Surreal Sounds Illicit Images

By Ellen Handler Spitz, Cornell University, Psychiatry

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Imagine silence and a cold indigo sky with a pregnant Magritte cloud that lowers over a landscape of uncanny imagery. Unpredictably, the clouds bursts. Air and space fill wit discordant sound, unintelligible words, perpetual motion that expends energy but takes objects nowhere. Torrents appear ready to cascade: slit bells and burning tubas; violins and bowties; great jagged boulders poised to smash; groaning, bleeding, falling birds; panes of splintering glass, surfaces at the point of cracking insidiously apart; melting clocks; live body parts; loaves of tooth-shattering bread. And below this eerily fertile sky, against of insipid sand, waves break incessantly, loud in their indifference.

Surrealism erupts into our space, even today so many years after its incipiency between the wars. It floods our ark of security. It retains its capacity to jar and unsettle us like an unexpected downpour, to thwart our plans and make us successively—or simultaneously—angry, irritable, bemused, by turns tolerant, even merry. The world we has always recognize shifts so that what we think ought to come next never does. We are discomforted. The art, poetry, music of Surrealism all strive not to lull but to intercept. Not to entertain but to infuriate. Not to soothe but to baffle, to goad.

And yet, the intervening time has produced ironies of its own, so that, viewing or hearing surrealism from the vantage point of the last decade of the century id also to sense a certain preciosity or false. It is to meet the absurd with the sardonic. For us today, after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, and an advanced postmodern computer/audio/video technology that alters sound and image at will, the shock value of a sewing machine meeting an umbrella on a dissecting table has decrescendoed. What remains is a strident theatricality to which we now can choose our response.

Indubitably to evoke the images of Surrealism and its disjoined history is to attend differently to its music. To that end, one straightforward way to anchor the slippery origins of the phenomenon might be to cite the appearance of Andre Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. Breton, having grown disillusioned with Dada, the anarchic response of so many intellectuals and artist (in part) to the senseless carnage of World War I, saw the movement as capitulating gradually to institutionalism and thus sloughing off its revolutionary warhead. He felt it necessary therefore to supplant it with a notion he defined as permanently, incessantly defiant, nearly, the Surrealism which he described as beyond the control of reason, as automatic, accidental, concerned utterly with chance, nonconformity, and with the marvelous and the absurd, as, by analogy, in the domain of dreams.

Armed then with Breton’s Paris-based verbal format, Surrealism, initially a profusion of sproutings from and critiques of, Dada, advanced upon the scene of European culture. In part it can be viewed with hindsight as a prolonged but well-disguised reaction to war, smarting counterattack, a revolution against the status quo that supposedly had caused the dislocations of these artist’s youth. Politically, in the early thirties, a number of its adherents (among them, Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon) briefly espoused Communism, but Surrealist agendas meshed with other currents in European intellectual life as well, trends in contemporary philosophy and psychology, in particular, with the advent and aura of psychoanalysis, structural linguistics, phenomenology, and existentialism.

Most fascinating of all, Surrealism, with its slurring of the stops between illusion and reality, hallucination and perception, lent itself in highly differentiated ways to the diverse personalities of its cadre of devotees. Breton, for example, distrusted music, and his distaste for this art was shared by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico who said, “One never knows what music is about… There is no mystery in music…[Music] is something one takes before the meal or after, but which is not a meal itself.” Curiously, these odd sentiments may well have been acceptable to Sigmund Freud, a major font of inspiration for the Surrealists and a man who also found music the most difficult of all the arts to interpret. They were, however, utterly uncongenial to Magritte (who otherwise revered de Chirico) and to his circle of Belgian Surrealists, who printed music in their publications, used musical symbols in their paintings, and sponsored concerts. Andre Souris, composer, conductor, and member of the Brussels group, not only published with Paul Nouge, Louis Scutenaire, et al., but under their auspices performed his aleatoric music (music in which the composer intentionally leaves certain elements to chance). On Sunday evening, January 20, 1929, in fact, he conducted a concert of modernist works in a hall hung about with painted images by Magritte.

Magritte, of course, made dazzling use of musical symbols—the disembodied scroll and pegs of a violin, for example, or its strings alone, an uncanny gramophone, multitudinous spherical bells suspended in strange locations. He invented odd tubas and cut out of and into sheet music and overpainted it for his collage works. Despite the stasis and silence pervading so much of his work, moreover, the suggestion of sound if not precisely music per se is momentous: even his lifeless, sometimes mutilated, birds, betoken an absence of joy as music. He paints the crash of thunder, the thud of raindrops, the crackle of flames. And in shrill images like “The Secret Double,” where a woman’s skin is peeled away to reveal her insides filled with bells, or “The Listening Chamber,” where an enormous apple disturbingly fills an entire room, the notion Magritte conveys is that sound—musical perhaps—is absolutely primal and inescapable.

As we listen to the music of today’s concert, we may want to ask ourselves whether and how Surrealist agendas, expressed in pictures, find a specifically musical articulation. Surrealist pictures are, for example, often sophisticated, witty, and sometimes gratuitously cruel. They may elicit a jangle of pleasure and repugnance. They contest our usual modes of fitting form to content. For instance, can we hear today’s music equivalents for the way Surrealist pictures thwart ordinary relations of distance, dimensionality, scale, and inner and outer boundaries? How does this music figure in the Surrealist habit of shrinking the supposedly important while causing the insignificant, charged with sudden intense emotion, to loom large? How does the music represent and play with absurdity while conveying the anguish of loss and the ambiguities of separation.

We should remember too that the word “absurd” literally means “hard to hear.” “Surdus” in Latin is “deaf” or “unwilling to listen,” and Cicero used the expression absurde canere for “to sing jarringly, disharmoniously.” So that, perhaps to feel assaulted, to encounter a measure of disequilibrium, may be a sign that one is, in this case, truly listening! As we ponder the mix of emotional and cognitice consonances and dissonances evoked by this concert, we may, as in the best examples of Surrealist art, find ourselves brought to crises of existential malaise as well as, alternatively, to spells of antic merriment and delight, while at the same times we experience a distance inescapably imposed on us by the grim realities of our twentieth century history.