Techniques borrowed from surrealistic art

[Part of the article has been presented at SSSP Conference in Liecester, UK and World Soundscape Conference in Dieburg, Germany]

In order to make clearer my compositional intentions in middle level structures, I would like to trace some connections between some of the techniques that I employ and surrealistic art and painting. A sound object, with temporal evolution defined by the motion of a number of gestural vectors (parametric motions that define aural dimensions), or envelopes, which alter a number of sound parameters, may be perceived as a specific space-time system of coordinates. When this sound object is further altered though the imposition of new gestural vectors upon some parameters, the original system of coordinates is no longer operational. A new system of coordinates may be perceived when the previously established aural space is modulated or transformed. The listener then is continually re-evaluating the system of coordinates on which the modulating motion of gestural vectors are operating.

Chilean painter Roberto Matta, one of the main painters of the Surrealist movement, called his works of the 1940s ‘psychological morphologies’ and offered new concepts of space related to inner psychological space (McNay, 2002). Matta states about his 1940 painting The Vertigo of Eros: ‘The reference I was making once again, was to non-Euclidean space, where all the ordinates and co-ordinates are moving in themselves, because the references to the ‘wall’, shall we say, of the space, are constantly changing’ (Kozloff, 1965, p. 26, cited by Parkinson, 2008).

Figure 1. Roberto Matta, The Vertigo of Eros (1944).

Matta’s sense of space and depth is connected to my work not only through the continuous re- evaluation of co-ordinates established by gestural vectors, but also as a more real sense of depth in acousmatic music which is the result of different reverb times or other reverb parameters applied on the same sound objects which then seem to move in perspectival space. For example, in Electric Currents, or in the second part of Liquid Glass for two percussionists and electronics, I have dispersed one sound layer into different tracks, armed with different types of reverb, which creates the illusion that the object changes in depth. The sound object, then, seems as if it is actually moving or stretching in space. Abrupt panning effects also enhance this effect. In instrumental music, volume changes, and filtering gestures applied onto shapes lead to similar results.

Another characteristic of Matta’s paintings that is related to techniques that I employ in my acousmatic and mixed works is the concept of biomorphic forms. Biomorphic forms are ones that, while abstract, nevertheless refer to, or evoke, living forms such as plants and the human body. Biomorphism has to do with transformation and hybridization and is a concept explored by many surrealist artists before and after Matta.1

I tend to categorize sounds according to their references to the extrinsic matrix (the sounding world outside the musical work) in natural sounds and human made sounds. Furthermore, I tend to categorize human made sounds in mechanical, electronic-digital and instrumental sounds. Forms that resemble biomorphic forms can be created when sounds that have a clear human or human-made source-bonding are mixed together with either natural sounds or mechanical/electronic sounds. Morphing of sounds can be easily achieved when mixing sounds with similar temporal behaviour. In Electric Currents, I have used two clearly separated sound layers; one is comprised of piano sounds and the other of synthesized sounds. The live piano is also another layer which blends with the pre-recorded piano. I have then one layer of piano sounds (which are made more human and real by the presence of the live pianist) and one layer of synthesized sounds. Many abrupt pauses are employed in this section, which fragment the shapes created by the sound layers. The listener finds it difficult to perceive a horizontal evolution of the layers; he perceives instead a compound sound object that is comprised of piano and synthesized sounds (which sometimes simulate natural sounds), which starts and stops. In my view, the listener, being denied a clear perception of layers (because of the extreme fragmentation of texture), tries to perceive the nature of the various sound objects unfolding in time, and it is my intention to excite his imagination so that he may start thinking in terms of new sound sources, shapes and forms that may resemble the surrealistic biomorphs.

Figure 2. Roberto Matta, Elle loge la folie (1970), an example of biomorphic art.

