Music by changes … does music play dice?



“As contemporary music goes on changing in the way I am changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds… I am talking and contemporary music is changing.” John Cage

From John Cage’s I Ching compositions and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 60s aleatoric experiments to John Zorn’s game pieces and Brian Eno’s oblique strategy cards, ‘chance music’ seems an essentially postmodern phenomenon.
But with music like any other human activity, chance has always entered in and though John Cage was the grandmaster of chance, he wasn’t entirely its pioneer: the dice were already rolling in 18th century Vienna, where Mozart reputedly used them to decide the order of the sections in a minuet ‑ reflecting a trend among his contemporaries made possible by the ornately symmetrical form of Rococo music, and ,in a sort of positively surreal contrast, in 1751 William Hayes ‘wrote’ the composition The Art Of Composing Music By A Method Entirely New, Suited To The Meanest Capacity by flicking ink at music manuscript paper.

Despite Mozart’s dabbling, however, such early adventures in chance composition were the parlour games of minor composers, some of them could easily be dismissed as frivolous. The more pervasive dimension of chance has always been employed at the level of performance rather than composition, anyway. Indeed, it can be argued that the very notion of scoring music is a product of composers’ attempts to minimise unwanted chance factors (such as accidental or wrong misinterpretation by ignorant or disobedient musicians) in the performance of their work. lf in Bach’s time the musical work was viewed as a partnership between composer and performer, by the later 19th century composers were asserting their dictatorial control. For Schoenberg, the interpreter is the servant of the work: “He must read every wish from its lips”.

Yet a degree of ensemble imprecision was something that late Romantics such as Wagner and Richard Strauss took for granted. Indeed, the opening of Strauss’s tone‑poem “Don Juan” was intended as a cacophony of blurring lines, now with the actual orchestral standards it is played too accurately and the music has become too transparent, and Stravinsky later complained that the bassoon solo which opens The Rite Of Spring had become “too easy”: he wanted it to sound dangerous and on the edge. With some composers, chance music was a way of regaining that blurred or dangerous effect, but one of Schoenberg’s American students, John Cage, went much further: in his idea of rejecting the European concept of the genius‑creator, he called for a complete uprooting of Western musical tradition ‑ deliberately, by chance.

Chance music wasn’t entirely without modern precursors when Cage came to it in the 1940s. It’s not a question of Satie’s relevance, he’s indispensable,” Cage wrote in 1958. The French eccentric’s love of incongruity favoured the deliberate deployment of accident. There’s a kind of graphic notation in Sports Et Divertissements, and Satie used a mosaic technique in Prelude De La Porte Héroique Du Ciel, reordering the sections of his piece until he found one he liked ‑ which accounts for its strangely indeterminate succession of unrelated chords. This last piece was from his RoseCroix period of the 1890s, when Satie believed his work was directed from beyond the grave by a fanatically pious medieval cleric.

While Satie’s piece is fixed for the performer, in some of his scores Charles Ives went further and offered the performers themselves significant alternatives ‑ while also making impossible demands on them through unrealisable notations. Ives pioneered a layering technique, using a collage of musical sources at different tempos, such as sounds from different brass bands. This resulted in a kind of “chance counterpoint”, most extravagantly in the short orchestra] piece The Fourth Of Ju1y (1911‑13). Ives greatly influenced West Coast composer Henry Cowell, described by Cage in his classic 1961 collection of writings, Silence, as “the open sesame for new music in America”. Cowell experimented with what he called “elastic notations” in his Mosaic Quartet (1934), which included a selection of fragments to be assembled by the players.


Something strange....

But these were isolated experiments, postmodern methods of collapsing the cultural hierarchies like dada, Surrealism and Futurism came later to music than other art forms like literature and the visual arts that had been disrupted by found objects, automatic writing, action painting, performance art and happenings. Almost alone among composers, Cage was immersed in Surrealism and shared ideas with Marcel Duchamp, though unlike the Surrealists, he didn’t seek out significance in his chance conjunctions. Maybe he was familiar with dada composer Georges Ribement‑Dessaignes, who composed dance music by dice‑throwing. Cage’s famous method of constructing pieces by tossing coins was generated by consulting the ancient Chinese book of oracles, the I Ching (or Book Of Changes, he was introduced to the book by his student Christian Wolff, whose father had published an English translation, and he applied the method in the last movement of his Concerto For Prepared Piano And Chamber Orchestra, then most dramatically in Music Of Changes for piano, both from 1951.

