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Q&A: Ben Osborne, Noise Of Art

By | Published on Thursday 4 July 2013

Luigi Russolo

Ben Osborne is the founder of Noise Of Art, a collective launched in 2005 to bring together electronic music, film and art in interesting ways. Since then they have staged events at nightclubs, galleries, cinemas and festivals around Europe.

Last year that included a massive event around the re-release of The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film, taking over all four floors of The Hackney Picturehouse cinema. And this year they’ve stepped things up yet again with a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of electronic music.

In 1913, Italian futurist Luigi Russolo published the book ‘Manifesto For An Art Of Noises’, a year later unveiling a collection of electronic instruments to show off his ideas. His first performances, not received entirely as he’d hoped, saw him soundtracking silent films. It is this that Noise Of Art will pay tribute to with an event at the BFI Southbank in London next week – hopefully without the riots that occurred when Russolo first played.

Coldcut, Slow, Mental Overdrive, Aggie Frost, Gaggle and Osborne himself will also perform live on the night. To find out more, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Osbourne to ask a few questions about both electronic music’s centenary and Noise Of Arts upcoming events.

AM: Who was Luigi Russolo?
BO: Luigi Russolo was an Italian futurist painter, who was interested in capturing the movement of music and musicians on canvas. This led him to start imagining what futurist music should sound like and inspired him to write ‘Manifesto For An Art of Noises’, which basically described electronic music 100 years ago this year. It’s also responsible for Noise Of Art’s name, of course.

AM: What came first for Russolo: ‘A Manifesto For An Art Of Noises’ or his own musical experiments?
BO: He wrote the Manifesto in 1913 as a clarion call for musicians to create new music, and described how instruments might be made that could make that new sound. But when no one took him up, he started making the instruments himself. He called them intonorumari, and they’re basically proto synthesisers.

AM: What form did those instruments take?
BO: They were basically big boxes that would make rumbling noises and wind sounds. The music he imagined captured the sound of the factory and what he called “the great white breathing of the urban night” – I’m paraphrasing a bit. The first boxes had huge funnels on the front – as it was before sound systems.

AM: Where did he first perform his music?
BO: The first shows were in concert halls, but after the war a new generation of cinemas had been built, so in the 1920s he started using the music to soundtrack silent film. That made me laugh, as when we first stared trying to get permission to use silent film with electronic music in 2004, there was a certain amount of resistance from people like the BFI. They were understandably worried it would upset their core silent movie buff audience. And they had a point, because some people do only want to see silent film with an upright piano tinkling away in the corner. But the fact is electronic music was one the first forms of music used to sound track silent films.

AM: What was the reaction when Russolo did it?
BO: The reaction to the first ever concerts in April 1914 was a riot. Milan wasn’t ready for him, but he got better receptions in Paris.

AM: What were people who turned up to hear him perform expecting?
BO: I don’t think they could have had any preconception. But it must have been epically new.

AM: When did you first hear about Russolo, and have you spent the time since then hoping no one else thinks to mark the occasion!?
BO: Well, we launched Noise Of Art in 2005 and everyone thought we were referencing the 80s act Art Of Noise, which we were as well, but Russolo was there in the background.

Russolo still isn’t really very famous, although we are trying to change that and more people are getting to know about him now. We’ve made a few Russolo references along the way, but I have been sitting on my hands waiting for this centenary for quite a while.

We launched our year and a half long celebration of ‘100 years of electronic music’ two months ago and we’re doing events through into 2014 with lots of partners.

The first partnership was with Village Underground and we will be doing more with them. They’re a great bunch of people. Our second collaboration is with BFI and Norway’s TIFF festival in July. After that we’re playing at Latitude with a show connecting psychedelia, disco and house music – all with some darkly gothic overtones.

AM: What are your plans for the BFI event next week, and how do they relate to Russolo’s work?
BO: At BFI we’re celebrating the (almost) 100 years since Russolo used his instruments to soundtrack silent film. He did this in Paris in the 1920s, so we’ve got some films about Paris that were shot in that decade that he might have actually played to. Coldcut are working on that, using samples of Russolo’s instruments (the actual instruments haven’t survived).

Then we also have a film from Paris that is exactly 100 years old (filmed in Paris in 1913) that we’re soundtracking. For the feature film, Norwegian acts Mental Overdrive and Frost are working with Russian synth master Slow to soundtrack the 1926 Soviet classic, ‘Mother’.

AM: What other events do you have planned?
BO: There’s some I can’t announce yet, but the next one is at Latitude festival, where we’re working with Tom from Groove Armada and Nathaniel Parker (the actor) doing a celebration of ‘The Wicker Man’, which we’re using to connect psychedelia to electronic music. We’re also working with David Pinner, who wrote ‘Ritual’ – the book that inspired ‘The Wicker Man’ – which is pretty exciting.

AM: What have the reactions to Russolo’s story been like from the artists you’ve been working with on these events?
BO: Everyone has been blown away by it. Most were unaware or only vaguely aware of him.

AM: What is Russolo’s legacy, do you think? Has he been influential on later electronic musicians?
BO: I spoke to Karl Bartos – formerly of Kraftwerk – about this for something I wrote for DJ Magazine. He describes how Russolo influenced Schaffer, who influenced Stockhausen, who influenced Kraftwerk. And after Kraftwerk, it then goes onto everyone else. Most people, though, only trace it back to Kraftwerk, or at a push Musique Concrete… But Russolo was the daddy of it all.