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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

Artists who justified their personal freedom by citing Cage's example managed to forget just what it was that Cage had liberated, and from whom. Not that this mattered in the long run. Messages sent are not always the ones received, and the history of art is full of examples of would-be followers who became innovators by misreading their predecessors’ intentions. A celebrated theory of literary history advanced in the 1970s by the critic Harold Bloom (b. 1930) elevated creative misreading of this kind to the status of main determinant, or driving force, behind all creative evolution.39 Nor does the fact that an artist misreads the example he claims to follow necessarily reflect in any way on the authenticity or value of his own work or that of his ostensible “guru.” Nevertheless it is curious that the musician most interested in reining in the impulses of human beings so as to keep them out of the way of sounds, and who never gave performers (or listeners) any real freedom of choice, should have been regarded as a human liberator. It testifies to the power of suggestion, to the allure of liberation as concept for artists brought up with the rhetoric of American democracy ringing in their ears, and to the paradoxical need most artists share with the rest of humanity to justify their freedom on the basis of authority. By merely using the word liberation at a time when systems ruled, Cage gave those lacking his fantastic assurance permission to follow their own inclinations. It is a paradox that went all the way back to Rousseau's Social Contract, with its troubling call to liberate mankind, if necessary, against its will, forcing freedom on the comfortably enslaved.

Christian Wolff, for example, who inadvertently midwifed Cage's adoption of chance operations by presenting him with a copy of the I Ching, has been mainly concerned in his own compositions with giving performers what he called “parliamentary participation,” the freedom to choose among alternatives, as opposed to the “monarchical authority” of the composer or conductor.40 In his Duo for Pianists II, for example, the notation is deliberately left incomplete, so that the players (originally Wolff himself and the American pianist Frederic Rzewski) are forced to decide for themselves matters of detail usually decided by the composer: now exact duration, now exact pitch, now register. As in Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI, the music is written down in discrete chunks whose order of performance is left indeterminate. Each performer makes choices on the basis of what the other has last chosen.

The notation below from the Duo score is typical. Numbers before the colon indicate spans of time in seconds. Those after the colon indicate the number of notes to be played in the allotted time, selected from “source collections” of predetermined pitches, while the sign x, appearing above and/or below, directs the player to higher or lower keyboard registers. Thus, the configuration Music and Politics Revisted means that in the space of a quarter of a second the pianist must choose three pitches from source collection a and two from source collection b, making sure to play them in a higher or a lower register than the last time the same pitches were chosen. Whether to play the pitches singly or in chords (and if singly, whether closely spaced like a melody or leaping “pointillistically” among far-flung registers), whether to play them loud or soft, and how their individual durations shall compare, are all decisions left to the quick-thinking performer.

Quick-reacting, too, since each player's choices are determined in part by cues given, according to a prearranged scheme, by the other player. The piece amounts to an exciting game for the players that allows (in the composer's words) for “precise actions under variously indeterminate conditions.” Since “no structural whole or totality is calculated either specifically or generally in terms of probabilities or statistics,” the outcome of the game is never predictable. “The score makes no finished object, [something regarded as] at best hopeless, fragile, or brittle. There are only parts which can be at once transparent and distinct.”

In his later music, Wolff's notation became less and less determinate, the necessity of performer choice ever greater, to the point where the performers virtually improvise within loosely defined limits. Wolff has justified his practices on explicitly political grounds. A composition, in his view, must “make possible the freedom and dignity of the performer.” Yet having declared that “no sound is preferable to any other sound or noise” (which sounds vaguely Cageian), Wolff allows performers to exercise their own preferences in choosing sounds, which is as un-Cageian as can be.

Unlike Cage, Wolff is interested in explicit political analogies. The unusual appearance of his scores, and the freedoms he delegates to performers, are intended “to stir up,” as he has put it, “a sense of the political conditions in which we live and of how these might be changed, in the direction of democratic socialism.” These convictions have led him back, in his most recent work, to the use of material borrowed from labor and protest songs in the manner of Hanns Eisler or the members of the New York Composers Collective in the period of the Great Depression. (Cage, by contrast, was resolutely consistent in his principle of quietism or noninterference. His most explicit political pronouncement has become notorious: “There is not too much pain in the world; there is just the right amount.”41) A similar impulse led Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938), Wolff's sometime duo partner, out of the avant-garde altogether. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, Rzewski lived in Europe during the 1960s, at first in the orbit of Stockhausen, of whose Klavierstück X Rzewski (a virtuoso pianist) gave the first performance. The political upheavals of the later 1960s (to be considered in greater detail in chapter 7) convinced Rzewski of the irreconcilable contradiction between the private games of the avant-garde and the social purposes to which he was dedicated. The eventual result, in the early 1970s, was a series of virtuoso variation sets for piano on workers’ songs in a traditionally “heroic” style modeled expressly on that of Beethoven's monumental “Diabelli” Variations.

Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated, 36 variations on the Chilean protest song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (1975, Ex. 2-4a), while obviously (and successfully) directed—as political exhortation—at the broad concert public that favors virtuoso piano recitals, nevertheless retains features of the composer's earlier avant-garde idiom, now smoothly integrated, in a fashion that the avant-garde had once declared impossible, into a politically—and, of course, commercially—exploitable idiom. The first variation adapts the simple melody of the song to the radically disjunct “pointillistic” texture by then long associated with the piano music of Stockhausen and Boulez (Ex. 2-4b).


(39) See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), and A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

(40) William Bland and David Patterson, “Wolff, Christian,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XXVII (2nd ed.; New York: Grove, 2001), p. 504.

(41) Cage, Silence, p. 93.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002006.xml