Hear the Experimental Music of the Dada Movement: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Century Ago


When we think of Dada, we think of an art movement—or anti-art movement—that embraced chance oper­a­tions, futur­ism, and exper­i­men­ta­tion and reject­ed all of the pre­vi­ous doc­trines of the for­mal art world as mori­bund and fraud­u­lent. As Dada artist and the­o­rist Tris­tan Tzara wrote in his 1918 man­i­festo, the aims of the estab­lish­ment art world had been “to make mon­ey and cajole the nice nice bour­geois.” This new breed would have none of it. In their attack on bour­geois artis­tic and polit­i­cal val­ues, artists like Tzara, Mar­cel Duchamp, Man Ray, Hans Richter, Kurt Schwit­ters and oth­ers will­ful­ly tres­passed for­mal bound­aries, using any means or medi­um they hap­pened to find of inter­est in the moment. We have Dada paint­ing, sculp­ture, typog­ra­phy, and film; Dada poet­ry, the­ater, dance, and even Dadaist pol­i­tics, so well rep­re­sent­ed by Tzara’s man­i­festo.

One medi­um we don’t often asso­ciate with Dada, how­ev­er, is music. And yet, those same artists who waged war on the estab­lish­ment with ready­made uri­nals and ram­bling man­i­festos also did so with musi­cal com­po­si­tions that were as influ­en­tial as the paint­ing, film, and poet­ry.

Dada, and its imme­di­ate suc­ces­sor, sur­re­al­ism, “exert­ed a per­va­sive influ­ence on 20th-cen­tu­ry music,” writes Matthew Green­baum at New Music Box, but “the pres­ence of Dada and sur­re­al­ism is gen­er­al­ly unrec­og­nized or for­got­ten” in dis­cus­sions of “mid-cen­tu­ry avant-garde com­posers” in New York, like Ste­fan Wolpe, Mor­ton Feld­man, and John Cage. And yet, the repet­i­tive, machine-like qual­i­ties we asso­ciate with mid-cen­tu­ry min­i­mal­ism come more or less direct­ly from the Dadaists, as does the high con­cept exper­i­men­ta­tion.

Dada artists, adds Green­baum, “paid close atten­tion to advanced and devel­op­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and the repet­i­tive beau­ty of machines was a ubiq­ui­tous image.” Works like Mar­cel Duchamp’s con­cep­tu­al musi­cal “assem­blages cun­ning­ly obscure the bound­aries of text, music, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and nota­tion a half-cen­tu­ry before John Cage’s exper­i­ments in inde­ter­mi­na­cy.” Greenbaum’s essay makes a strong case for this lin­eage, but the most direct way to trace the steps from Duchamp, et al., to Cage is to lis­ten to the Dada artists’ exper­i­ments with music first­hand, and you can hear a selec­tion of them here, excerpt­ed from the 1985 com­pi­la­tion Dada For Now and brought to us cour­tesy of Ubuweb, who host the full album. Many of these com­po­si­tions are exper­i­ments with lan­guage, the­atri­cal per­for­mance, and text (the album is shelved in the “Spo­ken Word” cat­e­go­ry), though none of the com­posers would have drawn any lines between word and music.

At the top of the post, hear Anto­nio Russolo’s 1921 com­po­si­tion “Corale and Ser­e­na­ta,” which sounds like a rather tra­di­tion­al march, but for the omi­nous roar­ing that shad­ows the orches­tra­tion and occa­sion­al­ly breaks in to dis­rupt it entire­ly, sound­ing like the rush of tires on a high­way or work­ings of a huge, indus­tri­al machine. Next is Hugo Ball’s 1916 com­po­si­tion “Karawane,” in which a trio of vocalists—Trio Exvoco—grows loud­er and more gut­tur­al as they chant in uni­son, their only accom­pa­ni­ment what sounds like a trol­ley bell. Fur­ther down, in Tris­tan Tzara and oth­ers’ “L’amiral cherche une mai­son a louer,” also from 1916, that same trio per­forms some sort of exu­ber­ant com­e­dy, with accom­pa­ny­ing whiz-bang sound effects that one would hear in radio plays of the suc­ceed­ing decades. And just above, in Kurt Schwit­ters’ 1919 “Simul­tangedicht kaa gee dee,” Trio Exvo­co begins a chant that soon devolves into stac­ca­to vocal­iza­tions and gib­ber­ish.