Another surrealistic technique, employed also by Matta, is automatic drawing. Surrealist automatism can take the form of spontaneous drawing or writing. Andre Masson was one of the first artists who employed the technique, but it found its way in the work of most surrealist artists. Surrealists believed that automatism could express the creative forces of the unconscious. Mary Ann Caws states that: ‘Surrealism should not be “treated” like any other literary movement, which had its period of influence…It considers itself to be on a different level from ordinary traditional concerns, no matter how metaphysical they may be. It’s the hand pointing away from all we already know’ (Caws, 1996, p.21). Andre Breton defines surrealism in his first manifesto as ‘pure psychic automatism by means of which it hopes to express…the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exerted by reason, outside all esthetic and moral preoccupation’ (Caws, 1996, p.23). Surrealist automatism was probably the most radical surrealistic technique in that by claiming to abolish control by reason and traditional esthetic concerns it opened the gates to new approaches towards the notion of historical time in Western art, in a way that it may be seen as a precursor of postmodern ideas about history and tradition. If we consider the unconscious mind to be a repository of images, sounds, words, signs, etc., that we have experienced in the past, then are our present thoughts just a recombination and rearrangement of older information, in the same way that we access stored information in the world wide web through a computer, or can we continually create or access new information? In other words does new information really exist? If for example a person was locked in a prison for the rest of his life, would his imagination create new information or rearrange and re-access information already stored in memory? These questions are rather philosophical and an objective answer may not be offered, but I think that they point to the ideas that interest me in relation to surrealist automatism. It is also interesting to observe the relation to similar techniques employed by spiritualists around the same time, such as mediumistic automatism (although Breton denies a connection with these techniques) and also with ‘Arthur Rimbaud’s formula for the experience of otherness within the self “Je est un autre” ‘ (Conley, 2006, pp. 130-1).2

In my work I have employed a kind of automatism in my approach to improvisation and generational processes. In the acousmatic medium I have used virtual gestures (gestures through MIDI controllers) in a way similar to the surrealistic use of the pen in automatic drawing. I may select one, two, or more parameters of a software and assign to them MIDI controllers (the software could be either a sound production software such as a virtual synthesizer or a sampler, or an audio effect which transforms the sounds “fed”). Having established the aural space on which I move I then create virtual gestures in that space which are usually very free, uncontrollable and much linked to physical gestural activity. It should be noted though that before starting drawing shapes in the aural space I am usually aware what kind of gestures will produce a type of sound, though that is not always the case. Additionally, I may interact with the sounds that I am producing and accordingly decide to change my gestures, in a way similar to traditional improvisation. In the image below we can see the shape produced by controlling reverb time in a reverb virtual audio effect. That shape was applied to several synthesized and pre-recorded sound layers in the first part of my piece Electric Serpent.

Figure 3. Shape produced through MIDI controllers.

At other times automatic drawing in my work is exactly that. In the instrumental medium, automatic drawing can be directly mapped onto instrumental gesture. In section 8 of my piece Liquid Glass for two percussionists and electronics, I have employed a notation of free shapes in the bass drums. I have drawn a series of shapes in the staves that are to be translated by the percussionists as shapes drawn on the surface of their instrument with a wire brush. Although I was aware of the general spectromorphologies that these shapes will produce when drawn on the surface of the instruments, the particular details of most of the shapes were drawn in a spontaneous fashion which aimed to emphasize curved lines, unity of shape and connection with the electronic sounds. Some of the electronic sounds used in this part (pre-recorded bass drum sounds and synthesized noise sounds) were also transformed by similar visual shapes or virtual MIDI gestures which controlled software parameters.

Figure 4. Liquid Glass, section 8, shapes drawn on bass drums with wire brushes.

In conclusion, though there are some important differences with the traditional notion of automatic drawing (mainly the fact that I did not consider the result of the spontaneous drawing to be the final artistic work in its entirety), there are also some important similarities. My approach to automatism is similar to my approach to other generational processes. I aim to generate large amounts of information (information fields or networks), to the extent that the final result becomes chaotic and unpredictable either in its low level structures which affect sound/timbre or in its middle level temporal behaviour which affects sound patterns and shapes, or both. Spontaneity and unpredictability of results boosts my imagination and keeps the compositional process fresh and exciting in the same way that a recording of a lush natural soundscape excites the acoustic imagination. The results also usually exhibit a kind of natural/physical or human behaviour, which stems from the fact that they are the products of spontaneous (human made) gestures inside limited aural spaces. Electronic sound is not presented in a “polished” state resulting from the perfection of the digital software but is rather presented as a “used”, somewhat “dirty” sound which is the result of human interaction and gesture. This type of sound exhibits similar morphological characteristics to instrumental sound and thus I have employed them in order to simulate instrumental sound qualities.

1. I should note that my first exposure on the concept was through the popular ‘biomechanical art’ of Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger.

2. ”I is another”


Caws, M.A., (1996) Andre Breton, New York: Twayne Publishers

Conley, K., (2006) ‘Surrealism and Outsider Art: from the ”Automatic Message” to Andre Breton’s collection’, Yale French Studies, No.109 Surrealism and Its Others, pp. 129-143

Kozloff, M., (1965) ‘Interview with Matta by Max Kozloff’, Artforum, vol. IV, no. 1 pp.23-6 Cited in. Parkinson G. (2008) Surrealism, art and modern science, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

McNay, M., (2002) ‘Obituary: Roberto Matta: Prolific surrealist painter whose art explored new boundaries of light and imagination’ The Guardian, Nov.25. p.1.20


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