Surrealist music

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Surrealist music is music which uses unexpected juxtapositions and other surrealist techniques. Discussing Theodor Adorno, Max Paddison (1993, 90) defines surrealist music as that which "juxtaposes its historically devalued fragments in a montage-like manner which enables them to yield up new meanings within a new aesthetic unity," though Lloyd Whitesell says this is Paddison's gloss of the term (Whitesell 2004, 118). Anne LeBaron (2002, 27) cites automatism, including improvisation, and collage as the primary techniques of musical surrealism. According to Whitesell, Paddison quotes Adorno's 1930 essay "Reaktion und Fortschritt" as saying "Insofar as surrealist composing makes use of devalued means, it uses these as devalued means, and wins its form from the 'scandal' produced when the dead suddenly spring up among the living" (Whitesell 2004, 107 and 118n18).

Early surrealist music[edit]

In the 1920s several composers were influenced by surrealism, or by individuals in the surrealist movement. The two composers most associated with surrealism during this period were Erik Satie (LeBaron 2002, 30), who wrote the score for the ballet Parade, causing Guillaume Apollinaire to coin the term surrealism (Calkins 2010, 13), and George Antheil who wrote that, "The Surrealist movement had, from the very beginning, been my friend. In one of its manifestos it had been declared that all music was unbearable—excepting, possibly, mine—a beautiful and appreciated condescension" (LeBaron 2002, 30–31). Early surrealist music was also linked to film; according to Hannah Lewis “perhaps one of the most famous early film scores was Satie’s music for René Clair’s film Entr’acte. Shown between the acts of Satie’s ballet Relâche performed by the Ballets Suédois in 1924, the film, featuring a scenario by Dadaist artist Francis Picabia, was an important precursor to surrealist cinema. The film, too, featured unusual juxtapositions and dream logic, and some have considered the film, and by extension Satie’s score, to be surrealist” (Lewis 2018, 7).

Adorno cites as the most consequent surrealist compositions those works by Kurt Weill, such as The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, along with works by others drawn from the middle-period music of Igor Stravinsky—most particularly that of L'Histoire du soldat—and defines this surrealism as a hybrid form between the "modern" music of Arnold Schoenberg and his school, and the "objectivist" neoclassicism/folklorism of the later Stravinsky. This surrealism, like objectivism, recognizes alienation but is more socially alert. It thereby denies itself the positivist notions of objectivism, which are recognised as illusion. Its content deals instead with "permitting social flaws to manifest themselves by means of flawed invoice, which defines itself as illusory with no attempts at camouflage through attempts at an aesthetic totality" (Adorno 2002, 396), thereby destroying aesthetic formal immanence and transcending into the literary realm. This surrealism is further differentiated from a fourth type of music, the so-called Gebrauchsmusik of Paul Hindemith and Hanns Eisler, which attempts to break through alienation from within itself, even at the expense of its immanent form (Adorno 2002, 396–97).

The early works of musique concrète by Pierre Schaeffer have a surrealist character owing to the unexpected juxtaposition of sound objects, such as the sounds of Balinese priests chanting, a barge on the River Seine, and rattling saucepans in Etude aux casseroles (1948). The composer Olivier Messiaen referred to the "surrealist anxiety" of Schaeffer's early work in contrast to the "asceticism" of the later Etude aux allures of 1958 (Messiaen 1959, 5–6). After the first concert of musique concrète (Concert de bruits, October 5, 1948) Schaeffer received a letter from one member of the audience (identified only as G. M.) describing it as "the music heard, by themselves alone, by Poe and Lautréamont, and Raymond Roussel. The concert of noises represents not only the first concert of surrealist music, but also contains, in my view, a musical revolution" (Schaeffer 1952, 30–3). Schaeffer himself argued that musique concrète, in its initial phase, tended either towards atonality or surrealism, or both, rather than, as it subsequently became, the starting point of a more general musical procedure (Schaeffer 1957, 19–20).


  • Adorno, Theodor W. (2002). Essays on Music, selected, with introduction, commentary, and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22672-0 (cloth), ISBN 0-520-23159-7 (pbk).
  • Calkins, Susan (2010). "Modernism in Music and Erik Satie's Parade". International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 41, no. 1 (June): 3-19.
  • Lebaron, Anne (2002). "Reflections of Surrealism in Postmodern Musics", Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, edited by Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner,[page needed]. Studies in Contemporary Music and Culture 4. New York and London: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-3820-1.
  • Lewis, Hannah. “Surrealist Sounds : Film Music and the Avant-Garde.” French Musical Culture and the Coming of Sound Cinema, Nov. 2018. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/oso/9780190635978.003.0003.
  • Messiaen, Olivier (1959). "Préface". La revue musicale, no. 244 (Experiences musicales: musiques concrète, electronique, exotique, par le Groupe de recherches musicales de la Radiodiffusion Télévision française) : 5-6.
  • Paddison, Max (1993), Adorno's Aesthetics of Music, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-43321-5
  • Schaeffer, Pierre (1952), A la recherche d'une musique concrète, Paris: Editions du Seuil
  • Schaeffer, Pierre (1957). Schaeffer, Pierre (ed.). "Vers une musique expérimentale." La revue musicale, no. 236.
  • Schaeffer, Pierre (1959a). "Situation actuelle de la musique expérimentale". La revue musicale, no. 244 (Experiences musicales: musiques concrète, electronique, exotique, par le Groupe de recherches musicales de la Radiodiffusion Télévision française): 10–17.
  • Schaeffer, Pierre (1959b). "Le Groupe de recherches musicales". La revue musicale, no. 244 (Experiences musicales: musiques concrète, electronique, exotique, par le Groupe de recherches musicales de la Radiodiffusion Télévision française): 49–51.
  • Whitesell, Lloyd (2004). "Twentieth-Century Tonality, or, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do". In The Pleasure of Modernist Music: Listening, Meaning, Intention, Ideology, edited by Arved Mark Ashby. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. ISBN 1-58046-143-3.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gonnard, Henri (2012). "Ravel, Falla, Casella, Poulenc: Néoclassicism ou surréalisme?" Revue musicale de Suisse romande 65, no. 3 (September): 44–57.
  • Price, Sally, and Jean Jamin (1988). "A Conversation with Michel Leiris". Current Anthropology 29, no. 1 (February): 157–74.
  • Schloesser, Stephen (2005), Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919–1933, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Shi, X. J., Y. Y. Cai, and C. W. Chan (2007). "Electronic Music for Bio-Molecules Using Short Music Phrases". Leonardo 40, no. 2:137–41.
  • Séité, Yannick. 2010. Le Jazz, à la lettre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. ISBN 978-2130582397.
  • Taminiaux, Pierre. 2013. "Automatisme et improvisation: Des rapports entre le surréalisme et le jazz". In Le silence d'or des poètes surréalistes, edited by Sébastien Arfouilloux, with a preface by Henri Behar, 219–31. Château-Gontier: Aedam musicae. ISBN 978-2-919046-10-2.
  • Tibbetts, John C. (2005), Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography, New Haven and London: Yale University Press
  • Wangermée, Robert. 1995. André Souris et le complexe d'Orphée: entre surréalisme et musique sérielle. Collection Musique, Musicologie. Liège: P. Mardaga. ISBN 9782870096055.