PRINT September 1966

Surrealism and Music

“ISMS” IN MUSIC THROUGHOUT HISTORY have paralleled the fashions of literature and painting. Classical music incorporates the Aristotelian ideals of the unity of place, time and action. Romantic music is inspired by tales of romance. Baroque music is an analogue of baroque architecture. Musical impressionism is the tonal counterpart of Impressionist art. Expressionism in modern musical drama suggests the techniques of Abstract Expressionism in painting. Futurism, primarily a literary movement, found its musical echo in the Arte dei Rumori, the Art of Noises promulgated by Luigi Russolo, who was also an Expressionist painter.

Musical Surrealism arose primarily as a reaction against Contented Music, the music of the salon, the cult of the virtuoso, the art of tonal tranquilization. It was greatly influenced by the nihilistic spirit of destruction preached by the Dadaists. In the early years of the Russian Revolution, musical turbulence produced powerful waves of total negation. The old anarchistic slogan launched by Bakunin a century before, “The Lust of Destruction is a Creative Lust,” still retained its fascination among the Russian intelligentsia. A Russian professor, Arsenyi Avraamov submitted a proposal to the Commissariat of Culture of the young Soviet Republic to have all pianos confiscated in the bourgeois households (there were none in proletarian lodgings) and to replace them by keyboard instruments tuned according to the natural Pythagorean scale. The revolutionary generation would then be brought up in the atmosphere filled with scientifically rationalized musical sounds. This new world was to fulfill the dreams of the Chekhovian characters who, long before the Revolution, put their faith in the future when life would be “inexpressibly beautiful.”

A sharp turn of the esthetic wheel reversed the direction of Soviet music from scientific rationalism to socialist realism, conservative in its structure, national in melodic sources and socially oriented in political contents. Before the doctrine of socialist realism became official, Soviet composers had produced works definitely Surrealistic in their esthetic derivation. Among them, the satirical opera The Nose by Dimitry Shostakovitch is a striking example. Its subject is taken from Gogol, the most Surrealistic of Russian novelists. The fantastic story deals with the sudden disappearance of the nose from the face of a government functionary. It turns up in the shape of a plump clerk roaming the streets of St. Petersburg. When the noseless victim catches up with the fugitive and demands its return, the latter denies all allegations of nasal origin and claims independence as a separate individual. Eventually the nose is restored to its original site.

The music of The Nose contains remarkable effects. There is an octet of janitors in a polyphonic glossolalia. A thunderous sneeze explodes in the orchestra. To suit the Surrealistic action, the music it self is extremely dissonant. There is also an unusual interlude scored for drums only. After a few performances, The Nose was banished from the Soviet stage as a product of decadent bourgeois art. An even more vehement reception was accorded to Shostakovitch’s second opera Lady Macbeth of the District of Mtzensk. The composer was condemned for writing a neurotically dissonant score in order to please the perverted tastes of a small modernist coterie. Furthermore, the production was attacked for its unbridled naturalism. A symphonic entr’acte, in which a suggestive passage in the slide trombones illustrates an act of infidelity in progress behind the inner curtain, moved Pravda to outraged indignation.

More acceptable to Soviet society was the opera The Love for Three Oranges by Prokofiev. Surrealistic in its grotesquerie, it is written in the style of the Italian opera buffa. A witch curses a young prince for having insulted her, and condemns him to a desperate search for three oranges. When he finally stumbles upon them, they break open, each releasing a princess. Only one princess survives, to be united with the prince, the other two perishing of thirst. Prokofiev’s music is Surrealistic in its use of several harmonic planes in unexpected juxtaposition of tonalities, and sharply asymmetric rhythms with in symmetric meters.

Libretti of surrealist nature exercised peculiar attraction to modern composers. Ernst Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf is Surrealistic in its story and in its music. It tells the story of a Negro jazz player who symbolically conquers the world and is enthroned in the last act on top of a rotating terrestrial globe. He also conquers women of Europe. (When the Metropolitan Op era produced the work, Jonny was cast as a blackface minstrel in deference to the sensibilities of its Southern patrons.)

Paul Hindemith contributed to the Surrealistic movement in the musical theater by producing a short operatic sketch Hin und Zurück, which is a melodramatic palindrome: the action is reversed after the husband in the play kills his adulterous wife; she comes back to life and the husband backs out of the door. The dissonant texture and rhythmic asymmetry of the score contribute to the Surrealistic effect of the music.

Musical Surrealism is present to a degree in the operas of Gian Carlo Menotti, for which he writes his own libretti. Among them The Medium poses the problem of reality versus unreality in a Surrealistic manner. In it, a fraudulent spiritualist falls a victim of the terrors she herself conjured up.

The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera by Benjamin Britten, relates the Surrealistic tale of Henry James, in which the incompatible planes of life and death are intersected. The music reflects, by its graduated discords and rhythmic torsion, the anxiety of the drama.

