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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

What better reasons did he find? The one that he liked to offer was spiritualistic and vaguely “oriental,” borrowed in the 1940s from an Indian friend, Gita Sarabhai, with whom he was exchanging music lessons, and from whom he learned about the Indian concept of tala, a predetermined rhythmic structure (comparable, as already observed in connection with Messaien, to the talea of the medieval motet) in which he saw reflected his own ideas about “containers.” The purpose of music, she told him (quoting her own Indian music master) was “to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”9

Pressed by a skeptical interviewer, Cage produced a less “churchy” version: “The function of music is to change the mind so that it does become open to experience, which inevitably is interesting.”10 Stripped to its essentials, Cage's doctrine ultimately comes down to what philosophers call particularism or “naive realism”: the resolute avoidance of theory, or any mental act of generalization, so as to experience and enjoy the “real” or external world as it is in all its variety, and to perceive things (sounds, for instance) in all their individuality.

Ultimate purposes, however, do not produce a program of action. For managing his creative career from day to day and work to work, Cage embraced the model—inherited, he said, from his father, an inventor—of experimental science. Rather than communication, then, Cage adopted the purposes of research: not the kind of theoretical research in which many modernist artists engaged, which resulted in the extension and rationalization of known techniques toward precisely envisioned aims (e.g., the development of twelve-tone technique to extend and rationalize the principle of Grundgestalt, or Webern's refinement of Schoenberg's twelve-tone methods) but truly experimental research in which the outcome of one's actions was unpredicted and, as far as possible, unplanned. Henceforth, Cage's abundant ingenuity would be lavished on strategies to frustrate the planning of results, so that the object he produced would be completely free of his own wishes, preferences, tastes. He envisioned, in short, and strove to achieve, the complete liberation of sound.

But the liberation of sound was in no sense the liberation of the composer, or of any other person. In fact it was more nearly the opposite. Although Cage often described the elaborate methods he devised to realize his new purposes as involving indeterminacy or chance, they were anything but anarchic. In seeming (but only seeming) paradox, the liberation of sound demanded the enslavement, indeed the humiliation, of all human beings concerned—composer, performer, and listener alike—for it demanded the complete suppression of the ego.

Cage came to these precepts, he claimed, through immersion in the quietistic philosophy of Zen Buddhism, a fashionable preoccupation among Euro-American intellectuals in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It seems clear enough in retrospect that the general fascination, just then, with Zen was related to the interest in existentialism described in the preceding chapter, and that both were indirect responses to the stresses of the atomic age and the emergent cold war. Cage was only one of many New Yorkers who flocked to Columbia University, beginning in 1945, to hear the American-educated Daisetz Suzuki (1869–1966), Zen's chief ambassador abroad, give his well-publicized, soothing lectures on the subject. Among Suzuki's other auditors was Jack Kerouac (1922–69), the author who by his example defined the “beat generation,” a group of bohemian artists and intellectuals whose seemingly anarchic quest for artless authenticity through irrational behavior and unconsidered experience was also a self-declared adaptation of Zen thinking.

Japanese for “meditation,” Zen is an anti-intellectual mental discipline that aims at sudden spiritual illumination by systematically rejecting the illusory safety of rational thought, which it regards as contrary to nature. Its chief methods are zazen, long sessions of ritualized contemplation with the mind cleared of all expectation, and koan, deliberately paradoxical riddles and sayings, sometimes accompanied by corporal punishments for incorrect (i.e., would-be logical) answers as a form of aversion therapy. The principle of nonexpectation is clearly, if perhaps superficially, related to Cage's ideal of experimental music; and as some of the quotations from his writings and interviews may have already suggested, Cage loved to express his ideas in the baffling manner of a koan.

Around the same time that Cage was absorbing Zen, in 1950, an aspiring composer named Christian Wolff (b. 1934), the son of a well-known publisher, brought Cage (from whom he was taking lessons) a copy of his father's new edition of the I Ching or “Book of Changes,” an ancient Chinese manual of divination, the art of reading portents to gain knowledge unavailable to reason. The user of the I Ching would toss three coins (or six sticks) six times to determine which of sixty-four possible hexagrams (combinations of six continuous or broken lines) to consult in answer to a question about the future or some other unobservable thing (see Fig. 2-1 for the first sixteen of the possible sixty-four). By associating the hexagrams with musical parameters (pitch, duration, loudness, attack, etc.) Cage was able to convert the coin-tossing method into a means of eliminating his habits or desires (or as he put it, “memories, tastes, likes and dislikes”11) as factors in making compositional decisions. Once he had decided how the coin tosses would determine the musical results, he could relinquish control of the process and compose “non-intentionally,” as Zen prescribed.

