Monday, 24 April 2017

Go and listen to a pure chance music concert.

Duration: no less than 15 minutes, no more than an hour.

Effect: refreshment and revelation.

A pure chance concert is free of cost. Seating, or standing room if you prefer, is usually available. Travel is not an issue, but imaginative venues can be found. Pure chance music can be rhythmic and repetitious or arrhythmic and ever changing, or of course a mixture of the two. Try a seaside venue for distinct timbres; voices, often young ones with high frequency screeches panning quickly across the audio field and deep thundering bass tones when water brakes against the shore followed by the percussive rolling of thousands of pebbles.

If that venue is unavailable try a more urban environment, one may discover a complexity of pedestrian footfalls and a wealth of mechanical sounds emerging into the sound field from every direction.

You may be thrilled by an ear shattering climax or be hypnotised by a single rhythmic tone, the joy of the experience is that everything is possible. While there may, or may not, be similarities between performances there can be no formal replay. Recordings of pure chance works are increasingly popular as "field recordings", but you may find these lack the spontaneity of the live event.

Should you worry if you find structure in a pure chance performance? It is difficult to avoid making connections, the mind plays little tricks adding its own references and memories when the attention wanders, but that can happen in any concert. Just refocus. After the event you could discuss the performance with a friend or friends, though listeners of pure chance music often have radically different views about their experience.

Does listening to a pure chance music inform you about music in general? Should it be a course of study in music colleges and universities? All experiments in the philosophy of everyday life will prompt these types of questions, don't expect any academic rewards when you formulate your answer.

Please be aware that some concerts are not of the pure chance nature, if you find yourself in an auditorium with the paraphernalia of amplification, programme notes, scores and stands it is likely that degrees of control are in place. An entrance fee is a certain indicator that you are in the wrong place, just walk a little distance away from the venue and try again.

With thanks to the wonderful world of 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger-Pol Droit.

Sometimes finding the correct format to express an issue takes longer than collating factual material. So it is when one explores the relationships and differences between "pure music" and what must be its opposite, pure chance. So it is that I offer my thanks to the wonderful world of 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger-Pol Droit.

Having read through the Webern lectures it was almost inevitable that one had to follow the historical argument through to Boulez and his writings, and almost equally inevitable that the questions arising from pure chance would lead to randomness, indeterminacy and chance. The acid test of how different the outcomes are can be heard by simply comparing works written within a few years of each other

Have a friend play both for you so you are unaware of the composer, and use the slow movement of the 2nd example at around 8'15".

I have included this image from the I Ching, for those unaware of its history or its use by Cage here are two useful sites:

An English translation of the introduction given by Richard Wilhelm

A wiki account of Music of Changes. There is also a PDF file of the fourth book available:

I shall give the final word to Nurtan, in a recent exchange of posts we traded ideas on randomness, and put together some musical material to test the ideas. He put forward this view:

Fortunately, we have raised some …very fundamental questions in the musical aesthetics. I
cannot think of a work where the most important note, chord or rhythm is what is expected. In all cases, it is the unusual, unexpected, innovative series of musical utterances that imparts originality and interest in a piece. How do the composers find that? Is it a logical process or a random
process followed by culling out the chaff? Really, John Cage's dice, and other toys are not necessary, the brain is a powerful enough computer to generate a series of random processes and sorting the results out to get the "best " result; or at least what we think as the best for that moment.
Of course there are very conventional rule based, well ordered passages that provide a breathing space for the next emotional utterance. I think this is an important aspect of music - i.e. before you make your listener jump out of his/her seat the composer has to provide a bridge or a respite,
or a repetition of the previous sentence to draw attention to the unusual when it comes. If a composition lays out a root progression according to an accepted pre-existing root progression and composed strictly using a well-recognised or recognisable rhythmic or melodic devices, in my opinion, that would not be a complete composition - it would be just passage work to
prepare for the next leap.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

John Cage: “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen.”

During the period following the recent blogs on rigour and flexibility Nurtan and I have been discussing randomness, our starting points were different, his a mathematical perspective, mine its historical place in 20th century music. Inevitably one line of thinking colours and informs the other; this took us to imposing random elements on a plainsong to test out some of our ideas. While all this is fascinating it emphasised that our starting point in recent blogs regarding rigour and flexibility requires further exploration. Even when reduced to a focus on Boulez and Cage it is a wide ranging subject, one every novice composer needs to understand as part of his or her “musical toolbox”. Having written about some of the aesthetic elements of Boulez’s work, and having considered his concept of the “pure” work where reason and rigour are fundamental to the composing process, it is timely to look at some of the ideas behind Cage’s approach, to clarify the essential differences, and similarities between the two, (a matter which should be all the easier as they both wrote a great deal about their artistic intentions).

I used the term random in the introduction and it is one of a number of terms that crop up alongside indeterminacy, aleatoric music and chance-controlled music, all of which can be associated with the term ‘flexibility’.  The three questions that can be examined in the context of a short blog are what effect does the use of flexibility have on a composition, can it coexist with rigorous planning, and does it produce similar or dissimilar musical results?

