Surrealism and music have a rich and complicated partnership. From their rocky beginnings to automatism and jazz, they have always influenced each other in surprising ways.
Although music was not formally considered to be part of Surrealism, the movement's artistic experiments still had, and continue to have, considerable influence on how music challenges expectations. The term Surrealism was actually first used in 1917 to describe a piece of music – Erik Satie’s score for the ballet Parade. However, many Surrealists, including the founder André Breton, chose not to include music in their new movement. Breton felt he didn’t understand it, so chose to focus on art and writing instead.
Bringing Magritte’s paintings to life
Composers such as André Souris and Francis Poulenc were contemporaries of artists including René Magritte. By using techniques such as collage and fragmentation, their compositions reflect the surreal scenes depicted in Magritte’s paintings.
John Cage and Surrealism
John Cage is one of the only musicians to be labelled a Surrealist by Breton, who included him in the catalogue for the Exposition internationale du Surréalisme at the Galerie Maeght, Paris in 1947. Although he is more often associated with the Conceptual art movement, Cage's pared back approach reflects the simplicity and return to the subconscious inner thought that characterised the Surrealist movement following the complicated desire to rationalise the traumas of World War One.
Automatism and improvisation
Automatism is a term taken from physiology, which refers to unconscious bodily movements, such as breathing. It was later adopted by the Surrealists, who used it to refer to creative processes that bypassed conscious thought. According to Breton in his Surrealist Manifesto, automatism and its focus on the subconscious constituted the core of the movement. An attempt for freedom by breaking the rules and relying on intuition can also be seen in musical improvisation, which is most commonly associated with jazz.
Through automatism, the Surrealists wanted to allow subconscious thought to flow freely and without rigidity. This meant that that way music was written down required a more creative approach that would allow for more freedom than the standard scores. A great example is the artist Kurt Schwitters' score for Ursonate. The work was written as a series of syllables and sounds, which were then interpreted by the performer.
The recording revolution of the Beatles
If it couldn’t be written down, documenting music that reflected automatism presented a problem for creators. During the development of Surrealism, recording devices were difficult and expensive to come by. It wasn’t until later that musicians like the Beatles began to experiment with technology in their music.
In albums like Magical Mystery Tour (1976), the Beatles attempted to create work that reflected the subconscious, much like the Surrealists. They incorporated chance into their production processes, taping a live UK radio broadcast into the fade of the song ‘I Am the Walrus’ and recording sounds backwards into their finished tracks.
Automatism in technology
Automatism was more than just improvising; it was a technique to reveal things that we fail to uncover consciously. The endless opportunities for accidents in recording processes provides the opportunity to fully embrace automatism, and therefore Surrealism, in music. Next time you’re listening to music, see if you can hear any deliberate accidents that made the final cut.
Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music, Berkeley, 2002
Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975, 1992 (https://americansymphony.org/concert-notes/surrealism-and-music-the-musical-world-around-rene-magritte/)
André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism, Ann Arbor, 1969
André Breton, ‘Silence is Golden’ in What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings, London, 1978
Celeste on Salvador Dalí, Surrealism and Artistic Inspiration, Tate, 2021
Anne LeBaron, ‘Reflections of Surrealisms in Postmodern Musics’ in Postmodern music/postmodern thought, London, 2002
Nicole Marchessau, ‘”Hmmronk, Skrrrape, Schtttokke” Searching for Automatism in Music’, Gli Spazi Della Musica, vol.7, pp.24-39
William Moylan, Recording Analysis: How the Record Shapes the Song, Massachusetts, 2020
Nicolas Slonimsky, ‘Music and Surrealism’, Artforum, 1966, vol.5, no.1, pp. 80-85