By Leon Botstein
Andre Souris (1890-1970) was one of this century’s most eminent Belgian musical figures. For most of his creative life he was attached to the surrealist movement. Souris was a close friend and colleague of Rene Magritte (despite periodic rifts toward the end of their careers). In 1926 Souris and a fellow Belgian, Paul Hooreman, started a quasi-surrealist journal called Musique and experimented with chance music. By 1927 both Souris and Rene Magritte collaborated with the leader of the Belgian surrealists, Paul Nouge, on the surrealist publication Adieu a Marie. As the leadership not only of Magritte and Souris but of one of Magritte’s oldest friends, the founder of the Belgian Dada and Surrealist movements, the musician E.L.T. Mesens, indicated, what distinguished the Belgian surrealists from their Persian contemporaries was a deep interest in music. Magritte’s brother Paul was a musician. The “official” photographic portrait of the Belgian Surrealists fating from 1034 included both Mesens and Souris as well as Magritte. Their main spokesman and theorist Nouge did not share Andre Breton’s more classical surrealist disregard of music which Breton himself later disavowed in 1946.
Souris worked with Nouge in the theater and set many of his poems. At a concert staged by Belgian surrealists in January 1929, Nouge introduced the works by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky and Honegger (as well as Souris) on the program which Souris had selected. The hall was graced by twenty paintings by Magritte. In 1946, working with the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, Souris began his lone career as a film composer, writing the score for a film on the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux.
Souris’ concept of surrealism in music took the work of Satie as a starting point. He extended Satie’s effort to de-mystify music and simplify it. In 1925 Souris wrote “The coming of a new art hardly concerns us. Art has been demobilized elsewhere—one must rather live”. Souris’ conceptual effort to undermine the distinction between art and life places his work from 1920’s and 1930’s in a continuum which later would include Varese and Cage.
In the work on this program, parody, a Satie-like simplicity and nearly random linkages all can be heard. Like surrealist painters, the technique of collage—using found and banal elements in a radical extension of a practice first perfected by the cubist—is used by Souris to challenge the expectation of temporal art and structured form. In order to debunk the distinction between art and life, the contrast between concrete experience and aesthetic imagination—between intention and randomness—had to be challenged. In this work minimal textured and contrast occur in sequence, as if by spontaneous association. The music is stripped of the pretense of a formal coherence other than an apparently “automatic” association. This work, therefore sounds most like that quintessential surrealist game, the “”exquisite corpse”, in which a composition is made on a piece of folder paper by separate individuals each of whom has no idea of what the preceding person has done. The absurd and naïve (in the use of solo instruments and repetition) can be found in this work. They are cloaked behind a folk-like ordinariness and sparseness.
Souris, apart from his role in Belgian surrealism, was prolific as a theorist in the psychology and phenomenology of music, a historian (of lute tablature), a teacher, and a conductor. Particularly after 1945, despite a career as composer and conductor which took him regularly to London, Souris exerted considerable influence over the musical life of Belgium.