Although it may look like some kind of esoteric religious syncretism, and although that may have been its justification in Cage's own mind, his mixture of Zen with I Ching was a practical stroke of genius. The predetermination of the relationships between the divination charts and the musical results was precisely the sort of music-producing algorithm that Boulez and Stockhausen and their Darmstadt colleagues had been seeking via the multiple application of the twelve-tone serial principle. The difference was simply that whereas Boulez, having determined the broad outlines of structure, handed the specific contents of his work over to the serial operations designed to control it, Cage handed the specific contents of his work over to Dame Fortune (alias Lady Luck). His was a much more direct route to the “automatism” that the times demanded.

Whose Liberation?

fig. 2-1 Hexagrams from the I Ching. Each design is a combination of unbroken (yin) and broken (yang) lines.

Indeed, for all their differences in background and method, Cage and Boulez immediately recognized that they were kindred spirits. They met in Paris in 1949, when Boulez had just written his Second Piano Sonata, a sprawling work that deals at Schoenber-gian length with tiny Webernian pitch cells, building up saturated but inchoate motivic textures that in their fragmented, “pointillistic” approach to pitch register, dynamics, and articulation never coalesce into any recurrent or otherwise memorable thematic substance and never harden into any generic formal mold. It was in effect a fierce manifesto against neo-classicism, against all musical “business as usual.” Cage, fresh from his Sonatas and Interludes, was left “trembling in the face of great complexity”12 after hearing Boulez play it. Christian Wolff's fortuitous gift, the I Ching, gave him the means of equaling, in fact surpassing, Boulez's iconoclastic tour de force.

The first work Cage composed by tossing coins was titled, appropriately enough, Music of Changes Like Boulez's Sonata, it was a huge, monumentally serious work for piano in several movements in an atomized or pointillistic style. Boulez and Cage kept up a lively, now published correspondence while Cage was at work on the Music of Changes and Boulez, partly under Cage's influence, worked on Structures, his most automatistic piece. Their letters contain joyously detailed technical descriptions of their elaborate methods, conveying tremendous excitement and providing a wonderful source for historians and analysts. Sometimes Cage would write a relatively skimpy letter, for which he would apologize by reminding Boulez, as he put it in one of them, “that I spend a great deal of time tossing coins, and the emptiness of head that that induces begins to penetrate the rest of my time as well.”13 The elegance of the phrasing shows how much personality and cultivated intellect Cage was willing to renounce in his quest for musical “reality.” Boulez was respectful of that, and perhaps a little envious. It led eventually to a break. For whereas Boulez's serial operations established multifarious arbitrary relationships among the events that took place in the score, Cage's chance operations generated truly atomistic sequences in which every event was generated independently of every other. His methods explicitly destroyed relationships (“weeded them out,”14 he crowed) because attention to the fashioning of relationships, being egoistic, defeated the impersonalism demanded not only by Zen but by the “zero hour” mood in which (as Boulez himself loudly insisted) everyone alive to the tenor of the times had to participate. Music that contained lots of significant abstract relationships defeated the whole nature (or “reality”) of music, Cage declared. Instead of listening, one analyzed.

“Composers,” he gibed, “are spoken of as having ears for music which generally means that nothing presented to their ears can be heard by them.”15 Boulez's product, being full of relationships, could be parsed in traditional ways. Its events could be reduced to general principles. Its methods could be rationally deduced. All of that gave reassuring evidence, despite the zero-hour rhetoric, of an “ear for music,” a controlling intelligence, a respectable moral accountability. By incorporating chance operations into the composing process, Cage was issuing a challenge to really stand behind the rhetoric and give up all traditional artistic values. (In a way, the best proof that Cage practiced what he preached, unquestioningly accepting the gifts of chance, is the presence in Music of Changes of occasional triadic harmonies that a serial composer would have been sure to purge from the score—see the “d-minor triad in first inversion” in the first measure of Ex. 2-3.) That much renunciation was too much for the Europeans. Boulez and Stockhausen each made token gestures in the direction of Cageian “indeterminacy,” Stockhausen with his Klavierstück XI (1956), described in the previous chapter, and Boulez with the Third Piano Sonata (1955–57) a five-movement work in which the order of the movements (or “formants,” as Boulez called them) could be rearranged around the central “Constellation,” and in which the order of sections within movements were also subject to some limited variation. (Cage had anticipated this idea, too, in his Music for Piano 4–19 of 1953, consisting of I Ching-derived material notated on a sheaf of sixteen unbound and shuffleable pages that “may be played as separate pieces or continuously as one piece or:” [sic].)