Ballet and pantomime are natural media for Surrealist representation. Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in which the puppets become more real than their manipulator, is essentially Surrealistic in its interchange of reality and unreality. It was in Petrushka that polytonality (or more precisely, bitonality) was first used in modern music. This bitonality consists in a close approximation of two tonalities, C major and F sharp major, situated at the opposite poles of the cycle of scales and separated by a tritone, the forbidden interval of medieval music, described by musical theologians as “Diabolus in Musica.” But the very polarity and incompatibility of these two keys made this Stravinskian bitonality extremely alluring to a whole generation of modern composers. Darius Milhaud makes integral use of it in his ballet Le Boeuf sur le Tait, with a scenario by Jean Cocteau depicting incongruous events in an American speakeasy. Milhaud’s ballet La Création du Monde is a Surrealistic picture of Creation. The music is inspired by the rhythms of the blues which Milhaud heard during his trip to America. The work is in fact the first stage production making use of the jazz idiom. Elements of bitonality and syncopation suggest an aura of Surrealism.

The ballet The Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók is a paradigm of dramatic and musical Surrealism. The story is nightmarish: A Chinese mandarin is lured to a bordello where he is robbed and stabbed, but his overpowering sexual desire gives him miraculous powers to survive. He dies only when the woman quenches his lust. The mandarin is characterized in the score by the pentatonic Chinese scale, harmonized by two nonidentical pairs of tritones. The old “Diabolus in Musica” here reappears in an exotic setting.

The illogic of a Surrealist libretto sometimes invites a paradoxically simple musical realization. Gertrude Stein’s play Four Saints in Three Acts is Surrealistic in its tantalizing nonsequiturs. It has four acts, not three, and some two dozen saints in the cast, not four. To this play Virgil Thomson wrote an equally tantalizing score, unmodernistic, triadic, but immediately stimulating. “J'amais de banalité, toujours un lieu commun,” he summarized his method, in French, for the author of this article.

Realistic music to a Surrealist libretto is also the case of Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Francis Poulenc. The play is by Apollinaire, the invent or of Surrealism as a dramatic style, who entitled it specifically as “drame surréaliste.” His artistic purpose was to create action that would be more real than reality itself. In the play, as in Poulenc’s opera, the nourishing mamelles float away from the heroine’s torso in the form of inflated balloons, effecting at transsexual change. In the meantime the woman’s husband acquires secondary female characteristics, becoming his wife’s wife, his wife being her husband’s husband. The former husband gives birth to 40,000 children through multiple parturition, after which the couple perform another volte-face, reverting to their original sexes. In his opera Francis Poulenc affects simple harmonies and songful melodies. Tonality remains the foundation of the music, in contrast with the fantastic action on the stage.

Although Apollinaire invented the term Surrealism, it was left to André Breton to launch it as an influential artistic movement. In his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, he describes Surrealism as “psychic automatism” and emphasizes the immediacy of the process of creation and freedom of rational processes. Essentially Breton’s Surrealism is a technique of free association, leading to hallucinogenic art. Breton admits that this concept of Surrealism is quite different from that of Apollinaire, and argues that while Apollinaire originated the term itself, he caught only the letter, not the spirit of the Surrealist style.

Apollinaire remarked that Surrealism is the rational technique of the improbable. Jean Cocteau, in his film Le Sang du Poète says that poetry is a realistic description of unreal events. The Third edition of Webster’s International Dictionary describes Surrealism as follows: “The principles, ideals of practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery in art or literature by means of unnatural juxtapositions and combinations.” The Nouveau Petit Larousse has this entry on Surrealism: “Tendance d’une école (nee vers 1924) a négliger toute préoccupation logique.”

Surrealism is oxymoronic. It thrives on the incompatibility of opposites. Cold flame, thunderous silence, calm desperation, painstaking idleness are familiar verbal examples of oxymoronic usage. Sometimes names of persons give a Surrealist twist to their profession, as in the cases of the Boston dentist, Dr. Toothacher or the Chicago gangster, Arturo .

The fur-lined cup and saucer, devised in 1936 by Meret Oppenheim, then 23 years old, has become a classic of the Surrealist genre. A striking example of Surrealist incongruity is an exhibit named Bagel Jewelry by a young New York artist, in which a real bagel was encased in a jewelry box. It was priced at $100, and was promptly sold.

There are frequent parallels between Surrealist art and music. Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal and called it The fountain. An American band leader strung a toilet seat with violin strings and incorporated it into his orchestra under the name Latrinophone.

In Dalí’s painting entitled Concert, a faceless musician plays cello on the back of a human figure mounted on a cello pin. The f resonators are carved out on the human cello’s buttocks. Interestingly enough, the Surrealist image of a human cello was carried out in an actual concert at an avant-garde concert in New York. A young girl cellist performed a solo on the spinal column of a young man stripped to the waist, using a regular bow, but applying occasional skin pizzicati.