The opening quotation suggests that Cage understood that relating any artistic endeavour to a philosophy like Zen is going to generate contradictions and debate. Even in his pre-Zen days Cage was pushing the boundaries of traditional approaches to music making. His early music had a mathematical foundation and his interests took him to study with Cowell and Schoenberg, the latter composer reveals to us an element of Cage’s alternative thinking in his often mentioned quotation regarding his pupils:

  "There was one...of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor—of genius."

There is a clear progression to Cage’s work starting with his interest in the flexibility of events in the work of Ives through to Cowell which later leads to his development of chance-generated music.  This progression could be explored purely in terms of musical consequences without reference to Zen, but if that approach was taken we would miss out on the developing interest in oriental philosophy and its effect on the arts in the latter half of the 20th century.  Let us consider a few ideas which were influential in providing fertile ground for flexibility in the arts:

The world can be represented as it is, the artist only needs to make “uncoloured” observations.

Occidental thinking views nature as requiring control while oriental thinking places an emphasis on an affinity between man and nature.

Oriental art historically endeavours towards economy and simplicity.

It can be argued that European art and music in particular also aimed at economy, but from the period where music modulated and changed key, greater complexity became inevitable, pushing composers further away from the pull of the tonic. Webern sets out the case in his lectures covered in a previous blog. The affinity between man and nature and uncoloured observation takes us towards a frequently discussed outcome of Buddhist enlightenment, a direct experience of the world. In this state everything is connected (oneness), there is no hierarchy.

Adapting the above ideas to music generates some radical outcomes:

No one sound or event is more significant than any other.

Attempting to control experience (or our experience of music) is valueless, attempting to control everything is impossible. Every action or event we perceive can become music/art, as Cage says:

I saw that all things are related. We don’t have to bring about relationships.

The religious implications of the process of enlightenment are well represented in Cage’s writings, and its thinking is also well represented in the psychedelic sub-culture of the 1960’s and presented by such authors as Aldous Huxley in his “Doors of Perception” .

Music can involve us in “a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.” (Cage).

The next statement directed at the audience demonstrates a difference in emphasis between Eastern and Western values, the first part could be applicable to both (if we are talking about listening to music) while the second is distinctly oriental:

What is important is to insert the individual into the current, the flux of everything that happens. And to do that, the wall has to be demolished; tastes, memory, and emotions have to be weakened. (Cage).

What is also evident is that such actions come with a cost, one that would be wholly unacceptable to Boulez:

…if we want to use chance operations, then we must accept the results. We have no right to use it if we are determined to criticize the results and to seek a better answer.

The Canadian scholar of Eastern thought Victor Hori makes an interesting observation regarding “Pure Consciousness”, such a state

…without concepts, if there could be such a thing, would be a booming, buzzing confusion, a sensory field of flashes of light, unidentifiable sounds, ambiguous shapes, color patches without significance. This is not the consciousness of the enlightened Zen master.

Whether or not it represents the consciousness of the Zen master, or indeed if this statement is true in every detail confusion is a possible outcome of complete musical freedom, but is Cage’s music “free” of all constraints?

If we take “Cartridge Music” as an example we find that there are a number of restrictions on time (length of events) and timbre. If we listen to the available performances on You Tube we recognise a family resemblance in the performances. Within individual performances we hear the percussive sounds produce regular rhythms and repeats of timbre, there is no doubt that this is organised sound. In the most free of all Cage’s works, 4’.33” we are most familiar with it being performed in a concert hall where specific restrictions are in place to the range of sounds we hear, should the work be performed in the open air, in a factory or garden our perceptions would be changed. It seems that we lean towards placing constraints even when they are not indicated or even implied.

Returning to Cartridge Music the 20 page score contains graphic indicators for the number of performers (maximum 20), each performer is given indicators (points, circles and a stopwatch) which shows the time allocated to events such as pitch and dynamics/amplitude. There is also a scheme to introduce sounds other than through the cartridge made by applying contact microphones. The You Tube video filming a performance makes demonstrates the process clearly:

This second link gives a performer’s view, I don’t agree with everything in these notes, but it offers interesting historical viewpoints and relates to the question of rigour and flexibility:

One issue arising from Cartridge music is that if a musician was inclined he/she could create a work of the same timbre, impose time and dynamic restrictions etc. and create a rigorous, reproducible composition. Family likeness, no Zen. If the composer was interested in the music having flexibility it would be a simple exercise to share the composition as a MIDI file and permit as many variations in the structure as there are people with the interest to play with it. In truth there is no reason why the given sounds could not form the basis of a “pure” work where each element is accountable and related to a single source.

Of course all these developments are now history, and the Zen thinking is scaffolding that provided a change of direction, a structure creating an empty space that could be filled with whatever a composer desired, and with the advent of sampling “whatever” is the state of play. As in the Biblical statement “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness?” we should recognise that rigour and flexibility are, as always with music, two distinct characteristics that permit life and progress.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Composer's toolbox PDF

Titles include:




Words and text

Select a brilliant title

Graphic scores a recipe for composition?