Boulez published a manifesto of his own, called “Aléa” (from the Latin for dice), in which he described the “open form” concept his new Sonata exemplified, carefully tracing its origin not to Cage but to the French literary avant-garde from Stéphane Mallarmé to the contemporary novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008). His main contribution to the evolving theory of musical contingency was the word “aleatoric,” now often used to describe music composed (or performed) to some degree according to chance operations or spontaneous decision. The degree of indeterminacy that Boulez and Stockhausen found admissible, however, never approached Cage's; and by thus exposing the limits to their avant-gardism (or, to put it the other way around, exposing their residual conservatism) Cage became for them a threatening presence.

The high point of their association came in 1958, when Cage and the pianist David Tudor (1926–96) visited Darmstadt, where they gave concerts and Cage directed a seminar on experimental music. (An earlier appearance, in 1954, at the old European new-music festival at Donaueschingen had been a jeered fiasco.) Cage proved a charismatic presence at Darmstadt. An oft-reproduced photograph, taken at the Brussels World Fair that summer (where the Philips audio company maintained a pavilion and commissioned some composers of the European avant-garde to create a sonic ambience that would show off its sound equipment) shows Cage comfortably at home in the presence of his European counterparts (Fig. 2-2). That fall he spent some months at Milan, at the invitation of Luciano Berio, a Darmstadt alumnus who made his experimental music studio at the state-subsidized radio station available to Cage.

Relations inevitably cooled thereafter. The Europeans, with their sense of inherited tradition (try as they might to repudiate it), could never reconcile themselves to the randomly generated sounds with which Cage, the innocent American, was happy to fill his time containers. Cage loved to tell the story of the Dutch musician who said to him, “It must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition.” Of course Cage replied, “It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, for you are so close to the centers of tradition.”16

Whose Liberation?

ex. 2-3 John Cage, Music of Changes, II, fourth page of score (diamond note-heads indicate keys silently depressed)

Cage's audience, both at home and abroad, was increasingly drawn from the tolerantly eclectic worlds of visual arts and modern dance rather than the tense musical establishment, even the established avant-garde. He was just too effortlessly further-out-than-thou, or so it seemed to them. “I like fun,” the poet John Hollander sneered in an American new-music magazine, “but I shall resist the impulse to have as much fun being a critic as Mr. Cage has being a composer.”17 Yet Cage was not just having fun. His schemes were just as complicated, just as exacting, just as pitiless as a total serialist's. Chance operations were anything but labor-saving. Cage's motives did not differ from those of the composers who were now writing him off, and his product (as long as he was writing for conventional instruments) resembled theirs far more than they were prepared to admit. All that differed were the means. But the means seemed, in the eyes of many, to outweigh motives and ends. And that says a lot about modernism.

Whose Liberation?

fig. 2-2 The assembled transatlantic avant-garde at the Philips pavilion, Brussels World's Fair, 1958: John Cage is supine on the floor. Kneeling above him are (left to right) Maricio Kagel (1931–2008), a German composer of Argentine birth; Earle Brown; Luciano Berio; and Stockhausen. Standing hehind them are Henk Badings (1907–1987), a Dutch composer; André Boucourechliev (1925–1997), a Bulgarian-born French composer and writer on music; Bruno Maderna; Henri Pousseur (b. 1929), a Belgian composer and music theorist; Mlle. Seriahine of the Philips Company; Luc Ferrari (b. 1929), a French composer; and Pierre Schaeffer.


(9) Ibid. p. 90.

(10) Gillmor, “Interview with John Cage (1973),” quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), p. 43.

(11) Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982); quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 91.

(12) Quoted in Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 99.

(13) John Cage to Pierre Boulez, summer 1952; Jean-Jacques Nattiez, ed., The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, trans. Robert Samuels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 133.

(14) Paul Hersh, “John Cage,” Santa Cruz Express, 19 August 1982; quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 79.

(15) John Cage, “45’ for a Speaker,” in Silence, p. 155.

(16) John Cage, “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” in Silence, p. 73.

(17) John Hollander, “Silence by John Cage,” Perspectives of New Music I, no. 2 (spring 1963): 138.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002002.xml