Noise is my hobby, says Italian musician who is recycling Cairo's street sounds

Daily News Egypt
13 Min Read

CAIRO: Imagine these sounds: Tchuk! – a door shuts close, Chhsschsh – the static sounds on the radio between stations, or Beeeeep – a car horn blasts.

Banal? Annoying? Not so for Italian avant-garde musician Massimo Croce. In fact, for Croce, each of these sounds opens up a world of opportunity for his musical concoctions.

As someone who sees noise as his hobby, Croce is surely living in the right city. Hailing from Ferrara, a small town in the north east of Italy, said the kind of music he creates would not have been possible back home. He describes Ferrara as a city of silence.

Inspired by the work of futurist musicians of the early 20th century such as Luigi Russolo, Croce celebrates noise as an additional element of sound that could be utilized in the creation of musical compositions. His music (almost a misnomer) involves the de-synchronization of somewhat distorted sounds.

Born in 1966, Croce moved from working with his father in their family-run automobile agency to exploring his love for music as he operated the synthesizer in a discotheque in Italy. Later, he started a restaurant with a friend, which took him away from playing music for a few years. Six years ago, he decided to move to Egypt, away from his home for the first time, to focus on what he loves most, his music.

Describing his work pattern, Croce explains that he walks in the streets of Cairo with a voice recorder, recording everyday sounds to which the average Egyptian on the street is oblivious. Callers at the bus station, street vendors, the familiar bustle on the Cairene streets, all draw a smile on his face while others may huff and puff about the annoying sound level. Normally, noise is looked upon as something annoying. Yet, we have always been living with noise, Croce said.

Russolo, Croce’s role model said the same thing almost a century ago. In his manifesto entitled the Art of Noises, :

It s no good objecting that noises are exclusively loud and disagreeable to the ear. . It seems pointless to enumerate all the graceful and delicate noises that afford pleasant sensations. . To convince ourselves of the amazing variety of noises, it is enough to think of the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall. . Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails.

Croce creates his musical pieces on the computer using a sound-editing software application and raw material he records on the streets. As he inputs the sounds into his computer, he listens to them again and manages to find the sonority. Then the processes of slicing, pasting, echoing, reverberation, and filters begin to aid Croce in the creation of these pieces. I try to create a piece that is friendly to the ear, Croce said.

The challenge of this creation is that unlike traditional music where a composer would compose a tune and then write it out on a musical sheet, Croce works with only what he already has to create rhythm.

If I were a traditional musician, and you were to give me a music sheet, I would already know what the piece sounds like just by reading. Yet this is drastically different. . I don t know what I m going to create until I have listened to the sounds I have already recorded, Croce commented.

Croce feels that being a stranger in Cairo means that his curiosity is always heightened. I ve never heard these sounds in my entire life whether it is the seller of potatoes or even the familiar calls of Bekya! [alls by collectors of used items, who resell or recycle them.].

The moulids (celebrations of the birth of Christian and Muslim figures believed to be saints) is typical of the diffusion of noise. In fact the use of the amplifiers and microphones creates an ambiance that submerges the attendees into noise, he explained. My ears whistle, the music is so loud. In the beginning, they just amplify the noise. Then they insert echoes, voice, and other forms of additional sounds.

What Croce finds fascinating about the moulids is that the purpose of noise in music stands in contrast with that in the Western context. The development of musical instruments such as percussions and drums has led to the insertion of these noises into the modern Western song. However, in the moulid, Croce explains, noise was used to address the need to attract more people to the celebrations at hand.

For us it was provoked, here it is a consequence; music is distorted to attract attention.

Egyptians, it seems, revel in noise and enjoy it in their day-to-day lives. The various sounds including car horns on the street and the constant blips of mobile tones on public transportation are examples of the habituation of the Egyptian ear, as Croce induces, to the enjoyment of noise.

Taxi drivers blast their radio even if it is out of tune and the static sound of the interference is evident. The sound that comes out is not relaxing or clean . It is a raw method of feeling and hearing noise. They hear music in a mode that I like, he said.

The Italian Futurist Movement took place during the first half of the 20th century and involved all forms of visual arts. Musicians such as Luigi Russolo and Balilla Pratella were the pioneers of the futuristic take on music. They saw a need to change music from its classical forms and to introduce instruments that would bring noise inside the classical orchestra. The result was the invention of a number of gigantic noise-generating instruments which Russolo called intonarumori (noise machines).

Twenty seven different instruments, including an enharmonic piano, were created as part of the intonarumori which produced sounds of howling, thunder, crackling, crumpling, exploding, gurgling, buzzing, and hissing – all part of Russolo s six categories of sound.

While none of the instruments survived the Second World War, Russolo did manage to perform several concerts with his instruments in Milan, Genoa, London, and Paris.

There was that need to develop music as it was known then, said Croce. In fact, to even give it a name poses a problem, because it was like nothing that was ever heard at time. For Russolo, it was the art of noises, while French composer Edgard Varese called it organized sound.

This need for noise in traditional music was because with the advance of technology, noise was part of everyday life. It couldn t have been left out of art, it had to be included, Croce said. The musical scale, hence, does not apply when noise is introduced into music. This movement gave birth to the exploration of the musical realms outside the well-temperate, too-limited musical scale, said Croce.

In his manifesto, Russolo said,

Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. ..The musician s sensibility, liberated from facile and traditional Rhythm, must find in noises the means of extension and renewal.

The work of futurist musicians faced the disapproval of other contemporary musicians who were not accustomed to non-melodic noise interrupting music. Yet despite such prejudices, and as a result of the work of people like Russolo, contemporary music does include the noise created by instruments such as the drums, percussions, and electric guitars, Croce explained.

Even spoken language, as we know it has noise. Vowels represent the sounds of music while the consonants are the noise. If you put two consonants together such as the b and r you end up with brrrrrrr – a sound you would make to imitate noise, Croce explained.

Movies, as well, are a commonly-known playground for noise. Think about how poor the expressiveness of a movie would be without the use of noise: The sirens of the police,
the sounds of the cars in a chase, explosions, wind, the opening and closing of doors, and thousands of other sounds that create emphasis and render [the movies] more real, he said.

Speaking to young musicians in his manifesto, Russolo said,

We therefore invite young musicians of talent to conduct a sustained observation of all noises, in order to understand the various rhythms of which they are composed, their principal and secondary tones. After being conquered by Futurist eyes our multiplied sensibilities will at last hear with Futurist ears. In this way, the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.

In terms of the creation of this type of music, Croce answers Russolo s call considering himself a researcher of music and not a musician who seeks financial reward for his work. While he does not record frequently or regularly, he diligently works on material already recorded and stays attuned to interesting noises that may cross his path. The idea is . to push to the extreme rules that are being used to date, to create sounds of noise to break whatever musical rule is being utilized. I m in a constant state of experimentation, he said.

Croce s future work includes the creation of a musical track that is like a photograph or film, one that uses sounds instead of images to capture the sonority of a particular country. As banal as it might sound, for instance the use of the call to prayer has been used in the past to signify the ambiance of a city, he explained.

Lamya Tawfikis a freelance journalist and a journalism instructor based in Cairo, Egypt. She s currently pursuing a doctorate degree at the Institute for Postgraduate Studies in Childhood, Ain Shams University. This article was previously published on It has been reprinted with permission.

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