Italian Electronic Music Pioneers: an overview –
The Second World War stands, for many, as the watershed cultural event of the 20th century. Prior to the War, electronic sound reproduction methods were limited primarily to phonographs, photoelectric cells, and rudimentary paper tape recorders. While the early proponents of electronic music on both sides of the Atlantic (Brown, Cage, Feldman, Tudor, et al in America; Henry, Schaeffer, Stockhausen, et al on the Continent), were at this time already laying the groundwork for their experiments and masterpieces, it was the horrors of the War and the dissatisfaction with pre-War culture which ushered in the age of Postmodern music, and advances in both magnetic tape machines and computers, accelerated by wartime necessity, that made it all possible. For several decades after, electronic music was the property of media companies and universities that could afford the equipment and the technicians necessary to operate it. New York, Princeton, Paris, Cologne. It was in these places that some of the most well known electronic was created and recorded in the 1950s and 60s. However, another vital and scarcely understood avant-garde music scene was going on in virtual isolation outside the walls of Paris and Cologne, and had been going on for decades, care of the Futurists in Italy.
Historically speaking, the 1907 publication Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, written by Ferruccio Busoni (mentor to both Otto Luening and Edgard Varèse), begins the epoch. In this tract, Busoni bemoaned the constraints of traditional music and predicted the use of electrical and other new sounds in the music of the future. Busoni was never a member of the Futurist movement, but his ideas serve as the precursor to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, which initiated the movement. The following year, Francesco Balilla Pratella published the Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, in which he lambasted 19th century Italian music as formally obsolete, hidebound by backward-looking publishers and self-perpetuating conservatories. He called for a general liberation from the formal shackles of the past. Pratella admired Wagner, Sibelius, and Mascagni for their innovations, but much of the rest of Continental classical music and opera had sunk to mediocrity and rote conservatism. Luigi Russolo’s 1913 The Art of Noises, still in-print today, completes a sort of triumvirate of early Futurist manifestos. It is a manifesto of acoustic and electronic noise generation that paved the way for a new sonic aesthetic that continues to accrue new creative dimension today. Russolo saw the potential of Industrial Revolution developments to facilitate musical composition far into the future, and even staged what must be the world’s first acoustic noise concert, in 1914 with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (who, oddly, went on to co-author The Fascist Manifesto). It caused a riot. More such concerts in Paris before and after the First World War marked a deliberate departure in music from “limpidity and sweetness of sound” to “dissonant, strange and harsh sounds”.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Definizione di Futurismo
Luigi Russolo, Corale (1921)
This development was followed by an increasingly progressive and atonal trends in Continental classical music, as predicted by Busoni and by the Italian Futurists. Serialism and 12-tone music became increasingly popular in pre-War Italy and was practiced by many such as Carlo Jachino, Goffredo Petrassi, and Luigi Dallapiccola. Although he never made use of tape machines or computers, Dallapiccola was an innovator in 12-tone compositions for orchestra and voice, so important to many later Italian composers. Like Petrassi, he was inspired by Wagner to start composing, but was, as it is said, inspired by Debussy to stop. After first hearing Debussy in 1921, Dallapiccola ceased all composition for some three years in order to fully digest what he was hearing.
Although we cannot say Italian electronic music evolved in a cultural or technological vacuum, it is worth noting that many of its pioneers trace their artistic heritage not to Schaeffer and Stockhausen, but to the Futurists, as well as more outré moments in pre- and postmodern classical music. Around 1956, Italian concrète composer Vittorio Gelmetti drew not on the work of his European contemporaries, but on Schoenberg, Webern and latter-day Stravinsky. A few years earlier, classical composer Luciano Berio began pioneering magnetic tape in musical composition, following a long apprenticeship period in classical composition and piano. He co-founded the Studio di Fonologia, an electronic music studio in Milan, with Bruno Maderna in 1955 and invited a number of significant composers to work there, among them John Cage. He also produced what was I believe the world’s first periodical devoted solely to electronic music, called Incontri Musicali. Although classically trained, his interest in post-tonal thinking came early and his transition to electro-acoustic forms followed encounters with Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik . Most all of Berio’s tape music pieces make use of voice and classical instruments without classical arrangement. A few, such as O King (1968; composed in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.) and Sinfonia, are more collage in style, inasmuch as quotes from literary sources are strung together in an upbuilding discourse. Only rarely, however, did his collages (e.g., Diario immaginario, 1975) approach musique concrète in their exclusive use of found sound sources.
Luciano Berio, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958)
Luigi Nono, like Gelmetti and unlike Berio, did not situate himself in the genealogy of the post-War electronic music giants such as Stockhausen, Schaeffer, and Boulez, the majority of whose work was expressly apolitical. Instead, as an admirer of and artistic successor to Webern, his work is both pointillist and diversely sonoric, making use of both spoken word (sometimes fractured), orchestra and chorus in what becomes both a cerebral and emotional listening experience. Nono dedicated many of his works to the victims of Capitalism, forced emigration, and European Fascism and, even to the extent of incorporating into his works readings of farewell letters written by political prisoners before execution. Greatly influenced by Adorno, Benjamin, and, later, Massimo Cacciari, his lifelong commitment to political and social justice (he was a member of both the Italian Resistance and the Italian Communist Party) became more than just a topic in his music; in fact, his mid- and late-period compositional style guided almost entirely by ideology. Like his eminent German pupil Helmut Lachenmann, who was also interested in what Western music could be in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Nono situated his art as a bulwark of resistance to Fascist power. But he also situated himself obliquely away from both the aleatory compositions of Cage and the “fascist mass structures” of Stockhausen’s statistically-determined works, preferring a highly concentrated microtonal technique frequently expressionistic and often involving both tape and live instruments. Later, as electronic technology permitted, he composed works that, as well as remaining expressly political, retheorized the very notions of content, context, time and space. It is worth noting that the endurance of Nono’s work is a challenge to the aesthetic rule of thumb that art and propaganda, in pure forms, are mutually exclusive. According to David Ackerman, Nono achieved “nothing less than a Cartesian reassessment of Western music and art in general” and as total a reconstruction of music as was technologically possible.
