It is hard to understand the totality of Dada, or most other art movements, simply by looking at a few paintings and other objects that survive as relics in museums or repeatedly illustrated in art history books. Maybe, if we had video of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s performances on his double-necked lute we might think of art, or Jimmie Page, differently. Dada was a total art movement, poetry, visual arts, performance, because as they wanted to totally transform Europe’s war crazed culture. Of the Dada performances on a few photographs and some audio recording survive. Kurt Schwitters would occasionally release 78-rpm records with his Merz magazine (a pioneering feature that has continued with magazines releasing CDs). These audio recording and others have now been compiled and re-released on various CDs and these recordings add a new depth to our understanding of Dada as well as few laughs and truly beautiful moments.
Dada > Antidada > Merz (Sub Rosa, edited by Marc Dachy) has recordings by Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann. Hausmann’s imaginary interview with the Lettristes is like an extreme part of The Goon Show and is very funny even to people who know nothing of the Dadaists. However, this is mostly a CD of hardcore Dada poetry for the fans.
Futurism & Dada Reviewed (Sub Rosa, 1988, edited and produced by James Neiss) is more of a sampler. It includes recordings by Richard Huelsenbeck and Schwitters. There is also a beautiful performance of Marcel Duchamp’s “Erratum Musicale” (curiously listed as “La Mariee Mise a Nu…Meme”) by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz. Trio Exvoco recreates Tzara, Janco and Huelsenbeck’s simultaneous poem “L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer”.
Schwitters’s sound poem “Die Sonata in Urlauten”, recorded on the 5th of May in 1932, is featured on both CDs (it is listed as ‘ursonate’ on ‘Dada > Antidada > Merz’) and is an outstanding piece of nonsense. It was composed around the sounds of letters that Schwitters recited with precision and a beautiful voice.
Futurism & Dada Reviewed also has a sample of recordings from the period, as well as the Dadaists, there are recordings of the Futurists using Luigi Russolo’s noise machines. Russolo’s mechanical proto-synthesizers were able to produce a great variety of rumbles, howls and other noises. And, there is more, Guillaume Apollinaire reciting poetry, Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist almost rapping and Jean Cocteau playing in his jazz band for two tracks. This amusing CD ends with the sound of a record needle on an old 78.
Lipstick Traces (Rough Trade, 1993, edited by Greil Marcus) is the soundtrack to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) by Greil Marcus. The CD was released separately to the book and contains a very wide variety of tracks from Dadaists, punks, Guy Debord and other Situationalists. It also includes the remarkable recording of Marie Osmond (yes, the one from The Osmonds) reciting Schwitters’s sound poem ‘Karawane’ that has to be heard to be believed. It is essential listening for the book and aurally demonstrates Greil Marcus argument that there are trace influences between the Dadaists and the punks, particularly in the use of glosslalia-like speech and other non-lexical vocables.
There is no evidence that the sounds of Schwitters and Hausmann directly influence the nonsense sounds of Spike Milligan but it sounds like it. More directly, Brian Eno samples Schwitters in a track on Before and after Science (EG Records, 1977), appropriately titled ‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’. Indirectly Dada has influenced so much of contemporary music from Merzbau to Cabaret Voltaire.