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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (published in 1986) claimed flatly that John Cage “has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the twentieth century.”32 That is certainly possible if his impact is measured by the number of artists (not just musicians) who have acknowledged Cage as an influence or an enabler. “He has immense authority,” the art dealer Leo Castelli, an energetic promoter of avant-garde painters and sculptors, said of Cage. “He is, after all, a guru; and just the fact that he was there with his fantastic assurance was important to us all.”33

The painter Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), one of Cage's closest friends, said it was Cage's example that “gave me license to do anything,”34 especially when what he wished to do defied the established modernists of the day. The composer Morton Feldman (1926–87), a close associate of Cage who was also friends with many painters, claimed that Cage gave not only him but everybody “permission.”35 Cage's joyously accepting attitude, “naive” in the special philosophical sense discussed above, made him a charismatic facilitator, not to say a liberator. It was a role comparable in many ways to that played by Liszt a hundred years earlier with respect to the “New German” avant-garde.

Yet many if not most of the artists and musicians who venerated Cage and thought of themselves as his disciples seem to have misunderstood him in a very significant way. The art movement usually linked with the composers in Cage's orbit is the one called abstract expressionism, which flourished in New York from the mid-1940s until the 1970s, exactly the period of Cage's most intense activity, and which established New York as an international artistic center on a par with Paris. It was the first American school of painting to have a significant influence on European artists, and in this, too, it parallels the influence of Cage, who after his Darmstadt lectures had many European disciples.

But as the movement's very name suggests, abstract expressionist painters were primarily interested in freedom of personal expression and intensity of emotional communication, the very things Cage had renounced. The turbulent “action paintings” of Cage's exact contemporary Jackson Pollock (1912–56), in which the artist hurled and spattered pigments on a canvas stretched out on the floor, were often regarded as a “liberation of paint” in much the way Cage liked to speak of the “liberation of sounds.” But the comparison was misguided. Pollock sought greater freedom of action, sometimes described as greater freedom from form, the better to express his individuality of feeling through the medium of color. To invoke Nietzsche's old Wagnerian dualism, Pollock's was the quintessential “Dionysian” art. Cage looked for the very opposite: ever more stringent ways of constraining his actions so as to free the sounds he produced from his own wishes and feelings and so achieve greater harmony with nature. His was “Apollonian” art at its most extreme.

A similarly Apollonian impulse, and a similar commitment to philosophical realism (or particularism) drove the work of Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001), one of the European composers most often compared with Cage. A Romanian-born Greek-speaking composer resident in France, Xenakis had a thorough training in mathematics and engineering before he decided on a musical career. His expertise in these technical fields was sufficient to land him a job as assistant to the celebrated modern architect Le Corbusier (real name Charles Jeanneret, 1887–1965). Xenakis strove to base his musical practice directly on classic mathematical formulas, the most impersonal and transcendent of all truth-concepts. It was he who, in collaboration with Le Corbusier, designed the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair on principles already embodied in several of his compositions.

Xenakis is best known for what he called “stochastic music,” deriving the adjective from mathematical probability theory. Rejecting the over-determined causality of “integral serialism”36 (which, he alleged in an inflammatory article written in 1954 and published in 1961, only succeeds in sounding aimless and unintelligible) and the underdetermined contingencies of “aleatoric” music (which, he declared, was an abdication of creative responsibility), he sought a music that would create an intelligible shape out of a multitude of seemingly random musical events, much as a multiplicity of chance occurrences—like Cage's beloved flipped coins—makes a gradual approach to a predictable outcome (equal numbers of heads and tails).

It is the response of a composer who had spent the war years in the Resistance movement (and with a blind eye to show for his pains) to the dilemma of reclaiming free will and the possibility of meaningful action in the face of existential pessimism—a pessimism that, in music, had led to various kinds of abject submission, whether to voluntary regimentation (symbolized by total serialism) or to fatalism (symbolized by chance operations). The events in Xenakis's stochastic music are planned in the large but unpredictable in the small. Its individual elements are insignificant but they make a strong collective statement. Its governing political metaphor was expressed most directly in the dedication of one of Xenakis's works to the “unknown political prisoners” and “the forgotten thousands whose very names are lost,” but whose uncoordinated and singly ineffectual contributions to the cause of freedom were collectively decisive.