Cage’s excursions into chance had begun a little earlier, in fact in the late 40s and early 50s, he formed an unlikely affiance with Pierre Boulez, long before he had established himself as IRCAM’s notorious autocrat. At this time, Cage and Boulez were two lonely, embattled avantgardists, and Boulez was experimenting his ‘total serialism’ with involved trying to predetermine all musical parameters, not just pitch but rhythm and dynamics. But serialism and chance are two sides of the same coin as it’s often said that chance pieces and totally determined pieces, such as Boulez’s Structures 1 for two pianos, come out sounding very similar and equally arbitrary. Boulez later recognised that his ‘automatic’ music engendered an entropic kind of anarchy, a sort of “chance by the back door”.

Gradually realising just how, opposed his and Cage’s viewpoints were, Boulez wrote in 1951, “The only thing, forgive me, which I am not happy about, is the method of absolute chance (by tossing the coins). On the contrary, I believe that chance must be extremely controlled … I am a little afraid of what is called ‘automatic writing’, for most of the time it is chiefly a lack of control…”

This apologetic murmur turned into an ideological chasm between the two, since the abdication of control by the composer is at the heart of Cage’s anti‑aesthetic, even if, it’s been argued, there’s a sense in which Boulez owed total serialism to Cage, and Cage owed chance to Boulez: the depersonalisation of Structures 1 is closer to a concept of chance than Cage had reached at that time, but while still using chance elements, for instance in his Piano Sonata No 3, Boulez drew back from it. As Cage later bitterly complained, “Boulez was promoting chance, only it had to be his kind of chance”. lf Boulez required discipline with a little freedom, Cage characteristically mixed anarchy and discipline, setting up systems in order to produce unpredictable results. In his musical vision ‘Chance’ was more than just a compositional tool, it was a part of the liberating ideology he set out in Sílence, a way to dissolve the difference between art and life.

Music Of Changes is an extreme example of determinism random, but he managed to go beyond this “monster” by extending the scope of possibilities and going to the ‘indefinite random, “or “randomness” in terms of performance where the music leaves opportunities appropriate to the needs arising during the implementation, chosen or not by the performers, but Cage has always been careful not to give any freedom to its performers. Examples of this in extreme determinism are unpredictable composition for radio Imaginary Landscape No 4 of 1951 and the famous, in famous 4’33 “of 1952 in which a performer sits in front of the piano for the entire duration and letting the environment “playing” around itself.

Venezia 09-10-2009

An other method of chance indeterminism used by Cage was graphic notation, which he used for Fontana Mix (1958), where the score consists of transparent sheets to be superimposed on each other like a series of map overlays. Graphic devices had already been used by Satie, Ives and Cowell, and most radically in Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 for solo cello (1950), whose score, as with other early Feldman compositions, looks like an abstract painting. The Concert For Piano And Orchestra of 1957‑58 is Cage’s masterpiece of indeterminacy in that it has no ‘master score’: the conductor’s role is purely theatrical, and each player works through their part independently, without coordinating with others.

Ironically, in denying individuality to the performer, Cage ended up agreeing with his teacher Schoenberg, he regarded interpretation as a kind of improvisation and did his damnedest to eliminate it.

That wasn’t the attitude of Cage’s student, Christian Wolff, whose consistent vision has been to use the force of hazard to shape his distinctively spare works. “Chance is used as a way of discovering things,” Wolff declared in a 2001 interview. “You could call it a heuristic device. Cage once said he looked forward to performances to discover what he’d composed, to be surprised by it. I recall somewhere in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the story of a painter who got stuck while working on a painting. He gave up on it, put the canvas away in some corner of his studio. Some months later coming back to it he noticed a grease spot or smudge had appeared on it, and then he knew just what to do to finish the picture.”

In 1957, through a collaboration with his near‑contemporary, the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, indeterminacy made a significant appearance in Wolff’s output. But his use of it has been individual; and also unlike Cage, he’s been sympathetic to free improvisation, for instance in his pieces Edges and Burdocks (1970‑71). As he explained: “[Cage] made a composition which was then performed the way it was written, it was fixed… But what I became interested in introducing wasn’t even chance so much any more, but the element of what we called indeterminacy ‑ not at the point of composition but at the point of performance. So my scores might be made without using any chance procedures at all, but they were made in such a way that when performers used them, unpredictable events would take piece.”
Cage’s use of chance indeterminism didn’t allow any autonomy to performers. Wolff, in contrast, collaborates with the performer in what he calls “working actively with contingencies”.

Whereas in Cage’s music, each player works through the musical events prescribed in the score regardless of what other players are doing, Wolff focuses on the unpredictable possibilities that arise from each performer attending to what the others are doing. As he commented: “My composition might consist of time spaces ‑ so many seconds, and fractions of them, within which various kinds of material are indicated. Say, a choice of three pitches from a collection of seven, two dynamic markings and some colour articulation like a pizzicato. The performer then has delimited choices, as well as areas that might be quite free ‑ for instance, the spacing of the sounds within a given time space.

