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
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?