Perfect Sound Forever


Francis Picabia - Fille nee sans mere 1916-18

Anti-Music as Music
By Daniel Barbiero
(June 2016)

One hundred years ago, Dada was born simultaneously in Zurich, Switzerland, in the anarchic doings of the Cabaret Voltaire, and in New York among the expatriate artists gathered around collector Walter Arensberg. Or maybe it wasn't; the mentality of negation and dislocation that was Dada's can also be traced farther back, to F. T. Marinetti's parole in liberta and the provocations of Futurism, and even to Cubism's dismantling of naturalist perspective. Nevertheless, 1916 has good claim to have been year zero of Dada. And Dada is still very much with us, if more as a set of implicit working assumptions than an explicit program.

Jed Rasula, author of the new history of Dada, Destruction Was My Beatrice, attributes Dada's success during its lifetime as a movement to its refusal to be constrained by definition--to what he calls its "functional anarchism." Dada could negate, but it could also negate its negation. Above all else it brought to art what Nietzsche termed the transvaluation of values--the overturning of assumptions about what's permissible in art. In doing so, it dismantled the walls around art as a domain separate from--and elevated above--the rest of life, admitting in the process non-artistic materials as legitimate objects of artistic attention and constituents of artistic activity. This would have profound effects on all of the arts, including music.

Dada's own music was descended from the Futurists' arte dei rumori--"art of noises." As Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck described it in his 1920 history of Dada, the noise music of Cabaret Voltaire was based on "life itself...a kind of return to nature," a direct action that "could at least give you a toothache." Dada music was bruitist, enamored of raw sound, and could consist in simultaneous chanting of nonsense syllables or shouts, or in anything, in principle, because after all, Dada "loves the noises of the Métro." Dada's bruitism implied a music negated by non-music, but this negative non-music in turn would be negated by being thrust into the musical context. Call it the Dada dialectic of sound.

A similar dialectic of music and non-music was at the forefront of experimental composition during the Dada era; the distance from the mechanized thrum of the Métro to composer Edgard Varèse's liberation of sound was a short one. Though in later life he claimed not to have been a Dadaist himself, Varèse became closely involved with Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and the Arnesberg group shortly after his move to New York from France at the end of 1915. His works, scored for conventional and unconventional instruments and sound-makers--rattles, steam whistles and sirens among them--reflect the Dada sensibility in their expansion of music into noise and in their reframing as music an array of sounds suggestive of the industrial everyday. Varèse's contemporary, the New Jersey-born composer George Antheil, formulated an aesthetic explicitly based on a Dadaesque ideology of the machine; his work, among which is the Ballet Mécanique of 1923, was written for percussion and non-musical mechanical objects that music historian Carol Oja aptly describes as "readymades." Varèse and Antheil and others like them showed what was possible with a broad definition of musical material and a sense of composition as the organization of sound beyond pitch relationships. Their work stood to subsequent sound-based experimental music as a precedent if not as an acknowledged influence; in many cases it provided an implicit license rather than an explicit cause.

Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète appears not to have been inspired by Dada, but it represents a further advance of the idea of deriving music from the mundane soundscape. Schaeffer described musique concrète as composition with "sound fragments that exist in reality," although he asserted, especially in later life, that the resulting sound structures weren't necessarily music. They were experiments to get at what Schaeffer called a "sound object"--something between raw sound and music but, he came to think, ultimately neither. Knowingly or not, Schaeffer in effect created an echo of Dada's double negation: the negation of raw sound via structure, and the negation of music through the concretization of sound. In the process, he set the template for much of the experimental work with manipulated recorded sounds that followed and that continues even now.

John Cage is perhaps the best example of a musical experimentalist whose attitudes and work were congruent with the Dada spirit, if not self-consciously inspired by it. His Living Room Music (1940) was scored for performers playing household objects, furniture and parts of the room's architecture--one can easily imagine it being performed in Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau--while a description of an extension course he gave on percussion at Mills College the following year declared his interest in the "systematic exploration of new sound materials." Although Cage never acknowledged Dada as an influence, Dada was in a way necessary for opening up a clearing in which Cage's catholic embrace of everyday, non-musical sounds and sound sources was possible. Cage's 4'33", with its admission of ambient noises into the setting of a musical composition, can be seen as the musical analogue of Duchamp's Fountain of 1917: a reframing of the ordinarily unnoticed everyday as art.

Ultimately, Dada's brash bruitism and anti-art attitude became assimilated. For at least one part of the avant-garde, Dada's transvaluation of art values went from being revolutionary to being normative, to borrow Matthew Greenbaum's apt characterization. Artists working in the wake of Dada took the dialectical pair anti-art/art for granted and subjected it to a self-overcoming--to a double negation the outcome of which was something now largely uncontroversial in principle: a supra-aesthetic synthesis in which art and the everyday can coexist and exchange places.

These transvaluative norms--the lasting residuum of a finite historical moment--are there to be heard in contemporary music, particularly in the loosely-defined field of experimental music. Whenever music is organized according to timbre rather than pitch, when it incorporates junk and readymade objects into its orchestration, when it opens out to the noisy environment surrounding it--there is Dada, haunting it with a suffuse and permeating presence like the background radiation remaining after the Big Bang.

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER