Instruments | The Inventions of Luigi Russolo & Harry Partch | Percussion

In the twentieth century, some musicians became interested in inventing new acoustic instruments that could take music beyond the tuning systems, scales and harmonic language inherent in the instruments commonly played in western classical music.

Creating new instruments created a revolutionary new sound world. New instruments were often promoted outside the normal scope of the bourgeois concert audience, frequently being used for music theatre and film, and were not commonly included in the orchestra.

The Art of Noise

The Italian Futurist artist and musician Luigi Russolo (1885– 1947) invented a set of intonarumori, or noise intoners between 1913 and 1921. He wanted to make it possible for composers to capture ‘the infinite variety of noise sounds’ in music as he explained in his manifesto The Art of Noise (1913). Russolo and his brother Antonio composed music for the new instruments, including incidental music for Futurist films. Russolo’s instruments were revolutionary in the way they incorporated noise and environmental sound into modern music. His work was a direct influence on the first generation of composers to work with electro-acoustics, including Varèse, Cage and Pierre Schaefer (1910–95), the inventor of musique concrète and the first composer to work with magnetic tape.


The intonarumori created sounds in a similar way to a hurdy-gurdy. Each one comprised a single string inside a box, made to vibrate by a wheel that rubbed against it. The machine had a mechanism to change the tension and pitch of the string, and a diffuser horn to amplify the sound. Using a variety of materials for the different components of the intonarumori created different acoustic effects – as illustrated in their descriptive names, including the scoppiatore (exploder), sibilatore (hisser) and ululatore (howler). In 1922, Russolo invented a rumorarmonio – a keyboard mechanism that enabled one performer to play several intonarumori. Unfortunately, all Russolo’s instruments and scores were lost during the Second World War, and there is only one primitive recording of the intonarumori available today.


The invented instruments of Harry Partch (1901–74) were constructed to play in just intonation – his own system of dividing tones within an octave. Rejecting western music theory, and influenced by the tuning systems of non-western traditional music, Partch created the monophone in 1930. This was basically an adapted viola that could play a 29-tone octave, and was followed in 1933 by a guitar that played a 37-tone octave, and in 1935, by the ptolemy, a bellows-reed organ that played a 43-tone octave.

Partch created mainly bowed and struck chordophones, like the harmonic canon, and idiophones made from wood, glass and metal. Many of his instruments are beautiful sculptural objects in their own right. He used natural materials in boos I and II, large bamboo marimbas with six ranks of tuned bamboo tubes, and found objects such as the mazda marimba, which is 24 tuned light bulbs, and Whang Guns, which are sheets of sprung steel controlled by pedals. Partch composed extensively for his own instruments, often...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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