Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Stravinsky and the Futurists

by Mark DeVoto

I have just returned from a short visit to New York where, at the Guggenheim Museum, I saw the exhibition called Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, which will remain until September 1. I had hoped to see some items that would expand a bit on Stravinsky's remarks in Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (1959), thus:
[Robert Craft:] Do you remember Balla's set for your Fireworks?
Giacomo Balla (1871–1958):
Sketch for Stravinsky's Fireworks (1915)
La Scala, Milan
[Stravinsky:] Vaguely, but I couldn't have described it even at the time (Rome, 1917) as anything more than a few splashes of paint on an otherwise empty backcloth. I do remember that it baffled the audience, however, and that when Balla came out to bow there was no applause: the public didn't know who he was, what he had done, why he should be bowing. Balla then reached in his pocket and squeezed a device that made his papillon necktie do tricks. This sent Diaghilev and me—we were in a box—into uncontrollable laughter, but the audience remained dumb.
Balla was always amusing and always likable, and some of the drollest hours of my life were spent in his and his fellow Futurists' company. The idea of doing a Futurist ballet was Diaghilev's but we decided together on my Fireworks music: it was “modern” enough and only four minutes long. Balla had impressed us as a gifted painter and we asked him to design a set.
I made fast friends with him after that, visiting him often in his apartment in Rome. He lived near the zoo, so near in fact that his balcony overhung a large cage. One heard animal noises in his rooms as one hears street noises in a New York hotel room. ...
On one of my Milanese visits Marinetti and Russolo, a genial, quiet man but with wild hair and beard, and Pratella, another moviemaker [sic], put me through a demonstration of their “Futurist Music.” Five phonographs standing on five tables in a large and otherwise empty room emitted digestive noises, static, etc., remarkably like the Musique concrète of seven or eight years ago (so perhaps they were Futurist after all; or perhaps Futurisms aren't progressive enough). I pretended to be enthusiastic and told them that sets of five phonographs with such music, mass-produced, would surely sell like Steinway grand pianos.
Some years after this demonstration Marinetti invented what he called “discreet noises,” noises to be associated with objects. I remember one such sound (to be truthful, it wasn't at all discreet) and the object it accompanied, a substance that looked like velvet but had the roughest surface I have ever touched. Balla must have participated in the “noise” movement, too, for he once gave me an Easter present, a papier-mâché Pascha cake that sighed very peculiarly when opened.
The exhibition at the Guggenheim includes two of Russolo's own paintings (I hadn't realized he was also a painter, and the two examples are quite good), plus several photographs of his intonarumori and assembled loudspeakers that I hadn't seen before; but even more interesting was the small exhibition of “Futurist Theatre” just off the fifth-floor ramp. This was a recreation of the 1917 Fireworks, which was in fact not a ballet at all but a light show with music; no dancers or singers were involved.

  • Preview of digital reconstuction.
Stravinsky's description above doesn't do justice to Balla's efforts, which included some 40 pages of ink sketches with elaborate geometrical designs and measurements; these sketches are part of the exhibit. The flashing colored lights in the exhibit are all oblique and indirect, and I can't say whether they represent original intentions, but they are certainly attractive; the Fireworks music displayed is Stravinsky's own recording, probably from around 1960. (I suppose that “discreet” in Stravinsky's memoir, above, probably should be “discrete”—at least the first mention.)

Giacomo Balla:
Abstract Speed + Sound
(Velocità astratta + rumore)
Guggenheim Museum

Mark DeVoto is Professor of Music, emeritus, at Tufts University and author of Schubert's Great C-Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon, 2011). His website is a locus of consistent delight.

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