Articles

The Freedom of Futurist Poetry

by Charles Eppley on June 12, 2014

Luciano Chessa performs at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with 'Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,' June 7–9, 2014. (©SRGF, photo by Chad Heird)

Luciano Chessa performs at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with ‘Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,’ June 7–9, 2014. (©SRGF, photo by Chad Heird)

The Guggenheim Museum was filled with noise on Monday evening during
PAAAAAAroooooooooooole in Libertà Futuriste (Futurist Wwwwwwoooooords-in-Freedom),” an eccentric program that breathed new life into an extensive survey of Futurist art that’s been on view since February. The museum invited musicologist Luciano Chessa, a scholar of Futurist sound, poetry, and music, to perform works by F.T. Marinetti, Carlo Carra, and Fortunato Depero, among others, including several pieces that had not been performed since the early 20th century. The performance was energetic and cacophonous, a welcome burst of noise to balance out the relative silence of the works on view in the rotunda.

The evening began on a rather casual note: wine and espresso were served to those waiting in the main lobby before the performance, a perfect tonic for total tonal detachment. Indeed, the poems of the Futurists, a pointedly literary group, force the listener to let go of his preconceptions of language. Futurist poets transformed the written word by reveling in fractured form, echoing the flat, angular, and frenetic movements of their painting and sculpture (as well as their overbearing masculinity). Artists like Marinetti and Giacomo Balla, both of whom have poems in the exhibition, treated words in the manner of painted forms: they’re stretched out, shortened, elongated, squished; letters are removed; letters are added; phrases are printed across the page in all directions, creating a dizzying linguistic image; at times, the letters on the page form no coherent words at all. In these latter moments, the strings of letters lose their cultural meaning and become visual guides for making sound — or noise — in order to free our voices from the rigid strictures of language.

An audio recording of F.T. Marinetti’s “Bombardamento di Adrianopoli” (1925) (recording by the author for Hyperallergic)

The evening featured ten works by eight artists — or eleven works, if you include the short, explosive reading of a poem by Marinetti, amplified by a bullhorn, in the lobby — and was sectioned into two halves. The first consisted of rarely performed works by lesser-known Futurist artists and poets, such as Armando Mazza, Aldo Palazzeschi, Fillia (Luigi Colombo), and Luciano Folgore, as well as some established figures, including Marinetti. All of these works were fairly short, allowing Chessa to exhibit a wide range of vocal techniques and harness artful tonal contrast, reading at an incredible pace that blurred the words together perhaps even more than the original authors intended. The repetition of phrases revealed an underlying rhythmic, almost musical, substrate of the spoken word, while the use of completely nonlinguistic vocal sounds lowered the human voice to the status of indiscriminate matter: vocal utterances that exist outside of language but remain tied to our body (what cultural theorist Mladen Dolar calls the “object voice”).

Chessa delivered a fiery vocal display, jumping around the stage, yelling, gurgling, whistling, and playfully mimicking the onomatopoeicsounds of early 20th-century industry, much to the delight of children in the audience. Indeed, several of these works, which included phrases in Italian, German, and English, quickly traversed linguistic boundaries, a shattering of structure that was amplified by Chessa’s techniques of whispering into his cupped hand, yelling into a bullhorn, and thrusting the microphone of said bullhorn into its own speaker cone, causing a strike of shrill feedback.

Luciano Chessa performs at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with 'Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,' June 7–9, 2014. (©SRGF, photo by Enid Alvarez)

Luciano Chessa performs at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with ‘Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,’ June 7–9, 2014. (©SRGF, photo by Enid Alvarez)

In contrast to the first 30 minutes, the second half took a slower pace, and was dedicated to an extended, long-form work by the Neapolitan Futurist Francesco Cangiullo. The expansive work, Piedgrotta (1913), is a literary juggernaut that lasted about 20 minutes. Before beginning, Chessa took a few moments to describe the context of the piece, which takes its name from an annual festival in Naples, as well the many references that it makes to the cultural traditions of Neapolitan music. Piedgrotta was much noisier than the rest, in part because of its emphasis on abstract sounds (which often mimicked those found at the festival), but also because Chessa was now backed by a veritable rumori-chamber orchestra, featuring musicians Rachel Golub, Pauline Kim Harris, Jessica Schmitz, Sara Schoenbeck, and Alex Waterman (who recently directed the production of several Robert Ashley operas). The orchestra was comprised of traditional Neapolitan folk instruments reconstructed for this occasion, noise-makers that accompanied, or interrupted, Chessa as he frantically encircled the audience as the poem unfolded. The overall feeling was rather claustrophobic, as the in-the-round performance model was reversed: the performers surrounded the audience as the stage was pushed outwards along the edges of the theater, simulating the experience, aural and spatial, of witnessing the Piedgrotta festival.

Luciano Chessa performs at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with 'Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,' June 7–9, 2014. (©SRGF, photo by Enid Alvarez) (click to enlarge)

Luciano Chessa performs at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with ‘Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe,’ June 7–9, 2014. (©SRGF, photo by Enid Alvarez) (click to enlarge)

The whole evening brought life to the works of Futurist sound poetry on display in the galleries, which are meant to be experienced as much as read. Chessa offered an impassioned and rare opportunity to witness these words in freedom. Marinetti would have been pleased — that is, if only it were not taking place inside a museum.

PAAAAAAroooooooooooole in Libertà Futuriste (Futurist Wwwwwwoooooords-in-Freedom)” took place on June 9, 6:30pm, at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe continues at the museum through September 1.

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