In Zürich on February 5th, 1916, Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors. It is here that we associate the birth of Dada, an artistic and political movement set squarely at the helm of the European Avant-Garde. The Dadaist’s eight soirees at Cabaret Voltaire between 1916-18 hosted evenings of surreal and bizarre performances, from costume theatre to poetry read in a made-up language. The name ‘Dada’ itself tells us a lot about this movement from the outset. Linguist Roman Jakobson has noted the universality of children’s first babble words. No matter what language your parents or community speak, the first sounds that come out of your mouth are going to be ‘mama’, ‘papa’ or something very similar. Dada was therefore a childlike expression of primordial vitality that we all share. A kind of primal scream that sought artistic progress through a psychological regress. It was a nonsensical statement, but one full to the brim with life and zest.
Dada also represented an urge to start from scratch, to hit ‘reset’ on culture, and begin building again uncontaminated by the language and culture of Europe. Perhaps the technique most associated with Dada is ‘cut-up’; an aleatoric method of jumbling text to create an assemblage of linguistic permutations. The idea was not so much to create something random, but to free the unconcious from the shackles of reason and syntax. As Tristan Tzara put it in 1920, “the poem will resemble you”. But once Dada had moved to the bustling rhizome of Berlin, it had become far more pointed in its critiques. Now it took aim at depicting the brutal reality of life, not just its naïve innocence. Cut-ups of newspaper articles, photographs and paintings showed culture as a simultaneous muddle, in all its messy complexity, at a time when the future was wholly unpredicable, especially for those living in the Weimar Republic. But what is the status of Dada today? Cities and Memory’s new project, celebrating the centenary of Dada, hopes to answer that question.
Cities and Memory invites people to share original and re-imaginations of field recordings, exploring “the relationships between sound and memory, and between places and their sounds”. This new project is based around an open global sound map, and is comprised of contributions inspired by Dada. The project has taken recordings from 28 countries, taking in everywhere from Iceland and Canada and from India to Vietnam. There are also recordings from iconic Dada locations including Berlin, Paris and the very doorstep of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. These sounds have been cut-up and pasted into fascinating collages and rhythmical combinations. As they succintly put it on their website, the aim is to “remix the world, one sound at at time”. When we caught up with Stuart Fowkes, the creative mind behind the project, Cities and Memory had just invited submissions inspired by the Dada movement. “Cities and Memory starts from that softened, dreamlike imagination of a sound”, he began. “To see what happens when you hold a mirror up to sound”.
This project fits perfectly with the Dadaist belief that the truth of music can never be reached through words (which is why little text on their music ever materialised). Their legacy and “sense of ‘anything goes’ slices right through most contemporary art, coming along with a prototype of the ‘all sound is music’ rationale underpinning so much of today’s sound art”, he explains. Dadaism, like many of the post-war movements, wanted to return to the fundamentals of sound. Gone was the fanciful idealism of armchair-thinking, and in its place an acceptance of the chaotic rush of the high-street. “If you tried hard enough you could retrospectively apply a Dada explanation to almost any reimagined sound piece. It wouldn’t take much to claim a use of abstraction or collage, for instance.”
This therefore also includes assemblages, and sound poems, and although rarely directly related back to Dada, the abundant response to his Dada project shows there must be a lot of sounds artists “who are heavily inspired by Dada and who use its techniques almost daily”. This ethos can perhaps be best applied to field-recordings. Fowkes goes on; “some field recordists have a somewhat tense relationship with city soundscapes and their throbbing, repetitive machinery. Drones don’t tend to exist in the natural world — the soundscape tends to be dominated by discrete bursts of noise across the frequency spectrum. As machinery and traffic levels increase and urbanisation grows, cities increasingly sound the same, which is problematic not just for us recordists but at a much more serious level in terms of society, culture and even public health.”
Interestingly, this again harks back to the technological obsession of the Futurists, and their influence on Dada. “There is beauty in unique mechanical sounds and indeed older mechanical sounds are starting to become fetishised as we preserve their sounds — we’ve had recent submissions of rooms full of old clocks, printing presses or even WW2 coding machines. But where those mechanical sounds aren’t unique, interesting or worth preserving in and of themselves, the process of reimagining a mechanical sound can be a way of talking about our relationships with technology or with the urban environment. How can we play with the sounds of traffic to create something interesting that might help people reconsider how they listen to the environment that surrounds them?”
Cities and Memory believe that the Dada approach to music has a uniqueness in that, even after 100 years, it remains firmly transgressive. But this project hopes to assimilate it into a wider accessibility. “Some stuff that might have been considered wildly experimental drone music ten years ago is now approaching wide popularity. And the wonderful thing is that definitions of what constitutes music can only get broader and more inclusive — every tiny step taken widens the path for everything else in the future.
“In the grand scheme of things, the ‘all-sound-is-music/art’ philosophy is still very much outside the mainstream…but the more music mixes together wildly disparate influences, the more interesting takes on sound design can find their way into TV and film and the more sound can infiltrate in the mainstream in terms of exhibitions and museums, the closer we are to normalising such views and achieving a little more in the way of acceptance.”
You can listen to the entire Cities and Memory archive of Dada sound here.