“Mostly there are several performers,” he continued, “so that what they do will partly combine by chance, though when they listen to each other, this may affect how they each make their choices, and so they too collaborate, which again is not a matter of chance.” Contrasts between Cage and Wolff are spelled out usefully in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music. Nyman points to an interesting paradox in Wolff’s music: In performance the players seem to be in a state of perpetual crisis, yet the music sounds calm, relaxed and unruffled, unlike the avant garde variety which often sounds as though it is actually the expression of crisis.”

Venice 09-10-2009

The European avant garde were mostly more cautious when it came to taking chances. Boulez and Stockhausen evolved methods of indeterminacy within strictly defined parameters, such as the ‘mobile form’ pioneered by Ives and Cowell. On Stockhausen’s Piano Píece XI (1956), the performer’s freedom is fairly limited; they select the order of movements and have some say over internal arrangements, tempo and dynamics. His Momente also permits alternative orderings of material. But Ytem and Aus Den Sieben Tagen are much more open. Clarinettist Anthony Pay reported: “He invites you, for example, [simply] to play in the rhythm of the molecules‑that constitute your body. Or in the rhythm of the universe. There’s a story of a second violin player who said, ‘Herr Stockhausen, how will I know when I am playing in the rhythm of the universe?’ Stockhausen said, with a smile, ‘1 will tell you’.” He’s probably still waiting for the nod: by 1970, Stockhausen had returned to exact notation ‑ his most radical work already completed.
Xenakis’s ‘stochastic composition’ was not really chance. But he did write three pieces based on mathematical game theory: Duet (1958‑59), Stratégíe (1962) and Unaia Agon (1972‑82). Duel is a game between two orchestras, with the conductors as active contestants. Xenakis drew comparisons with competitive situations in folk and jazz. Nouritza Matossian suggests that the psychological roots of his interest was the feeling that his own life had been saved in Athens, during the wartime Nazi occupation, only by chance.

Xenakis is sometimes bracketed with Lutosiawski, Penderecki and Ligeti as a ‘texture composer’, dealing in sound‑masses rather than individual tones ‑ and it could be argued that, in fact, this attempt to capture a natural phenomenon is the opposite of chance. Polish composer Witold Lutosiawski’s Venetian Games was directly inspired by Cage’s Concert For Piano And Orchestra. Sections are divided by a fixed percussion signal, and within each section there’s a ‘collective ad lib’. As the score says, “When the sign for the end of the section is given, the performers must interrupt playing immediately. ff by this time a player has already played his part to the end, he should repeat it from the beginning of the section”. The result is an “aleatory (ie chance) counterpoint” ‑ the exact coincidence of individual lines left to chance. (The word aleatoric, by the way, comes from alea, Latin for dice.) Thís is the same concepts that Ives deployed, but with a very different effect. Ligeti’s Poème Symphoníque for 100 metronomes from 1962 was a more radical, completely mechanical example of the same idea, while in his Requierrì he writes lines for the chorus which are too difficult to coordinate, reshuffling, like Venetian Games, in random counterpoint.

But for Lutoslawski, the composer had to be left in control: “I firmly believe in a clear delineation of duties between composer and performers,” he said, “and I have no wish to surrender even the smallest part of my claim to authorship of even the shortest passage.” Cage badmouthed such `experimenting within tradition”. In a 1962 interview he complained that 1t doesn’t seem to me to radically alter the situation from the familiar convention. It simply takes these new ways of working and consolidates them with the old knowledge… I think we are in a more urgent situation, where it is absolutely essential for us to change our minds fundamentally.” But even limited chance was too much for high culture modernist Elliott Carter: “Aleatoric pieces with any degree of free choice,” wrote the American composer, “are simply demonstrations of certain general styles or methods of composition without ever becoming concrete individual works in which every detail… contributes some way or other to the total effect.” Evidently he didn’t understand that, for the texture composers, blurring were an essential part of that total effect.

Venice 09-10-2009

A genuine radical, no more part of the academy than Cage himself, was self-taught Argentinean composer Mauricio Kagel. Influenced by dada and Surrealism as well as Cage, his Match (1964) features a musical contest between rival cellists, refereed by a percussionist. Like Cage, Kagel rejects “the pure doctrine of improvisation ‑ if indeed this ever existed”. Essential to his work is “strict composition with elements which are not themselves pure”. In Exotíca, the performers have to try to master the techniques of the non‑Western instruments as best they can; they’re left to furnish the prescribed rhythms with pitches in any register. Kagel exploits the fact that where instruments and other sound‑producers are unfamiliar to the performer, this will also introduce an element of unpredictability ‑ any untried instrument is a little ‘aleatory’ at first. In a way that recalls the roots of the Cage‑Boulez mis‑encounter, Kagel commented about his Saint‑Bach Passion that “totally planned things [as in serialism] and totally arbitrary ones have a similar piece” in the shaping of a piece.

