The Influence of Dadaism with the emphasis on the works of Kurt Schwitters

The reason why I wanted to write about Dadaism and Kurt Schwitters is that I “discovered” Kurt Schwitters on a Compositional forum I attended at my old University. The way of dadaist performance, which may seem spontaneous - but jet ‘real’ and ‘natural’ is in a way what a lot of performances today seem to lack. I think that this is something I think more performers should strive for. Dadaism may sound a bit inaccessible for the average listener of today – but what many people don’t realise is that the Dadaists where hugely influential on today’s music. I think it must be said that Dadaism is not widely known for its contribution in music, but more in poetry, painting and sculpture. I shall try to focus on musical aspects of Dadaism in this essay – especially the influential “Ursonate” by Kurt Schwitters, and geographically and period-wise I am going to limit myself to the Hanover Dada (As Richter points out in his book Dada you had several periods of the movement, being Zurich Dada from 1915-1920, New York Dada from 1915-1920, Berlin Dada from1918-1923, Hanover Dada, Cologne Dada, Paris Dada from 1919-1922, Post-Dada, and finally Neo-Dada).

The Origins of Dada
Where and when did Dadaism begin? The answer to that, unlike many other directions and genres in art is not a very clear one. According to Hans Richter in the book Dada – art and anti-art – 1964, Raoul Hausmann, the chief of the Berlin Dada movement believes that it was himself that discovered Dada in 1915. On the contrary, Claude Rivière, names Picabia as the originator of Dada.
All of this put aside, I really think that one should focus on the ideas and concepts of Dada, rather to decide who to give credit for whom started the movement. But as for now – we can say that Dada was established around 1915, and it was something that happened in different parts of the world for similar reasons. The reasons why many believe Dada happened was that in 1915, after the outbreak of the First World War began, many artists travelled to neutral Switzerland. Amongst them was Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings, and we can with certainty say that Ball was the first one to publish a Dada text (published after his death in 1927 under the title “Flucht aus der Zeit”), first dated 1st if February 1916, and it was a diary he wrote – which Richter often quotes in his book to support different stories.
The first Dadaist music can said to have come from “Cabaret Voltaire” – mentioned in Balls diaries as a “group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a centre for artistic entertainment. The Cabaret Voltaire will be run on the principle of daily meetings where visiting artists will perform their music and poetry. The young artists of Zurich are invited to bring their ideas and contributions”. This was basically a night-club in Zurich (No1 Spiegelgasse) where they got together and shared ideas – they had readings of modern French poetry which alternated with recitals by German, Russian and Swiss poets. They played old music as well as new. Tristan Tzara was one of the poets frequenting Cabaret Voltaire – and as Richter says:
“He declaimed, sang and spoke in French, although he could do so just as well in German, and punctuated his performances with screams, sobs and whistles.. Bells, drums, cow-bells, blows on the table or on empty boxes, all enlivened the already wild accents of the new poetic language, and excited, by purely physical means, an audience which had begun by sitting impassively behind its beer-mugs. From this state of immobility it was roused into frenzied involvement with what was going on. This was Art, this was Life, and this was what they wanted!”

The Futurists had already introduced provocation in art, and this as an art form was called Brutism. This was very much inspired by the Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Noise Organ which he made in 1911 – which could conjure up all the distracting sounds of everyday existence. Both Futurism and Dadaism was very much about provocation and was extreme in many ways. As Futurism showed an excitement about chaos, war, noise and destruction – the Dadaists also tried to follow this through in their artistic expression and with a world in rapid change the art movements also gained a furious momentum. One could say that Futurism had a very clear agenda or programme whilst Dada was against having any clear agenda or programme.

Automatic poetry: Springs directly from the poets bowels or other organs, which have stored up reserves of usable material.

Ball 18th April: Dada as a name for the magazine is agreed. No-one, to this day know who invented the word Dada, or what it means. But, as Richter says: Da, da (Russian) means Yes, yes – and is an appropriate description of their way of life.
Different meanings though: Rumanian / Russian: Yes, yes – French: Rocking Horse – German: Idiot naivety.

A man from Hanover - Kurt Schwitters,1887-1948

“Schwitters (Ill. 69) was absolutely, unreservedly, 24-hours-a-day PRO-art. His genius had no time for transforming the world, or values, or the present, or the future, or the past; no time in fact for any of the things that were heralded by blasts of Berlin’s Trump of Doom. There was no talk of the ‘death of art’, or ‘non-art’, or ‘anti-art’ with him. On the contrary, every tram-ticket, every envelope, cheese wrapper or cigar-band, together with old shoe-soles or shoe-laces, wire, feathers, dishcloths – everything that had been thrown away – all this he loved, and restored to an honoured place in life by means of his art (Ills. 67-74)” – Hans Richter

Schwitters never had the acceptance of his contemporary Dadaists, which one could say is quite sad – he was frozen out for unknown reasons by Huelsenbeck of the club Dada – which upon Schwitters request to join the club Dada had said that the club was not for “every Tom, *** and Harry”. Schwitters failed to be recognised in his time – but in the last years, people have taken a renewed interest in him. A factor in this is probably the release of his Ursonate on CD in the mid-nineties. When Schwitters failed to join the club, he made his own movement called MERZ in Hanover, which the name he extracted from ‘Commerzbank’. This word would be the name of an early picture of Schwitters, but later on he gave the word a lot more meaning, by saying that it was the term for his art. He started to use this term on all of his works, and he also released a regular column named Merz. The term Merz is in some way understandable, given the materials he worked with. He re-used commercial items in a way that it was never used before – and thus, maybe the word Merz became a metaphor for this.

