Hear the Radical Musical Compositions of Marcel Duchamp (1912–1915)

Erratum Musical

Abstract art, spurred into being by the emer­gence of pho­tog­ra­phy, had by 1912 begun to face an even more tech­ni­cal­ly adroit com­peti­tor for the public’s eye: film. Mar­cel Duchamp respond­ed by super­im­pos­ing all of the dis­crete moments that make up a film reel into one aston­ish­ing image that is both sta­t­ic and always in motion. Over one hun­dred years after its com­po­si­tion, Mar­cel Duchamp’s Nude Descend­ing a Stair­case, No. 2 (below) still amazes view­ers with its absolute nov­el­ty. He was asked to with­draw the paint­ing from a cubist exhi­bi­tion when the com­mit­tee pro­nounced it “ridicu­lous.”


Five years lat­er, feel­ing with his fel­low Dadaists that the avant-garde had grown too cozy with the estab­lish­ment, and too pre­cious in its approach and recep­tion, Duchamp sub­mit­ted a signed uri­nal for an exhi­bi­tion, the first of many repli­cas to occu­py gal­leries for the past one-hun­dred years—and a provo­ca­tion once vot­ed the most influ­en­tial mod­ern art work ever. Like some sort of trick­ster god, Mar­cel Duchamp pos­sessed trans­for­ma­tive pow­ers, which also had the effect of dri­ving every­one around him crazy. There seem to be no two ways about it: peo­ple either think Duchamp is a genius, or they con­sid­er him a fraud.

Like most of his Dada con­tem­po­raries, Duchamp left no medi­um untouched, from paint­ing, to sculp­ture, to film. And when it came to music, Ubuweb informs us, he enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly applied him­self, between the years 1912 and 1915, to “two works of music and a con­cep­tu­al piece—a note sug­gest­ing a musi­cal hap­pen­ing.” Like all of his cre­ative work—love it or hate it—his com­po­si­tions “rep­re­sent a rad­i­cal depar­ture from any­thing done up until that time.” Also like his oth­er works, his music glee­ful­ly tres­passed for­mal bound­aries, antic­i­pat­ing “some­thing that then became appar­ent in the visu­al arts,” ama­teur exper­i­men­ta­tion. Duchamp respect­ed no school and no canon of taste, and his “lack of musi­cal train­ing could have only enhanced his explo­ration.”

The meth­ods employed were, of course, con­cep­tu­al, and seri­ous­ly play­ful. In “Erra­tum Musi­cal,” writ­ten for three voic­es, “Duchamp made three sets of 25 cards, one for each voice, with a sin­gle note per card. Each set of cards was mixed in a hat; he then drew out the cards from the hat one at a time and wrote down the series of notes indi­cat­ed by the order in which they were drawn.” The sec­ond piece, direct­ly above, “La Mar­iée mise à nu par ses céli­bataires même. Erra­tum Musi­cal (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bach­e­lors Even. Erra­tum Musi­cal),” con­tains instruc­tions for a “mechan­i­cal instru­ment.” It is also “unfin­ished and is writ­ten using num­bers instead of notes.”

Final­ly, “Sculp­ture Musi­cale (Musi­cal Sculpture)”—vocalized by John Cage above, and recre­at­ed with music box­es below—consists of “a note on a small piece of paper” and antic­i­pates the “Fluxus pieces of the ear­ly 1960s.” While Dada artists near­ly all exper­i­ment­ed with music, most­ly in the form of a kind of con­fronta­tion­al musi­cal the­ater, Duchamp’s cere­bral com­po­si­tions push into the ter­ri­to­ry of pure­ly con­cep­tu­al exer­cis­es cre­at­ed through chance oper­a­tion. In “Erra­tum Musi­cal,” for exam­ple, “the three voic­es are writ­ten out sep­a­rate­ly, and there is no indi­ca­tion by the author, whether they should be per­formed sep­a­rate­ly or togeth­er as a trio.” The arrange­ment depends entire­ly on the time and place of per­for­mance and the intu­itions of the inter­preters.

The Rube Gold­berg machine described by Duchamp’s sec­ond piece, along with the nota­tion sys­tem of his own devis­ing, makes it seem impos­si­ble to per­form; like­wise the entire­ly non-musi­cal “Sculp­ture Musi­cale.” The record­ings we have here rep­re­sent only pos­si­ble ver­sions. Hear oth­ers at Ubuweb, along with sev­er­al inter­views with Duchamp in French and Eng­lish.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Anémic Ciné­ma: Mar­cel Duchamp’s Whirling Avant-Garde Film (1926)

When Bri­an Eno & Oth­er Artists Peed in Mar­cel Duchamp’s Famous Uri­nal

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

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

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