Acephalopædia

June 18, 2017

Surrealism, music, and failure

Giacinto Scelsi on the “surrealist revolt”:

There have been some amusing gags that managed to please certain minds as spectacles or as artworks. But there was also a certain masochism, a will for destruction, for self-destruction. I must add, however, that without realizing it the surrealists and dadaists almost certainly sought to achieve something very great and profound (but blindfolded by their revolt they were without the means to reach it).

I think that this could be a subject for study: how readily violence, destruction, and self-destruction proceed from an unconscious but powerful desire, from an internal need to penetrate a barrier, [a need] to leave the self and its confines without having the knowledge how or the ability to return. Not knowing how to do this, you either shatter everything around you or you commit suicide. 1

It’s worth considering the history of surrealism’s politicization. Walter Benjamin reaffirms Pierre Naville’s assessment that this process was one of dialectical development:

In the transformation of a highly contemplative attitude into revolutionary opposition, the hostility of the bourgeoisie toward every manifestation of radical intellectual freedom played a leading part. This hostility pushed surrealism to the left. 2

Surrealism did not become political by seeking out politics, but rather by realizing, in seeing the hostility it encountered, that it was already engaged in a political conflict.

The surrealist prioritization of automatism and unconscious association corresponded to an emphasis on the highly ephemeral nature of the finished product as a nexus of social meaning. The art object is already dead by virtue of its being mere residue of the process. The surrealists were attempting to gesture away from contemplation and towards bodily activity. This seems significant in light of the movement’s general non-relationship with the music world. The European classical ritual of listening, of concert-going, had become one characterized by tremendous inertia; sitting in silence for hours, partaking as a passive voyeur in the reenactment of a composer’s vital creativity, reliving it as a somatosensory echo, suspended in a moment while the world outside continues to churn.

It was precisely concert music’s unique mimetic proximity to vital activity, long observed by musicians, aestheticians, and laypeople alike, that burdened it with a counterrevolutionary weight—its capacity to bring the listener so close to motion that they could be content sitting still. Concert music, however experimental in its development, was irredeemably mired in bourgeois solipsism.


An Italian aristocrat, sitting alone in his mansion overlooking the Palatine Hill sometime in the late 1950s, sets out to once again revolutionize art music, as composers have been setting out to do since the Renaissance. Music, he concludes, must turn to the universe contained within the note itself, the internal relations of that which western composition had come to treat as atomic. The method by which he navigates this universe is the oracular automatism of the surrealists, “receiving” the raw material of his compositions in a trance-like state.

What is the end product? More classical music, orchestrated and recorded for convenient listening and aesthetic judgment. In the finest tradition of art music since Beethoven, it seeks to do what must be done to set existing musical aesthetics on the correct path. It’s string quartets and symphonic poems and song cycles. In short, it appears strikingly conservative when historically situated.

Still, there is something about the obsessive physicality of this music that seems to quicken the oscillation of consciousness between abstract contemplation and the impulse to move. It is a dance of “trying and failing” that, to me, finds its realization in butoh:

Revolt is not revolution, though it is a necessary condition for it. Revolt is the body pushing back, bringing itself into accord with its thoughts, and in doing so bringing itself into conflict with its surroundings. So long as a revolt remains a world unto itself, it is failure exemplified; incoherence, interrupted gesture, dream logic. This is the suspended state in which the avant-garde lived, and which has now rendered “avant-garde” meaningless as it has diffused across all media of the modern world.


  1. Giacinto Scelsi, “Art et connaissance” in Les anges sont ailleurs. Edited by Sharon Kanach. Actes Sud, 2009, 208.

  2. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” in Reflections: essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. Edited by Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books, 2007, 185.

I'm a graduate student in historical musicology based in NYC. This blog is a journal of my mostly "esoteric" experiments with theory. Please feel free to contact me by email.