In another musical painting by Dalí, Six Apparitions of Lenin on a Piano, several heads of Lenin crowned with aureoles are placed along the keyboard. Here the sense of Surrealistic incongruity in a musical setting is extremely sharp. René Magritte places a bass tuba, a torso and a chair against a darkening sky over a realistic sea.

In Man Ray’s painting Object for Destruction a print of a human eye is attached to the pendulum of a metronome. Real metronomes are the media in a musical composition by the Hungarian György Ligeti. Its score instructs the performers to set up 100 metronomes on the stage, all ticking at different speeds. The piece is considered ended when the last metronome expires.

As in all revolutionary movements in art, Surrealism is militantly opposed to society, extending its antagonism even to its own potential public. In his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton makes this antagonism plain. “Public approval,” he writes, “is to be resisted above all. We must resolutely keep the public from entering our gatherings. We should keep the public in a state of exasperation at the entrance by a system of challenges and provocations.”

A similar distrust of the general public, and particularly of the critics, is manifested in the statement of aims of the Society for Private Performances founded in Vienna in November 1918 by Arnold Schoenberg in order to present programs of modern music unacceptable to commercial organizations.

If we follow the definition of Surrealism according to Apollinaire rather than Breton, we would nominate Erik Satie as the most radical Surrealist among com posers. Yet Satie entitled his Surrealist ballet, Parade, “Ballet réaliste.” The scenario of Parade is indeed realistic; it represents a series of theatrical attractions paraded before the public by two competing American managers. The score is of the dance hall type, but despite its vulgarizing manner, it sparkles with modern invention. Jean Cocteau wrote about Parade: “Satie’s music suppresses the sauce. The result is a totally nude object which scan Dalízes by its very nakedness.” Cocteau was opposed to Surrealism as an esthetic technique, but he admired Satie, and recognized that “in the theater everything must be false in order to look true.”

Apollinaire’s exhortations to make “rational use of nonsimilitudinarianism” postulating “ the insane verities of art” are realized in the oxymoronic, Surrealistic titles of Satie’s piano pieces: Crépuscule matinal de midi, Heures séculaires et instantanées, Fantaisie musculaire, Sonatine bureaucratique.

The music of Parade is deliberately unsophisticated, but its very quality of emphatic commonplace elevates it to a higher artistic plateau. Satie made a similarly simplistic musical setting for his ballet Relâche. The very title is Surrealistic, for Relâche means a cancellation of performance. Francis Picabia painted a Surrealistic frontispiece for the published edition of Relâche. It represents a nude male figure wearing a wristwatch and a top hat inclining towards the bearded Satie, formally dressed, winking and holding a sign with a characteristic rhetorical query: “When will people get rid of the habit of explaining everything?”

In his introduction to the score of Relâche, Picabia urged the avoidance of all semblance of logic in its production: “Surtout pas de logique rationelle.” A not-very-polite invitation was extended to the audience in leaflets distributed during the first performance of Relâche: “Those who are not satisfied are authorized to get the hell out of here.” The original French text was more direct; it used the familiar transitive sex verb.

The epitome of Satie’s Surrealistic illogic is demonstrated in his Musique d’ameublement. The audience was urged to disregard the music and to treat it merely as part of the environment, like furniture (hence the title). But the public perversely kept their seats and listened attentively, while Satie waved his cane and shouted: “Don’t listen! Walk around and talk loudly!” Fifty years after Musique d’ameublement, furniture became concert music, at least nominally. In a chamber opera by the American composer, La Monte Young, entitled A Poem for Tables, Benches and Chairs, the musical action consisted solely in moving tables, benches and chairs around the hall.

John Cage, the acknowledged leader of the American avant-garde, adopts procedures that are definitely Surrealistic. In his Suite for Toy Pianos, the disproportionate appearance of the tiny instruments and the life-size pianists crouching before their eight-note keyboards, provided a genuine Surrealistic effect, which was further enhanced at some performances by having the sound amplified electronically, adding auditory incongruity of the sonic booms to the visual disparity of size.

The basically Surrealistic techniques of montage and collage found their application in Musique Concrète, born in a Paris studio, on a spring day in 1948, where the French radio engineer Pierre Schaeffer amused himself by combining the sounds and noises of the studio and recording them on magnetic tape.

