Perfect Sound Forever


Is Silence Golden?
by Daniel Barbiero


In 1944, "Silence Is Golden," a somewhat curious article by André Breton, appeared in the March-April number of Modern Music. What was curious about it was just the fact that an article by Breton should appear in a music journal at all. Breton, the founder and longtime leader of the Surrealist movement, was notorious for his antipathy to music.

There was historical precedent for Breton's attitude. Giorgio de Chirico's 1913 statement "Point de musique" ("no music"), in which the painter declared that the visual imagery of painting was a kind of music of its own, may have set the pattern. Similarly Apollinaire, an early mentor of Breton's, had a negative attitude toward music generally and contemporary music specifically, possibly having been influence in that regard by Alberto Savinio--the musician/painter/writer brother of de Chirico. As for Breton himself, the rejection of music was at least partly explained by the fact that France's emerging interwar avant-garde composers, Les Six, were part of the circle around Jean Cocteau, whom Breton detested: in "Silence Is Golden," Breton quite candidly confesses that his dislike of music is related to his dislike of Cocteau (this did not prevent one of the six, Georges Auric, from having been a friend of Breton's and from having been briefly mentioned in the latter's First Manifesto of Surrealism, although--eventually gravitating toward Cocteau--he never became a part of the Surrealist group). Other personal reasons may have come into play as well. During the Dada period, Breton had spoken well of composer Erik Satie, but the two fell out during the exchanges of vituperation surrounding the collapse of Breton's plans for the Paris Congress of 1922.

Given this background, "Silence Is Golden" seems to represent an offer of détente rather than a continuation of hostilities on Breton's part. It could be, as Breton lets on with elaborate politeness, that it would be bad form to disparage music in a journal dedicated to music--after all, one mustn't insult one's host, no matter what one really thinks of him or her. And the tone of the piece is shot through with ambivalence, which is only reinforced by the entanglements of Breton's prose, the convoluted opacity of which seems to give evidence of an unwillingness to make a statement as explicit as the provocative title would seem to promise (and the title itself can be read as an arch commentary on Breton's rejection of music--a homely cliché whose appearance in a music journal would unavoidably carry an ironic flourish which, in revealing Breton's actual attitude toward music, rebounds back on itself in the double irony of stating the truth under ironic circumstances, perhaps).

Questions of tact having been raised and answered, Breton forthrightly acknowledges the "negative attitude aroused by instrumental music" among the Surrealists and more generally among artists whose medium is language. And he suggests that the musical properties of poetic language are a "compensation" for these artists' rejection of music as such. Nevertheless, he holds out the possibility that the antinomy of poetry and music could be overcome through a "fusion" of verbal musicality and musical composition. Not to suggest how it could be overcome--Breton would give no specifics, modestly acknowledging his "complete ignorance" of compositional methods--but simply that it could be. Despite this diffidence, Breton offers a general program for composers--and it does seem clear that Breton is thinking of composers here and not performers--to pursue.I

What Breton called for was a "return to principles" for music, through which hearing could be "reunified." What he seems to have meant by this somewhat puzzling expression was that properly composed music could reconcile the contradiction he saw between perception and imagination: music returned to principles would resolve the opposition between the plain facts of sound picked up by the naked ear and the imaginative constructions through which those facts would be revealed to be the carriers of marvelous or portentous meaning. As with the Hegelian dialectic on which it was based, this reconciliation would take place on a higher plane--on the plane of an overarching super-reality or surreality, properly speaking. Breton's advocacy regarding music is of a piece with the program he set himself from the inception of the Surrealist movement. The reunification of hearing that he called for was just one, medium-specific instance of the larger Surrealist project of reconciling the empirical reality of wakefulness and the imaginative reality of the dream in the higher synthesis of the surreal. And as with poetry and the other arts the Surrealists engaged in, music wouldn't be an end in itself but rather a way of opening up a path to this higher reality--to what Breton in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism described as that "certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions."


Breton didn't raise this possibility, with the specifics of musical composition being, as he admitted, beyond his understanding. But, reading between the lines, and knowing what we know about Surrealist method, could he be suggesting that composers engage in something analogous to the "pure psychic automatism" that, having been used to define Surrealism as early as in the First Manifesto, had always been the mainstay of Surrealist creative activity? He doesn't say. But it nevertheless is worth asking: if music is to express an "inner music" comparable to that of poetry, how would it go about doing so? What, in other words, would be the compositional equivalent of automatism--or would there be?

It's difficult to see how composition could work on a model derived from automatic writing. As described in the First Manifesto, automatism, as the means through which one could record the "actual functioning of thought... in the absence of any control exercised by reason," would require the composer to be reduced to something like the "modest recording instrument" Breton described the automatic writer as having become. Ideally, in this model, he or she would be left to transcribe the uncanny associations and incongruous images inhabiting an otherwise submerged or unattended-to psychic reality (which we can think of as the unconscious as, under Freud's influence Breton did, or simply as the unfettered play of the imagination). How to square the strictures of musical notation with the rapid, uncritical movement of the hand essential to automatic writing is not obvious.II How the associations of the deep imagination could be mapped onto music's peculiar vocabulary and syntax is even less obvious. And that leads to the point--the point of referentiality--where the analogy between poetry and music comes apart.

