two new pieces — Joshua Carro's "Her Slow Gasp" and Christopher Burns' "Three Standard Stoppages" — premiering in Cleveland. I always have one or two new pieces, They come from different places. Right now, we're applying for commission grants, so I can keep developing the repertoire. We had a double vinyl album come out last year on Sub Rosa and it is sold out. I have a live record coming out later in the year. I keep wanting to get more commissions going too.

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