Esthetically speaking, Musique Concrète was a direct descendant of the romantic montage exemplified by Schumann’s insertion of the Marseillaise in his Carnival, or Tchaikovsky’s use of a few bars of the Russian Requiem in his Symphonie Pathetique. Charles Ives, the most original American composer of the century, practiced his own brand of Musique Concrète by the liberal use in his symphonies and sonatas of bits of popular ballads, church hymns, old-fashioned piano favorites, and even quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Commenting on the rise in popularity of Verdi’s operas and the decline of the taste for Wagner during the last decades, Ernst Krenek sagely remarked that Verdi is closer to modernity because the translucid diatonic fabric of his music lends itself easily to Surrealistic polytonal expansion or atonal deformation, while Wagner’s dense chromatic harmony leaves no interstices for further elaboration.

Since musical reality is strongly connected with the sense of tonality, it follows that musical Surrealism ought to be either polytonal or atonal. The French school of composition prefers multiple tonality, while the Germans follow the chromatic path to integral atonality, ultimately leading to the development of the 12-tone technique. It was in 1924, the year of André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto that Schoenberg codified the principles of his method of composition with 12 tones related only to one another, a definition that Schoenberg formulated himself. The method is also known under the Greek name Dodecaphony. Surrealistic effects can be achieved by dodecaphonic melodies, but historically Schoenberg’s school served Expressionist music par excellence.

The principle of non-repetition of thematic notes inherent in dodecaphony was eventually extended to intervals, rhythms, instruments and dynamics. This further subtilization is owed mainly to Schoenberg’s disciple, Anton von Webern. The development became known as Serial Music, in which all elements of composition, melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, were functions of a cybernetical set, governing the direction of the work.

When a simple tonal melody is dodecaphonically deformed and arranged in a thematic series in which no note is repeated, the result may justifiably be described as Surrealistic. A dodecaphonic version of “Happy Birthday to You” lends itself easily to such a dodecaphonic arrangement, for the original tune contains twelve notes. The second section of the tune is then arranged in retrograde progression of the 12-tone series.

By doubling the intervals of a Bach fugue, a Surrealistic effect is achieved, converting Baroque polyphony into an Impressionistic palette, for with the elimination of the semitones, the whole-tone scale, cultivated by Debussy and his followers, becomes the main matrix of the arrangement. The same fugue, dislocated by a shift of tonics, raised or lowered a semitone at the end of each musical phrase, will produce a neo-Classical effect, which also partakes of Surrealism.

Serial music, until recently a hermetic science, has now become a realistic art. So greatly has the perceptive acuity of 20th-century listeners progressed that even the most complex atonal melodies are now meaningful to the Homo Aestheticus. The carillon announcing the end of the intermission period in Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, now plays the 12-tone theme of the dodecaphonic violin concerto by Alban Berg, instead of the Westminster chimes.

Notation itself has undergone a Surrealistic sea change. Instead of the familiar notes perched like so many black crows on telegraph wires, avant-garde composers draw geometric figures and arrows and spread thick inky stripes across the music staff. The author of this article has himself contributed to notational Surrealism in his perpetual rondo, Möbius Strip Tease. The music is written on a Mobius band with a single continuous surface. The performer places it around his head and rotates the band following the music.

There is a tendency in the extreme avant-garde to denude tonal material from all embroidery or costumery, creating a sort of “musique depouillee”—plucked music. Edgar Varèse, whose prophetic music laid the foundation of many modern techniques, spoke of a “son organisé.” The avant-garde, taking Varese as a point of departure, explores the “son aboli” in which no sounds are produced at all. The zenith (or the nadir) of this musical nihilism—or subrealism, in frarealism, irrealism—is attained in John Cage’s composition entitled 4' 33''. Its orchestration is indicated as follows: “Tacet, any instrument or combination of instruments.” It is in three movements, Cage explains, during which no sounds are intentionally produced. At the performance of a similar silent piece of music, the coughs of the listeners were tape-recorded, electronically transmogrified and arranged into a composition entitled Cough Music.

Silent music has its pictorial antecedent in Malevich’s White on White. Neo-Classical music with its proliferation of tonal centers in polytonal harmonies finds its cognate in the geometrical surrealism of Relativity by Maurits Cornel is Escher. The modern American composer Gunther Schuller selects an atonal idiom in his music illustrating the conceptions of Paul Klee.

A Surrealist object by Miróslav Sutej of Yugoslavia bears the title Bombardment of the Optic Nerve. Some: modern musical compositions may well be designated Bombardment of the Auditory Nerve. The technique of trompe l’oeil in art might well be simulated in music by some sort of trompe l’oreille. Jean Cocteau speaks of “myopic ears” of average concert goers. Such ears should be easy to fool.

Since optical paintings have now been scientifically placed in the category of Op Art, musicians might as well introduce an analogous category of Aud Music.

In John Cage’s Theatrical Piece, newspapers were strewn on the floor, a lawnmower was wheeled in and proceeded to chew them up with a racket in the highest decibel numbers. It was loud, but was it art? Not in the classical sense of that much-abused term, but it was surely Aud Music.

Nicolas Slonimsky