A few of these pieces, like the Rus­so­lo at the top, are orig­i­nal record­ings. The rest are recon­struc­tions. All of them are strange, as is to be expect­ed, but it’s impos­si­ble to hear just how strange—and how taste­less and absurd, perhaps—they would have sound­ed to audi­ences one hun­dred years ago. As Green­baum argues, what was once rev­o­lu­tion­ary in Dada became nor­ma­tive as it was inte­grat­ed into the Amer­i­can art estab­lish­ment in the lat­er 20th cen­tu­ry. But to hear it with fresh ears is to recap­ture how Dadaist art sound­ed as rad­i­cal as it looked.

Hear more Dadaist music over at Ubu.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The ABCs of Dada Explains the Anar­chic, Irra­tional “Anti-Art” Move­ment of Dadaism

Three Essen­tial Dadaist Films: Ground­break­ing Works by Hans Richter, Man Ray & Mar­cel Duchamp

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • John Shirley says:

    could­n’t get any of them to play.

    is that sup­posed to be dadais­tic, no sound, or is that a fail­ure in your site?

  • Andreas G says:

    Many of these record­ings are avail­able on the won­der­ful 7‑volume “Anthol­o­gy of Noise & Elec­tron­ic Music” series from the Sub-Rosa label. They’re avail­able on Ama­zon, though some are out of print. Recom­m­mend­ed!


  • Dick Hartzell says:

    FYI: I got them to play, but only by wait­ing a *long* time after click­ing the play but­ton (i.e., half a minute or more). Not sure why.

  • Datu Daku says:

    Dadaism! haha­ha

  • dick eastwood says:

    Very Dada the way you guys can’t grasp the par­a­digm of putting the artist and name of the track beside each play­er.

  • Carolyn Tillie says:

    Would love to hear these, but for me, the links take about 30 sec­onds to load, but only play a few sec­onds at a time with lots of stops and starts.

  • Dikko Faust says:

    Anto­nio, old­er broth­er of Lui­gi Rus­so­lo, inven­tor of the intuonaru­mori, acoustic noise gen­er­a­tors­fea­tured on that first link.

  • Seppia says:

    If these sounds catch your ears and are pleas­ing, per­haps you’d like to hear some mod­ern, elec­tron­ic “anti-music” that I make? while per­haps not adher­ing or even influ­enced by the Dadaist ide­olo­gies, there are sim­i­lar con­cepts relat­ed to the decon­struc­tion and reimag­in­ing of what music can be.. so go on, be brave, and go give Sep­pia a lis­ten to!


  • Sam Awry says:

    The kind of mind­set that pro­duces state­ments like ” When we think of Dada we think… ” is exact­ly the sort of assump­tion that under­pins the bougeois con­for­mi­ty the Dadaists were attack­ing ” F

  • Dr LLoyd S. Gordon says:

    It is The Way Of Life that what once was con­sid­ered rene­gade or rev­o­lu­tion­ary in Time becomes sub­sumed in the ‘sta­tus quo’ as nor­ma­tive. I do hope you will be able to cor­rect the tech­ni­cal glitch­es that appear to be dis­tract­ing from your pre­sen­ta­tions. I will archive your won­der­ful infor­ma­tion which helps one to devel­op a great clar­i­ty as to the link between Dadaism, and Sur­re­al­ism.

  • Isabella says:

    I believe Anto­nio Rus­so­lo was more active with the Futur­ist move­ment (and his broth­er Lui­gi) and not so much the Dadaists.

  • Kenneth Blakeslee says:

    The rea­son that Dada exists:those from the young gen­er­a­tion of Euro­pean nations involved in World War One avoid­ed that evil war by mov­ing to neu­tral Switzer­land and cre­at­ed a cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion.

  • Jeff Merrifield says:

    Thanks for your hard work in putting all this togeth­er. I can’t believe how cyn­i­cal and whinge­ing some peo­ple can be. All the links played pdfs opened. Bloody valu­able resource

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