What's the Boundary Between Music and Noise? 100-Year-Old Instrument Reborn at SU

Mar 25, 2014

SU Design Professor Zeke Leonard demonstrates one of his intonarumori instruments. He recreated the instruments from Luigi Russolo ’s original designs. This one is a wooden box with a lever, hand crank, and a cone-like attachment designed to create unusual-sounding “music.”
Credit Randy Wenner/WAER News

A century ago an unusual musical experiment took place that generated howls of protest and actual fistfights from the audience. Now in 2014 that same experimental music genre is making a comeback at Syracuse University – and is still raising eyebrows.

In the period following the Industrial Revolution, the sound of machines was suddenly everywhere.  For most people, this was nothing but “Noise”, but for Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo-- it was music to his ears.  Russolo was so intrigued by the sound of early 20th century technology, he invented the Intonarumori -- a family of musical instruments producing unconventional sounds.

"God awful. They’re just terrible sounds,” said Zeke Leonard, Design Professor at Syracuse University.

Leonard has come to appreciate what Russolo tried to accomplish a century ago.

“I think that in some ways Russolo invented the idea of experimental music.”

Experimental alright, but –music? Visual and Performing Arts instructor Matthew Peters Warne says the answer to that lies-- in the ear of the beholder.

“To a number of people, rock and roll isn’t music…country music isn’t music…, right? So there’s clearly something about the way you listen to the sounds that is a huge part of the decision about whether they’re music.”

Audiences 100 years ago who listened to intonarumori concerts—didn’t like them very much. But Zeke Leonard has been carefully recreating those instruments, giving students the chance to experiment with sounds they never thought they’d think of as music.


But why put all this effort into remaking instruments that make noise? Performing Arts Presenter Carole Brzozowski helped coordinate the project. She believes people are in a better position today to appreciate these sounds than they were 100 years ago.

“You know, coming off the subway in NYC isn’t that different than what you hear when we crank open the intonarumori, right? our ears are already more open.”

Leonard adds popular music groups have also pushed the idea.

“We’ve grown up now with the Pixies, the Ramones Sex Pistols, and all of these people who have really embraced noise and made music out of noise. And so we have a different conception of what is acceptable.”

In fact, we’ve come to accept noisy music like the Ramones so much – you can even hear it in elevators.  But when college students got their hands on Zeke Leonard’s music-making devices to experiment—well, even they were surprised at what they heard.

  •  “You know most of these sounds we’re making are extremely disturbing…aggressive.”
  •  “disgusting..horrible.”
  • “There’s definitely some horribly piercing moments when you’re like, ‘that is a lawnmower on crack.’”

Luigi Russolo, inventor of the intonarumori, was an Italian Futurist painter and composer, and the author of the manifesto The Art of Noises.
Credit Wikipedia

But sophomore Kat Ferentchak says after experimenting for a while, she now gets what Russolo was originally trying to do.

“Just that we could take things in the world around us and by our own construction create something totally new that has a whole different meaning from its original context.”

So the experiment goes on. And Zeke Leonard is already thinking how people in the 22nd century will be re-examining this concept of noise as music…all over again.

“100 years from now somebody’s going to be unearthing Rihanna tracks and doing something with them, and some college professor is gonna say ‘Let’s have a weirdo evening of 100-year-old Rihanna tracks, right? This is where we’re heading.”

And who knows? Maybe by then the sounds of the intonarumori will be accepted universally--as music. 100 years later, we may be closer—but for a lot of people, not quite there yet.