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Review: The Music of Dada

Cole Collins

Peter Dayan, The Music of Dada: A Lesson in Intermediality for Our Times (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2019)

In the beginning there was music. At the heart of Dada’s wild and visually stimulating melee was music and performance, however, as many have noted, reliable evidence of these works have long since been lost. This raises two issues and questions for scholars of Dada music and performance: firstly, what to do when evidence is scant? Secondly, what to do when the evidence is largely based on testimonials? In the twenty-first century, we have become used to (perhaps even reliant on) an over-saturation of documentation; every event can be recorded by anyone who has a smartphone. Alex Potts asks the question of what to do with the undocumented or the uncapturable aspects of art. He writes: 

Many twentieth-century artists who espoused an ethic of ephemerality, such as those involved with the happenings of the earlier 1960s, often took considerable pains to preserve records or collateral evident [sic] relating to their event-based work.

While this might be true of artists such as Alex Kaprow or Eva Hesse (two examples found in Potts’ analysis), the same cannot be said for artists working earlier in the twentieth-century. This is the challenge faced and brilliantly handled by Peter Dayan in The Music of Dada: A Lesson in Intermediality for Our Times

Dayan, the world’s first and only Professor of Word and Music, proves there is a reason for such a title, as here he expertly navigates the multi-lingual writings of the Dadas and musical history with equal attention. From the outset Dayan sketches the difficulties of tracing the musical history of Dada, and often his assertions are based on speculative testimonies. He begins by setting out the problems of discussing music within the contexts of Dada and the early twentieth-century. The contemporary and classical musical scene was dependent on tonal music, and it seems that ‘Neger Musik’ (Negro Music) was the avant-garde of the day, even if it was appropriated by white bourgeois men and women.

After a well-defined and contextual introduction, the reader (regardless of knowledge of musical theory and history) feels well-oriented to continue the journey of discovering the prominent and important part music played in Dada’s history and formation. The first chapter explores the early years of Dada in Zurich, at the centre of this was the Cabaret Voltaire. Dada scholarship has noted the Cabaret Voltaire’s wild spirit and that the movement in its first iteration was birthed through performance. Dayan’s approach continues this narrative, but rather than reiterate the same stories of riots and audience walk-outs, he details with care the few existing sources and explores the music that filled the theatres. At the centre of this narrative is the musical ingenue Emmy Hennings. Hennings was a well-known cabaret singer and her piano playing was a feature of the Dada soirees. As Dayan notes, the music played was a mix of Romantic, classical, ‘African’, and improvisations, citing among the list of composers played Schoenberg, Luening and Rubenstein. It should also be noted, and my personal commendation to Dayan for highlighting this throughout this chapter and the book overall,  that women were integral to the Zurich/Cabaret Voltaire music scene, including among them Sophie Taeuber (not yet Taeuber-Arp) and Suzanne Perrottet. While this chapter relies on testimonies from other Dadaists and (at times) biased reviews found in newspapers, Dayan’s careful detective work reveals the correlations between these sources, giving way to truth.  

The second chapter focuses on New York Dada’s ‘Parisian roots.’ Dayan’s subtitle for this chapter ‘Music excluded from modern art’ alerts the reader to the conclusion of this chapter from the outset. He examines two ‘types of music’: the ‘music in sound’, that is music performed by the Dadaists, and the ‘idea of music’, which is one developed by the Dadas in their writings. Dayan notes that the movements which preceded Dada (what he calls proto-/pre-Dada, an idea adapted from Rudolf Kuenzli) were completely void of music. He also points out that perhaps what occurred in New York before 1918 cannot be called Dada, and through comparison of ‘old painting’ to opera as a way of thinking about the avant-garde in Paris and New York, we can begin to see the troublesome discord found when considering Dada’s music in the period. However, this approach to understanding music is not the most interesting point raised in this chapter. Dayan places emphasis on the role of women in documenting, influencing, and performing music, noting that figures such as Marguerite Buffet (who is often a side note, the sister of Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia) have been instrumental to his study providing invaluable insights into New York pre-Dada. Furthermore, Buffet-Picabia wrote an essay that Dayan proposes influenced Apollinaire’s treatise on modern music, and as such dedicates some six pages of analysis to it, proving that not only has the history of the music of Dada been sidelined, but also the impact and participation of women in this history. In the end, there are two take-homes from this chapter: the first is that is clear from Dayan’s analysis that within this period in New York and Paris visual art and music are in contention, and secondly, that women were at the centre of this history. 