As Kagel’s music shows, unpredictable results follow from asking players to perform beyond their capabilities. For this reason some composers experimented with amateur ensembles, such as Gavin Bryars’s Portsmouth Sinfonia from the early 70s, which famously murdered Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and other popular classícs. Bryars encouraged his naive and incompetent amateurs to take their roles seriousiy and play with heart, even though he was probably quietly laughing at them himself. lf Bryars had a serious point it probably wasn’t shared by his performers ‑ the Sinfonia was an exercise in both dadaism and sadism.

British composer Cornelius Cardew also chose to work with amateurs, but out of a high‑minded politica] impulse as much as a musical one. Cardew started out as a disciple of Stockhausen, before falling under the spell of Cage. For a brief period in the 60s he opted fo the total Improv of AMM, then in 1969 formed The Scratch Orchestra from both professional and amateur musicians, to perform didactic works such as The Great Leaming, for which he supplied both the building blocks of sound and some loose architectural plans. It wasn’t just the final outcome that was valuable; how the groups of players variously negotiated his designs itself formed a mode] of social and musical organisation. Cardew became a Maoist and repudiated his mentors. He was killed by a hit‑and‑run driver in 1981 before he had a chance to explain the contradictions between his utopian interpretation of the Great Helmsman’s thoughts, and their rather more restrictive application in Mao’s China.
The so‑called New Complexity composers have also been concerned with demanding the impossible of performers, only in their case only professional players need apply. In his piano‑piece Mt, composer Chris Dench asks the performer to make a ’tilt’ at the right notes, which are technically impossible to obtain; Brian Ferneyhough’s works also encourage a “desperate virtuosity”. Michael Finnissy has explored the layering technique pioneered by Charles Ives. Australian composer Ross Bolleter, in contrast, places excessive demands on instruments rather than performers.



Chance operations aren’t limited to the ‘contemporary classical, tradition. With the painter Peter Schmidt, Brian Eno in his Roxy Music period famously evolved a deck of oracle cards called Mblique Strategies”, which helped David Bowie out of his coke‑blocked impasse when he recorded Low and Heroes in Berlin (both 1977). The cards were modelled on ‑ you guessed it ‑ the 1 Chíng. He wrote aphorisms on the cards and placed them round the recording studio, to kickstart or reload the creative process; examples include “Retrace your steps”, “Don’t break the silence”, “You are an engineer”, “Turn it upside down”. Eno wasn’t appealing to anything as exotic as supernatural forces: “You can believe that they work on a purely behavioural level, simply adjusting your perception at a point, or suggesting a different perception.” Use improvisation, they were a method for altering the dynamics of a creative situation in a way that compositional logic couldn’t manage.
But isn’t improvisation itself a game of chance? It can seem that way when improvisers aim for the previously unheard and unplayed ‑ perhaps when, like Ornette Coleman, they aspire to play “without memory”. But for most improvisers, improvisation is more risk than chance. Improvisers are always looking for ways of maintaining unpreclictability. Conductions by George Lewis with The London Jazz Composers Orchestra, among others, have used numbered cards in a ‘mosaic technique’, a jazz equivalent of the Boulez/Stockhausen mobile form.
Though Cage condemned the Western classical tradition, it didn’t stop John Zorn from bracketing his work with the “dead, lifeless music” of the “boring old farts”. For Zorn, who’s as much an improviser as a composer, Cage is an anti‑type. Zorn’s game pieces take their titles from sports and board‑games such as Lacrosse, Archery, Pool and Cobra. As a conductor, Zorn simply relays changes to the rest of the players with a hand signal. But the players are permitted to try to wrest control from the conductor by ‘guerrilla tactics’ ‑ an antagonism reminiscent of Xenakis’s Duel, though Zorn himself more often mentions Mauricio Kagel as an influence. The cue card system fits with Zorn’s ‘block structure’ or filmic technique of fast~moving juxtaposed sections.
Cage moves towards obliterating the creative will ‑ Zorn tries to engage it differently. Cage, notoriously, wasn’t interested in improvisation. At a performance of the late Number piece Five in 1990, the players sustained their notes rather than the silences because, evidently, they felt they had too little to play. “They weren’t supposed to improvise!” Cage complained ‑ he didn’t like the limited instructions he gave to be disobeyed. He wasn’t interested in the idea of performers expressing themselves, because he wasn’t interested in expressing himself. His denial of self‑expression is the outcome that chance ultimately leads to. But few composers or improvisers are egoless enough to follow the Zen Master the whole way. Art, and the intention that goes with it, proves almost inescapable.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mikkl says:

    Here is a masterful interpretation of John Cage’s 4’33” on classical guitar by Apostolos Paraskevas (!):


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