The Music
One could argue that what I would today call music (Schwitters’ poetry), would maybe then be classified as non-sense Dada-poetry. But the phonetic and rhythmic qualities are so exaggerated in Dada poetry, that for me – this becomes music. The Ursonate is Schwitters most extensive and most complex sound seal. The structure follows, ironically broken, the structure of a classical Sonate - the border between linguistic and musical composition is waived. The Ursonate lived own legendary presentations on development and permanent changes in Schwitters. In order to let it accessible become deliverable and other interpreter, Schwitters looked for nevertheless over many years for appropriate possibilities of fixing it. Shape wins the work therefore in three different forms: as performance, as pressure version and as clay/tone carriers.

In this tension between improvisation, completion, and different shapes to exceed in the complexity of topics, layers and parts as well as in the consequence, borders the Ursonate is comparable to the Merzbau. Schwitters called it its most comprehensive and most important poetic work. The Merzbau was Schwitters lifework – it was a massive 3d sculpture consisting of relics of old friends in small cages. One sculpture was started in Hanover, when the war started he had to leave the first Merzbau, he later started a new one in his exile in Norway. That was later destroyed by accident. A reconstruction of the sculpture can now be seen in the parish museum in Hanover. The reason why the Merzbau is comparable to the Ursonate, is that in both cases he used scraps, bits and pieces gathered from literally everything to make his art – it was both non-sense that made sense. Both comprehensive and complex – he developed them all through his life, making changes as Schwitters changed personally.

Looking in to the chaos: Why Dada was influential on today’s art
On the one hand Schwitters was focusing on the Gesamtkunztwerk, but on the other hand – one could say that Schwitters was simply art. A master propagandist and businessman, leaving stickers everywhere he went with the words “Join Dada”, “Anna Blume” or “Merz”. He sold his collages to everyone he wanted to – even if they didn’t want to buy them, Schwitters is said to have had a very persuasive nature. When he performed his poetry people often burst in to hysterical laughter, but he continued any way. Maybe he wanted people to laugh, that is never to be revealed. But when such things happened he turned his voice up to volume ten, continuing to perform his art. I think this is something that says it all. His methods of working was later adapted (or reinvented) by many artists who got a lot more credibility for their work, and I think that works like the Ursonate is still valid as a original piece of art today. Dadaism has often been called anti-art because of its “I don’t care if you think if this is art or not” attitude. But the techniques used in most dadaist work is highly sophisticated. Schwitters can seem to be on the brink to madness sometimes with his schizophrenic style poetry – and maybe he was a little mad. But if one look closer on such works as the Ursonate one will see a highly structured and well made piece of music! “Dada is our style of the time – that does not have any style – do you understand?” – Schwitters
“The Ursonate was my father’s reply to make a melody out of something that was
spoken rather than being played by instruments.” – Erik Schwitters

Dadaism was a movement that happened between two wars. In many ways it made a path for art saying that it was okay for art not to be understood – art can also be anti-art. Art was to be created for its own sake – not by some conformist ideas and a rigid set of laws and ideas. Dadaism reflects in many ways the free human being – driven by nature rather than laws. Kurt Schwitters was seen as a outsider in many ways, and even though his art was self-classified as Merz – and the tension between Merz and Dada was significant, I think it is important to see the two movements as one. The scrapbook method is still used today, in plunderphonics and sampling. The ideas of gathering everyday material and reusing it is found in music concrete – comparable to Schwitters way of gathering any material that had a nice surface, or something appealing and putting it together in a context again. Whereas Schwitters decomposed sentences from magazines and other texts to create his popular poem “Anna Blume”, people like John Oswald with his plunderphonics are decomposing popular music and putting it together in a new context. Who knows what would have happened if Schwitters had access to the same technology as we do today? If we look close enough – we can see aspects of Dadaism, Merz, Anti-art and the automatic poetry in newer contemporary art: Music as a process often uses a set of mathematical rules to build its music upon (the Ursonate by Schwitters can be analysed in a similar way), Plunderphonics (as described earlier), Acousmatic art (the Merzbau can be said to be a similar concept, but with other objects than sound), Stockhausen with his early electronic works uses non-sense and manipulation of concrete sources – and adopts the same art for arts sake attitude – and the list can probably go on for longer. The Dada movement has probably had way more impact than most people, and even artists of today realise! I would dare to suggest that the whole avant-garde movement as we know it today, has strong roots in Dadaism and Futurism.

NOTE!! Please note that the argument / conclusion in this essay is not quite finished!

References (A Kurt Schwitters tribute page) (Parish museum Hanover) (Norwegian documentary - 1991 on Schwitters with English subtitles)
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