In the next chapter, we return to Zurich for the final soirée, which took place on April 9, 1919. Dayan sees this event as one which completely revolutionised the history of Dada music and has led to many of the misconceptions we understand as the ‘typical sounds’ of Dada today. He also unpicks the misrepresentations of audience reactions and correlates them between newspaper reviews and testimonies of Dadaists present at the soirée, some of which are mis-rememberings. For the Dadaists, music becomes not a way of seeing the world, but a substitute for an experience. As such, music escaped much of the harsh criticism of conventions which came from within the Dadaist groups and that the anti-conventional visual art shocked the general public, thus music was bundled in. Dayan posits that this was most likely not the case as the Dadaists were playing a mix of classical, tonal music and experimental improvised pieces. It is after this last soirée that the rifts in the group cause seismic shifts to the ideological identities of the multitudinous Dada movements. However, as Dayan notes, music somehow avoided being criticised in these conversations among the Dadas, and it seems logical to posit that this might also have contributed to loss of the history of Dada music. 

The penultimate chapter brings us back to Paris and to the years 1920-23 and introduces the concept of ‘anti-music’, which naturally, like the idea of anti-art, stands in contention with music. Dayan notes that there is no ‘absolute barrier’ between the visual and verbal arts, evidenced in Dada’s journals and their ekphrastic works of art. The argumentation of this point is made through the writings of Bouisson, who like those before him, did not believe that modern music could still be music when detached from its traditional principles. While Tzara and Apollinaire were writing about (and even performing) music, André Breton was ‘contra’ music, and it seems a dissident voice within Dada, especially concerning its music. He believed that music required expression to be valued and to be considered art, which, as Dayan notes, was exactly what Tzara and Ball had been arguing against in their manifestos on Dada. The ‘logic of words’, however, was not an issue for the main protagonist of this chapter, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. Dayan argues that it may be more accurate to describe Ribemont-Dessaignes as proto-Dada and reveals yet another conflict, this time between Paris Dada and Zurich Dada’s conceptions of music: the former called for a musical ‘tabula rasa’, while the latter called for ‘tabula rasa’ in everything except music. The complicated history of Dada in Paris and performance is laid out in exquisite detail by Dayan and in the end we realise that Dada’s complex and troubling relationship with music led to the demise of performance in Paris. 

In the final chapter, Dayan focuses on Kurt Schwitters in Holland and his Ursonate (or Sonata in Primal Sounds). Schwitters’ work has become somewhat iconic and has been performed and recorded by numerous contemporary artists. Dayan takes us through the journey of the Dada Holland tour of 1923, led by Schwitters and Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg (the two were good friends and collaborated on multiple occasions). The Ursonate, Dayan outlines, breaks all of the rules previously set out in his book, in that Schwitters’ sonata is musical without being set on notesheets. What Dayan proposes is not that Schwitters’ work is without music—because the artist did in fact attempt to set his sonata to music—but that it does not require music. Moreover, Schwitters is abstracting his mother tongue and using the voice as an instrument. To date, Dayan’s examination of the Ursonate has been the most thorough and most enlightening, and by situating it within the context of Dada music and Dada performance, highlights not only the challenges of dealing with Schwitters’ most inexplicable work, but provides both conceptual and scholastic vocabulary with which to think through Schwitters’ abstracting of language without reducing this action to oversimplification. His analysis also provides an incredibly easy-to-follow understanding of the work, even for those without sufficient knowledge of German. 

Overall, The Music of Dada: A Lesson in Intermediality for Our Times is, to borrow and bastardise a phrase from Hugo Ball, ‘eine neue Forschungsrichtung’ or a new direction for scholarship. Dayan’s open and meticulous approach to understanding Dada’s music not only provides a fascinating read for the inducted scholar, but also serves well as an introduction to those uninitiated in the complex and oft-debated history of Dada. Moreover, it provides a perspective and piecing together of an at times sketchy history of Dada, which often ignores the participation of women and the inclusion, importance, and impact of women, as well as their contributions to the movement(s) and its lasting success. 

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