Xenakis's Metastasis (first performed at the Donaueschingen Festival in 1955) consisted entirely of a complex texture of glissandos, interacting in time and space, in which every single member of the forty-four-piece string section had a separate part, so that nobody's line was individually conspicuous. All, however, contributed equally to an overall impression of smoothly rising and lowering curves of pitch. The same principle of endless curvature (or displacement—metastasis—from straightness) governed the shape of the Philips pavilion. In Fig. 2-5a–d, a page from the sketch score of Metastasis is juxtaposed with one of Xenakis's architectural sketches for the pavilion, and then both sketches are juxtaposed with their realizations (the finished score, the actual building). In the sketches it is especially noticeable how the curves are the overall product of an indeterminate multiplicity of straight lines, as the victory over fascism was the product of an indeterminable multiplicity of individual sacrifices.

Pithoprakta (1956) was the first composition in which Xenakis used the “cloud” effect that became synonymous with his name. The title means “actions through probabilities”; the goal on which all the seemingly random sounds converge is the emergence of conventionally recognizable musical tone out of “noise,” as controlled by various mathematical formulas. The fifty-piece orchestra includes a couple of trombones that play glissandos as before, and a percussionist who contributes seemingly random and disruptive punctuations on xylophone and woodblock; but the main sonority is that of forty-six solo strings, now making extremely discontinuous sounds—pitchless tapping on the instruments, gradually giving way to pitched pizzicato—organized into processes of continuous change.


fig. 2-5a Iannis Xenakis, sketch for Metastasis (1953).

What gives a sense of progression through time is the variable density of these swarming musical particles, creating the impression of a shifting nebulous shape, calculated according to the so-called Maxwell-Boltzmann law, which predicts the behavior of gas molecules at various pressures and temperatures. The composer, as it were, adjusts conceptual pressure valves and thermostats, to which the musical molecules, individually maintaining what seem to be random trajectories, nevertheless “react” collectively according to the law's predictions.

Xenakis's music can be interpreted as a negative critique of “Darmstadt” serialism. Listening to it (as he put it to an interviewer in 1980),


fig. 2-5b First model of Philips pavilion.


fig. 2-5c Corresponding page from the score of Metastasis (1954).

our attention is unable to follow all the various events, so instead we form a general impression. That's simply how our brain reacts to mass phenomena—there's no question of scientific computations. Our brain does a kind of statistical analysis! We have to reckon with the same thing as in the kinetic gas theory.37


fig. 2-5d Philips pavilion (1958).

Such a listening process, Xenakis asserted, is natural; a music that elicits it is a realistic (or scientifically “true”) music. The impracticably detailed listening process presupposed by serialism was, by implication, utopian and (given the limitations of our mental processing) a falsehood. Not surprisingly, Xenakis was sympathetic to Cage, who also appealed to nature (though more the nature we experience with our senses than nature as it is understood by scientific theory) to justify his version of avant-gardism. Xenakis, in fact, was one of the first Europeans to support Cage, whom he regarded as an amiable exotic: “I liked his thinking, which is of course a characteristic product of American society,” he recalled to an interviewer. “I was attracted by the freedom and lack of bias with which he approached music.” He thought the “mystical color” Cage claimed to have inherited from Asian philosophy naive, and his lack of overt political commitment all too typical of what Europeans often regard as American complacency, but “at least he tried to do something different and in opposition to the absolutist trend of the serialists.”38 But then he went on:

Cage's music can be interesting, until he relies too heavily on the interpreters, on improvisation. That's why I've kept aloof from this trend. In my opinion it is the composer's privilege to determine his works, down to the minutest detail. Otherwise he ought to share the copyright with his performers.

Xenakis had made the commonest, most obvious of all mistakes with regard to Cage, seeing him as a liberator of people rather than sounds, never realizing that Cage shared his horror of improvisation (if not for all the same reasons), and that Cage, too, determined his most influential works down to the minutest detail (although he sometimes sought to disguise the fact in conversation and interview). This misunderstanding was as typical of Cage's admirers and colleagues as of his critics and adversaries. As we are about to discover, even some of Cage's most ardent disciples made the same mistake about his aims. And yet misunderstandings of this kind are common in the history of art. They can be inspiring. Indeed, we often “need” to misunderstand those we follow, so that their authority can become an enabling rather than a restraining force.


(32) Charles Hamm, “Cage, John (Milton, Jr.),” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 334.

(33) Leo Castelli, in “John Cage: I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It,” American Masters documentary directed and coproduced by Allan Miller, written and produced by Vivian Perlis; PBS broadcast 16 December 1990.

(34) Robert Rauschenberg, Ibid.

(35) Morton Feldman, “Liner Notes,” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Cambridge, Mass.: Exact Change, 2000), p. 5.

(36) Iannis Xenakis, “La musique stochastique: Éléments sur les procédés probabilistes de composition musicale,” Revue d'esthétique no.14 (1961).

(37) Bálint András Varga, Conversations with Iannis Xenakis (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 78.

(38) Ibid. p. 55–56.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 6 Oct. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 6 Oct. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002005.xml