Luigi Nono, Tre Voci B, from the opera Prometeo, (1984)
Another conservatory student, Luc Ferrari, became enamored of works by Berg, Schönberg, Webern, and others of the Modernist era when he was quarantined at home during a bout of tuberculosis. This inspired his resolve to break with past traditions and the mores of the conservatory. However, his full dissociation with classical forms came during visits to the Internationale Ferienkurse Darmstadt, where he, like Berio, became personally acquainted with electronic music luminaries of the day. The idea of musique concrète appealed greatly to Ferrari, as did the idea of “breaking the membrane” between it and other forms of abstract electro-acoustic music. Although a significant composer for both tape and orchestra and, like Nono, a social commentator for much of his career, Ferrari spent a great deal of his later life tape recording sounds outside the studio, assembling, changing, altering and refabricating them.
Luc Ferrari, L’Escalier des Aveugles, (1991)
The 1960s saw new developments in compositional technique by way of sound art and collage. Though Vittorio Gelmetti may indeed be the father of this, it was Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and Musica Elettronica Viva who fully reconnoitered the territory. The former, a free-form improvisation and sound collage collective that included Giovanni Piazza, Mario Bertoncini, Gualtiero Branchi, Francesco Evangelisti, Egisto Macchi, Jesus Villa Rojo, and most notably, Ennio Morricone. As well as providing a sandbox for Morricone to sharpen his skills, Gruppo made use of extended drones, free jazz, electronics, and acoustic instruments to form a chatter that precedes much post-rock and improvisational music today. Likewise, MEV—a Rome-based collective whose membership has over the years included Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, and Steve Lacy, all of whom were living in Rome in the 1960s—used synthesizers to manipulate and generate sounds a la Tudor and Cage, as well as amplify the sounds of motors, sex vibrators, and glass as early as 1966, thus prefiguring most all of the live improvisational electronics music that has followed.
Ennio Morricone, “Seguita” from ‘Gli Occhi Freddi Della Paura’ (Cold Eyes of Fear), 1971
Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, Lip Service Cantata, from The Private Sea of Dreams, (1967)
Perhaps the truest Italian composer sui generis is Maurizio Bianchi, who in spite of personal relationships with Monte Cazzazza, Genesis P-Orridge, and Konrad Schnitzler, claims to be uninfluenced neither by them, or any artistic movement, not by philosophy or politics or anything else. He says, “Even if I listened in the second half of the seventies some works by Henry, Schaeffer, Ferrari and others … I can define such similarities as a degenerative coincidence.” Bianchi’s themes range from genocide and skin disease to human suffering and the Holy Scripture, bionics and death, and these are made deliriously vivid and emotionally pure with simple analog electronics, by Bianchi in his home studio. He has released well over one hundred cassettes, LPs and CDs since 1979 and continues today, even after a long pause due to a deepening of his religious attitudes. His music has ranged from the brutal and grotesque, and sliding on the rhythmic edge of neuro-technological collapse, to his more ambient and sustained sonic landscapes of recent years. Always highly cerebral and highly emotional at once, the often long and tortuous tracks continually reach for redemption and freedom from suffering. Bianchi has no formal musical training and operates by instinct in his album-length personality excavations, several of which have recently been reissued as multi-vinyl box sets by the venerable Vinyl-on-Demand label, which is also responsible for the reissue of the complete tape works of sound artist Giancarlo Toniutti.
Maurizio Bianchi, Violet, from Colori, (1998)
The genealogy of post-classical and post-industrial electronic music in Italy is still extremely vague, due to so much independent artistic operation. The ADN label has, since 1985, been a vital outlet for releases by rather obscure names such as F.A.R., La 1919, Tasaday, FP and the Doubling Riders, Kino Glaz, and Riccardo Sinigaglia. Luciano Dari’s Musica Maxima Magnetica label has, while being more international in scope, also preserved Italian electronic music, both EMB and ambient. Text-sound artists such as practiced by Alessandro Bosetti, as well as the new electro-acoustic music of Sicily take their place alongside software-based computer compositions and circuit bending now to be heard in all corners of the country. While a seemingly vast distance has been covered since the predictions of Busoni and the Futurists, the work of today’s electronic and electro-acoustic composers continues sustain the aspirations of Musica Futurista.
 The single invention that unleashed the genius in Cage, Schaeffer, Stockhausen, et al, was the electric magnetic tape recorder. Although various ways to record sound magnetically were in use even in the 19th century, the real leap forward came with the change in materials used for the magnetic tape itself (the replacement of Fe3O4 oxide tape by ?-Fe2O3 with red iron oxide particles) in 1939. It was a German patent, and therefore its use was restricted by wartime necessity until models were discovered at Radio Luxembourg during the Allied invasion of 1944. (The Allies were aware that identical German radio broadcasts were being simultaneously broadcast from multiple time zones, and since their duration was far longer than a 78 RPM record, the existence of magnetic tape use was suspected). This development spread to Paris and New York in the years following the War. In Paris, Pierre Schaeffer and others who had an association with the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, gained access to early magnetic tape machines and began experimenting. Slightly later, the earliest known purely computer-generated music dates to 1951.