It is hard to define surrealism in an art so ephemeral as music, much as it is hard to find mannerism in one so functional as architecture. But they do exist. Mannerist architecture is identifiable through exaggerated forms, jagged proportions, and an overall lack of balance. It is subtle, though, lacking the overstated, sweeping grandeur of the Baroque. It is only apparent in historical context, compared with the ideal equilibrium of contemporaneous Renaissance buildings.
Musical surrealism also needs context. It isn’t so obvious as the dreamworlds of painting and installation. It relies on juxtaposition and alienation – of combinations of normal, quotidian objects whose unlikely proximity alters our associations, how we load and weight them. It is a door and a sigh. It reconfigures the semiotics of meaning in our waking lives into a very different symbolism.
Guy Barash is in many ways a surrealist. Much like with Peter Greenaway’s early short, A Walk through H, he leads the listener through imagined landscapes, constructed of real-world artifacts and memories, altered and transformed in the narrative to expose significance not even ordinarily latent in them, but accessible only in the great mash-up of sound objects – and it is this reconfiguring that differentiates surrealism from multi-referentialism or polystylism.
In his upcoming debut album, Facts about Water, Barash uses both purely acoustic means and live processing to manipulate data. His String Quartet No. 1 “Wrong Ocean” sounds heavily aleatoric or modular, but is completely and conventionally notated. Frightening, violent effects, simple in isolation, are arranged into complex combinations. Its density of composition and unrelenting visceral menace are reminiscent of George Crumb’s Black Angels.
Blind Huber is a multimedia work for vocalists, chamber ensemble, and projections by Jared Handelsman. The work is based on the Nick Flynn collection of the same name, concerning the research performed by an 18th Century savant beekeeper. It is a work of geometries, and complexities would appear to be everywhere, but again the materials, the cells, are incredibly simple. Short chromatic lines broken up by octave transfers are disorienting, dizzying, from a distance, giving off the false impression of stringent modernism, but up close, the forms, the dance, the honeycomb, consist of only a few basic data points, merely offset from each other, with no grand or overriding process.
Victor Poison-Tete half-recites, half sings Seven Testimonies, a setting of redacted testimonies collected by Flynn of Abu Ghraib detainees for vocalist, rock band, and interactive electronics. It is completely fragmented and constructed of gradually lengthening sequences and obsessive repetitions, like the memory of a traumatic event slowly opening up, distorted and interfered with by banal recollections, by doubt, by emotion, by the fractured psyche itself.
Also by Flynn, and also on the theme of the nation’s response to 9/11, is Proteus, last work on the album. An “electric monologue” in which Barash has manipulated Andrew Struck-Marcell’s narration of selections from The Ticking is the Bomb. In it, the excesses of the War on Terror are presented not as a response to our most dark and terrifying fears, but as a projection of those fears onto a world we didn’t understand, and onto people in whom we saw only the shadow, the representation of our own terror.
The album was a collaborative effort, and all the performers, too numerous to be named individually, displayed such dedication and proficiency, that they seemed extensions of the composer's will.