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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

Less obviously contradictory were the efforts of Earle Brown (1926–2002), another early associate of Cage, to free performers from their usual constraints, and make them fully “aware” participants in the making of his music, by means of a “graphic notation” that eventually dispensed with conventional symbols. In Synergy (subtitled “November 1952”), conventional note-heads and dynamic markings were deployed on a sheet that was lined from top to bottom. Performers had to decide on instrumentation, place clefs where they wished, choose a mode of attack for each note, and decide both when to play it and how long it would be (within limits suggested by the use of empty and filled note-heads). A month later, in December 1952, Brown provided a score consisting of nothing but lines and rectangles on a white background (Fig. 2-9). The symbols represented “elements in space”; the score was “a picture of this space at one instant.” It was for the performer “to set all this in motion,” whether by “sit[ting] and let[ting] it move” or by “mov[ing] through it at all speeds.”

December 1952 was written under the direct impact of Cage's 4′33″, which had had its premiere (by David Tudor) in August of that year. In its vague and “conceptual” character it did resemble Cage's famous “tacet” piece; but in turning his notation into a kind of “inkblot test” to elicit the performer's associations, Brown was obviously letting back in all the “memories, tastes, likes and dislikes” that Cage had zealously sought to exclude (in keeping, one might note, with the original intention of Dr. Hermann Rorschach, the Swiss psychiatrist who devised the inkblot test on the theory that individuals will project their own unconscious attitudes into ambiguous situations.)

New Notations

fig. 2-9 Brown, December 1952

Brown was the first of many composers who, especially in the 1960s, employed “conceptual” notations to enlist the performers’ imaginations (or their prejudices). The score page in Fig. 2-10 is from The Nude Paper Sermon (1969), a “music theater” piece by Eric Salzman (b. 1933), a composer and critic who studied at Darmstadt in the late 1950s. The musicians (vocal soloists, chorus, and Renaissance consort) are asked to “react” physically, on their instruments, to the unconventional graphic shapes, with little or no prompting from the composer. In Europe, the most prominent exponent of conceptual notations was Sylvano Bussotti (b. 1931), whose score pages were frequently hung by admirers as art prints. To reflect the trend toward conceptual notations, and perhaps to abet it, Cage published a compilation, Notations (1969), containing reproductions of score pages solicited from 269 composers to show “the many directions in which notation is now going.”69 The Bussotti page shown in Fig. 2-11, reproduced from Cage's compilation, was actually a New Year's greeting to the compiler.

New Notations

fig. 2-10 Score page from Eric Salzman's The Nude Paper Sermon: Tropes for Actor, Chorus, and Renaissance Instruments (words by John Ashbery), used by the author, who played bass viol at the premiere performance in New York, 20 March 1969.

Cage's own graphic notations, by contrast (and as might be expected), were always precisely specified and tightly controlled. Performers interpreting them found that the composer demanded extraordinary discipline of them, being intolerant of clichés and notoriously difficult to please. Among the many who misunderstood this aspect of Cageian “indeterminacy” was Leonard Bernstein, who prefaced the 1964 concert at which the New York Philharmonic played Cage's Atlas eclipticalis with four “improvisations” by the orchestra, redone later as a studio recording, that elicited mainly Kreutzer études from the strings, fanfares from the brass, and “Rite-of-Spring” arpeggios from the winds.

New Notations

fig. 2-11 Bussotti, score page reproduced in Cage's Notations

New Notations

fig. 2-12 Brown, Available Forms I

As for Earle Brown, his most widely performed pieces were “open form” compositions (a term of his coining, later applied to the work of many composers), in which sections were treated as “moving parts” like those of a mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder (1898–1976), his acknowledged inspiration. The score of Available Forms I (1961), for large orchestra led by two conductors, consists of a sheaf of unbound pages (like the one given in Fig. 2-12) on each of which several “events” are notated, each calling upon a different group of instruments and exhibiting vastly differing characters (some static, others very active; some notated using conventional notes or note-heads, others “conceptually”).

Every member of the orchestra has half of the full set of pages, as does each of the conductors. The order of pages is decided in advance by the two conductors independently. Whenever the page is turned, the conductors indicate by holding up the fingers of one hand which of the five events is to be played, and by their gestures regulate the speed (steady or variable, at their discretion) at which it is to be executed. Ideally, the work should be performed several times during a concert, to duplicate the effect of the mobile, whose finite set of parts can come into an infinite variety of alignments.


(69) John Cage, “Preface,” Notations (New York: Something Else Press, 1969), n.p.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 12 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002009.xml