The investigation of noise in sound art is partly indebted to Russolo’s The Art of Noises (1913). For Russolo the organization of noise was a radical acoustic strategy that symbolized city life and the industrial era. The Italian Futurists embraced the radical potential of the new sounds that were enabled by twentieth-century technologies, including the steamship, train, and automobile. Russolo associated silence with the past, while noise signified liberation from it. In related ways, Marinetti connected noise with warfare, which he glorified in troublingly fascist terms as well as interrogating the role of noise in displays of militarism and patriotism.
To create their famous noise compositions, the Italian Futurists played bespoke noise instruments called intonarumori (noise makers) that produced a variety of cacophonous sounds, including explosions, screams, howls, and crackles. Debuted at a concert in Milan in 1914 that culminated in an audience riot, the intonarumori were showcased throughout Europe at subsequent performances in London, Dublin, Vienna, and Berlin (Thorn 2002: 415-16). The Futurists recognized the destabilizing potential of noise and used it as a device to rattle the complacency of their audiences, challenge traditional forms of perception, and generate new levels of consciousness through acoustic assault. As Christine Poggi notes in The Futurist Noise Machine, “Noise is always experienced as destructuring, because it dissolves existing cultural differences, including the distinctions between message and background, sanctioned harmonies and forbidden dissonances, high and low technologies of sound production or even between programmed and chance effects” (Poggi 2009: 823).
The Futurists’ use of noise to incite and disturb their audiences continues to resonate within contemporary sound art practice. Noise is multiply powerful as both an artistic gesture and instrument of control – it can produce adverse bio and psychic effects, including pain, hearing loss, disorientation, fear, and paranoia, and can inspire its listeners towards violence and mayhem. Poggi suggests that noise was used strategically to promote the Italian Futurists’ revolutionary aims.
Inversely, Cage harnessed the conceptual power of silence to challenge the conventions of listening and to dismantle hierarchies embedded in the dissemination of sound and noise. As art critic Ina Blom asserts,
To see how Cage found programming potential in everything from irregularities in a sheet of paper to the classification of mushrooms, is to see an artist intensely sensitized to the regular grids of modern power and more alert than most to its genetic elements – elements whose effects challenge ordinary concepts of control. (Blom 2010: 170)
The destabilizing effects of Cage’s radical attention to silence is encapsulated by the title of a 2010 retrospective of his work, The Anarchy of Silence, curated by Julia Robinson and exhibited at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona.