The Dada art movement flared up briefly between the end of World War I and the advent of surrealism. During its mere handful of years Dadaism famously got its randomizing tendrils into poetry, theater, and film. One art we don’t typically associate with it, though, is music. Nonetheless pianist Guy Livingston has developed a close rapport with the movement, particularly with Dadaist films – and the musical scores that went with them. The musician and radio producer applies his gentle showmanship to a unique program called Dada at the Movies, which he performed at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on 17 October.
Tristan Tzara wrote in his bizarre Dada Manifesto of 1918: “Dada was born of a need for independence, of a distrust toward unity. Those who are with us preserve their freedom. We recognize no theory. We have enough cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas…Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean.” In its effort to drain the formalist swamp, Dadaism celebrated madness as well as randomness and happenstance.
The movement per se died out quickly as its champions split up and the more influential Surrealist movement emerged. But its echoes rang on, and continue to this day, in works ranging from John Cage’s music and John Ashbery’s poetry to Zippy the Pinhead’s non sequiturs and the work of collage artists everywhere. Livingston evoked the times by partially reenacting a 1923 event in Paris that featured a play, films, and music by famous names of the era, but ended in scandal when a riot broke out.
Livingston rolled the films and played the accompanying music on the piano with sensitivity and élan. Pieces by George Antheil, William Bolcom, and Eric Satie enlivened short films by the likes of Man Ray and Hans Richter, culminating in the best-known Dadaist movie, Francis Picabia and René Clair’s dizzying Entr’acte. Useful for context was an unfinished film the composer Antheil created himself, entitled Woman. Its relative lack of artistic merit helped emphasize the other films’ powerful creative spirit.
My favorite was Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast, a boisterously funny short film scored with Bolcom’s “Ghost Rags.” Its hijinks made me think the Monty Python tricksters might have been familiar with it.
Also of interest was Rhythmus 21 by Richter and Viking Eggeling. Livingston describes it as “the first abstract film.” Indeed its pulsing squares and rectangles call to mind the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich.
Additional atmosphere came from cardboard costumes reproducing those from the 1923 event. A tongue-in-cheek modern “Pseudomentary” film about Dada by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo provided more background. Livingston performed a hilarious nonsensical poem by Kurt Schwatters, and a “Dada Dictionary” of his own invention, in circus style with audience participation.
But amid all the celluloid experimentalism and stage antics, his own musicianship was never lost. Livingston doesn’t just champion this early 20th-century music, he brings it to vivid life. His affection for the period came through in Bolcom’s gentle rags, Satie’s stark emotionality, Milhaud’s lilting and lyrical strains, Antheil’s Gershwinesque “Jazz Sonata,” and other works of the period.
Lighthearted but artistically fulfilling, the show is a joy for concertgoers and film buffs alike. Livingston’s website lists upcoming performances of Dada at the Movies and his other productions and events.