Beginning with early works like Les Champs magnétiques and Poisson soluble, Surrealist automatic writing created its effects by disrupting the referential function of language, a function it takes for granted even as it opposes it. Its marvelous images and incongruities are such largely to the extent that they represent a displacement or disorganization of this function. It is from this overturning of the narrative and logical relations ordinarily conveyed by language that automatic writing derives its force. Surrealist automatism steered language away from the conveyance of meaning bound by logic or common sense and pushed it instead toward associative meanings rooted deep in the writer's imagination. Surrealist automatism erased the ordinary semantic content of language, leaving a residue which included the auditory properties of language, or what Breton called the "tonal value of words." But music is already tonal, both literally and in Breton's more figurative sense, and it has no real capacity to refer to phenomena outside of itself. Lacking this properly semantic or description function, music wouldn't seem to need or to be liable to the kind of signifying rupture Surrealist automatism was meant to bring about. In effect, music is already ruptured. To the extent that it could be said to have extra-formal meaning at all, music already is imaginatively associative.

So perhaps Breton's suggestion of a fusion of poetry's inner music and music itself wouldn't be effected through the application of compositional methods analogous to verbal automatism--assuming that such could be devised. On the other hand, such compositional techniques as collage, disruptive juxtapositions of musical material, or timbral or textural writing, may be a way for consciously-working composers to simulate the logic-defying effects of the automatic unconscious. Music doesn't have to be written with Surrealist-inspired techniques in order to produce the effects desired by Surrealism; music's real route to the marvelous would seem to lie in its capacity to provoke associations no matter how it was written. Given its nature, the place to look for the inner poetry of music isn't at the point of creation but rather at the point of reception.


And here is an irony. In 1928's Surrealism and Painting, Breton faulted musical expression--"the most profoundly confusing of all"--for its imprecision and lack of clarity, which he declared to be inferior to the expression afforded by the visual arts. He consequently dismissed music with a much-quoted malediction: "So may night continue to fall upon the orchestra, and may I, who am still seeking something from the world, be left to my silent contemplation, with eyes open or closed, in broad daylight." But it would seem that this imprecision is exactly what makes music suited to the Surrealist project of the reconciliation of the empirical and the imaginative.

It is music's inherent inability to refer with any degree of exactitude that makes it able to provoke associations in a way that more definitely indicative artforms cannot. It is in the nature of instrumental music to be allusive rather than indicative or descriptive--it can't be used to express propositions or precisely describe things or concepts, for example, and this is its advantage. By lacking a specifically referential function, it doesn't foreclose associative or interpretive possibilities but instead opens them up; instead, it suggests in a way analogous to the way an abstract painting suggests. Critic Harold Rosenberg described abstract painting's meaningfulness as inhering in the "emotional reference evoked by color, by shape, by movement;" a similar observation can be made about music, substituting terms like "timbre," "pitch," "phrasing," and "harmony" for Rosenberg's color, shape and movement. By its very nature, music can hint rather than assert, and Breton's claim in "Silence Is Golden" that music is "independent of the social and moral obligations that limit spoken and written language" would seem to be a concession, if an oblique one, of the liberating effect of music's imprecision of reference (and it carries a provocative echo of his approving description, in the First Manifesto, of automatism as being "exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern"). In its evocative, non-descriptive use of plastic relationships based on sound, music would work in much the same way as the abstract painting, itself influenced by Surrealism, that was beginning to take shape among American painters right around the time "Silence Is Golden" was written.

That Breton understood the ability of sound to unlock creative associations in the listener is clear from his remarks in his article, "The Automatic Message" of 1933. There, he declared that what he called "verbo-auditive automatism" could provoke "the most exalting visual images," images he thought would surpass the images elicited by "verbo-visual" automatism. Clearly, Breton grasped that the sounds of poetry could stimulate an upwelling of images in the reader/listener (as for the content of the associations precipitated from verbo-auditive automatism... Whether or not they reveal hidden drives and other buried psychological material, or something less dramatic--unreflected-on structures of meaning or elements of temperament, or unsuspected relationships between things half-remembered or idly speculated on--is a question best left to others). By extrapolation--and not one that has very far to go--it's easy to see how music can do the same just as effectively. Music's affinity for the associative imagination may even make it the most surreal of artforms. If one wants to think of it that way.

It isn't surprising, then, that while Breton and other orthodox Surrealists may have rejected music, music did not reject Surrealism. Of composers roughly contemporaneous with Surrealism's first flowering during the interwar period, Edgard Varèse wrote "Arcana" in 1925-1927 having been inspired by dream material, while George Antheil, an American avant-gardist associated with Dada, wrote La femme: 100 têtes, a set of piano preludes inspired by Max Ernst's Surrealist collage of that name. Antheil claimed to have been the exception to the Surrealist rule of no music; perhaps for this reason the poet Louis Aragon in 1930 proposed a collaboration in which he and Breton would supply the libretto to an opera whose music was to be written by Antheil. Unsurprisingly, nothing came of it. But since that time, Surrealist poems have been set to music and Surrealist poetry, painting and ideas have inspired instrumental music. For Surrealism, silence turned out not to be golden but rather something more akin to pyrite; instead, the gold of time that Breton claimed to seek is as likely to be found through sound as through any other medium. In spite of itself, the movement he founded almost a century ago continues to inspire music even now.


I) Thus the very interesting and valid question of improvised music and its relationship to Surrealism and Surrealist automatism must be left for another time.

II) I leave out of consideration graphic scores, which could be created through means similar or identical to automatic drawing. Here the degree of interpretation required of the performer would dilute the capacity of the work as played to stand as the record of the composer's psychic state.

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