A Search for Meaning

A Search for Meaning

“Personally I don’t believe that abstract music without text can express anything in particular.”

—Henry Brant (quoted in the CD booklet notes for Volume 9 of The Henry Brant Collection
[Innova 416])

The article we recently published by Matthew Greenbaum describing a “secret history” of musical Dadaism and surrealism in New York in the mid-20th century brought back memories of an American Symphony Orchestra concert I attended back in 1992 called Surrealism and Music?; luckily not only the details of that program but also a provocative essay by the orchestra’s conductor, Leon Botstein, are still archived online.

However, much as I remember enjoying that concert as well as poring over all of the anecdotes in Matthew’s detailed article, there’s something about the very existence of a surrealist aesthetic in music that continues to gnaw at me. Surrealism in both literature and the visual arts is able to fascinate, disturb, and ultimately resonate because it messes with our perceptions. One could argue that any music that deviates from an accepted norm of what people think music should be messes with our perceptions in the same way, and that therefore any music that is experimental is surreal to some degree. But such an argument is ultimately unsubstantiatable. Much as I believe that music can communicate in ways that no other medium is able to, music does not convey specific meanings, and therefore those meanings can never be subverted in a way that’s parallel to, say, creating the image of a pipe and then writing “This is not a pipe” underneath it, as René Magritte did in his painting, The Betrayal of Images.

One of the more amusing stunts during the ASO Surrealism concert was directly inspired by that iconic Magritte image—placing a placard on the piano reading “This is not a piano” for the performance of John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra. Indeed, the sounds emanating from a prepared piano often sound quite un-piano-like and it’s something of a surreal experience. But in the final analysis, the experience is surreal because what we hear is unexpected based on what we’re looking at which makes it a visually-triggered betrayal.

Re-contextualizations of recorded sound, both in the musique concrète that Matthew Greenbaum references, as well as the appropriations of more recent sample-based musical genres, are betraying sonic images to some degree. But once again, except for very obviously corporeal sounds such as a baby crying or a bottle of champagne being popped, the problem lies in trying to define what the original meanings are of those sounds in the first place. And do cradle and bubbly sounds really change their meanings when they are surrounded by unrelated sonic material? Of course, if you have words with the music then meanings can be subverted through verbal (mis-)communication.

Back in the 17th century, two of the most important composers—Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz—wrote vocal music exclusively at a time when instrumental music was gaining more and more cultural prominence. Might it be that Monteverdi and Schutz were ultimately uncomfortable with the notion of creating something that could not mean anything? And if music can’t mean anything on its own, can its syntax ever really be betrayed?

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8 thoughts on “A Search for Meaning

  1. nuhorn

    this reminds me of many of the very best conversations i’ve ever had about music. it means different things to different people. the more someone is able to read something into it, the more popular the work becomes. using sign sounds to place a listener in a particular landscape isn’t new and seems to back in vogue.

    that someone’s music has the potential to become a soundtrack of the mind can be a great boon to a composer. each separate piece has a language of its own that the listener can know of or not. it’s sometimes fun to have this knowledge, other times it’s just cool to listen.

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Stoneworld/Grey … and the privilege of having the dadaist pieces in hand to work with. Unfortunately, there is no recording of the music; only the photos survive.

    (The one with real hair is me).


  3. maestro58

    As a composer who wrote music that I considered Surreal, I feel it is important to get the definition straight. The most direct definition is “the juxtaposition of 2 or more different objects in a visual sphere.” The musical definition then becomes “the juxtaposition of 2 or more music(s) in a temporal sphere.” I’ve taken a lot of grief for persuing this line of composition, which can be traced back to some Rochberg, some Berio, and some Ives. The problem with most of their pieces is they involve quotation and become collage. I chose to write music that sounded like other composers pieces and have them metamorphosis into different ‘musics’ or sandwich them against each other temporally. I started doing this when I was getting my degrees in the late ’70s through the
    80s (Bachelor’s and Master’s in Music Composition), and boy did I get grief for not towing the party line of atonal music, even though I usually included a fair stretch of atonal music in what I did, it just wasn’t exclusively that.

    As far as Frank’s example of The Betrayal of Images by Margritte goes, imagine a “Mozart-like” piano concerto being written and played, with a narration of a modern shopping list from the grocery store going against it, and the music can never be divorced from the narration — even in rehearsal. That makes the music Surreal.

  4. maestro58

    In my suggestion of The Betrayal of Images musical analogue, what would be better is a “Mozart-like” concerto having a narration timed with the begining of the downbeat intoning the text, “This is not Mozart. The shape of the introduction is like the begining of Piano Concerto # 12, but it is not Mozart. This transition is very similiar to Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in Bb, but it is not Mozart…” etc…

  5. philmusic

    “there’s something about the very existence of a surrealist aesthetic in music that continues to gnaw at me.””

    Frank could it be that to say Poluenc and Varese are representatives of the same school of thought might be a little dicey since their music is so very different.

    Or perhaps this an “appearances V.S. reality” problem where the needs of the profession/scholarship/programing trump
    the needs for lets say musical accuracy.

    There can be surrealist music but I would think that it would be revealed by the music itself, not by descriptive editorial.

    Phil Fried

  6. philmusic

    ..not by descriptive editorial.

    I mean a “pundit’s” descriptive editorial.

    Phil Fried, senior pundit skid-Roe U.

  7. vladimir smirnov

    Schnittke and morphing
    Would some of the music of Alfred Schnittke be considered a pretty valid equivalent of surrealism in music? The transition from Beethoven 9 that morphs into a chromatic cluster in the first movement of his first Symphony, or the baroque dance that turns grotesque in the second movement of that same symphony. Or the beginning of the second symphony. I think on canvas this morphing happens as we shift our perception on different parts of the image, and in music this would have to happen in time.


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