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This entry is adapted from my MA thesis at Queen's University Belfast. The complete thesis and bibliography is available here:

Pictured: excerpt from Morton Feldman's Projection IV (Behrman, 1965, p.62)

2.1 The continuum of determinacy

In Silence, Cage (1968) mentions Bach’s The Art of Fugue as an example of music which is indeterminate in performance; the rhythm and pitch structures are determined but dynamics and timbre are not. In any composition, the performer ‘fills in color where outlines are given;’ in other words, they must interpret the outlines presented by the composer. Each composition contains a different amount of determinacy, and therefore allows a different amount of interpretation.

Eco’s (1989) conception of the composer-performer relationship was that a composer offers the performer a work ‘to be completed.’ According to Reynolds (1965), the composer’s job is to propose an ‘occasion for experience.’ The complexity of the conditions which the composer proposes varies from composer to composer and from work to work. The less determined the proposal, the closer the experience resembles improvisation. Composition and improvisation are closely related, and many have said that composition is “slow-motion improvisation.” Since his process is relatively slow, the composer can reflect on what has passed and what will come, while the improviser must always concentrate on the moment. As opposed to a fully improvised performance, in a performance of a composed or “closed” work, the composer can reinforce the temporal and aural relationships between events (Sarath, 1996). Between the extremes of determinate composition (especially fixed-media) and free improvisation is a continuum that includes pieces in which a rigid structure allows some improvisation, and pieces in which a basic structure reinforces the relationships of improvised events.

2.2 What constitutes a work?

Where on this continuum does a piece cease to be a “work” and instead become an “improvisation?” Dahlhaus (paraphrased in Lewis, 1996) wrote of several characteristics that must be present for a piece of music to be considered a composition (or “work”): a fully worked-out structure, fixed in written form, with the intention of performance, which contains the essential identity of the piece. The term ‘identity’ is also noted by Benson (2003) and Levinson (1980), both explaining that a work has an ideal quality which is recognizable in each performance but is never fully realized. Borrowing from the work of Charles Peirce, Benson notes that a work is a type and that all performances of that work are tokens, or incomplete realizations. The score can help judge the correctness of a performance, but due to the nature of notation itself, performances are destined to be incomplete or incorrect. The performer must interpret how to execute a set of instructions encoded ‘more or less completely’ by the composer (Alperson, 1984).

Since the 1950s, many more works have fallen into the ‘less completely’ category. In the ‘open works’ cited by Eco (Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata, and Pousseur’s Scambi), structures are not completely determined, yet these are still considered ‘works.’ If it is not the structure which determines the identity of a work, it must be some other factors. Perhaps it is the decision to include and discard certain sounds (instruments, for example). Emmerson (2000) writes about the ‘fixity of personnel,’ a concept unique to Western music (as is the nature of a ‘work’ in the first place). Despite this concept, some works are written deliberately for open or indeterminate instrumentation. Perhaps the identity of the work is merely the directions for its realization. Arthur Danto considers the current period of art to be ‘post-historical’ and writes that art is now concerned primarily with concepts and the methods used to present these concepts. Thus, a composition is no longer limited simply to its sound or its structure; the idea of a compositional work could include rule-based improvisation frameworks, computer interface design, or other means for directing the creation of sound (Hamman, 2000).

2.3 Increase of determinism in music: Notation

Western Art music is unique among the world’s musics primarily because of its use of written notation. Originally simply a mnemonic device to aid performers, notation has gradually become more specific, enabling composers to demand more or less specific actions (Bailey 1993). Notation allowed composers to determine vertical sonorities (McLean, 1982) and gave composers time to reflect on the local and global relationships between these sonorities. By virtue of being able to reflect on all events in a piece, composers have been able to create complex harmonic and temporal structures. This contrasts greatly with other music; for example, Indian music emphasizes improvisation and therefore emphasizes the present over the relationships between past and future (Sarath, 1996).

Notation is not particularly deterministic, and over the past few centuries, composers have sought to make notation more deterministic. Notation can fix some elements of performance, primarily pitches and rhythms, but other factors, such as tempi and dynamics, are often left to “musicianship.” Traditionally, the mark of a good musician was his ability to “breathe life” into the music, but over this development of increasingly deterministic notation, the mark of a good player became his ability to execute the notation accurately, and nothing more (Behrman, 1965). This romantic-modernist view stems from the increase of determinacy in notation, which in turn stems from the increasingly higher status given to composers in the 19th century. Composers created works which had ideal existences; thus, composers were deemed more important than the musicians who merely performed the works (Benson, 2003).

2.4 Composer-as-god: Beethoven through modernism

The romantic idea of an artist or composer is that he is a genius, or a god. Benson (2003) traces the idea of the artist-genius to Immanuel Kant, but names Beethoven as the idea’s first proponent in music. Benson compares Beethoven with his contemporary, Rossini, who had a different opinion about the nature of a “work.” Beethoven viewed his works as ‘inviolatable texts’ which were to be interpreted exactly. Rossini viewed his works as simply ‘recipes for performance’ which only truly came to life during a performance. It is unsurprising that Beethoven’s scores are more detailed than Rossini’s scores, but as Benson notes, performers are no more obligated to accurately follow Beethoven’s score.

Since the traditional view of composing is “a godlike activity in which the artist brings into being what did not exist beforehand – much as a demiurge forms a world out of inchoate matter” (Levinson, 1980), a certain level of authority is bestowed upon composers, rather than the musicians who bring their works to life. After Beethoven, the perception of a composer’s work changed from acting as a recipe for experience to acting as an arbiter of correctness in that experience. At the same time, conservatory musical education began to emphasize correctness over creative interpretation, causing many future musicians to be quite self-conscious about their interpretations and performances (Moore, 1992).

Playing incorrectly would violate the intentions of the composer-god. After all, the work belongs not to the players, but to the composer, its creator. This attitude is perhaps inevitable in Western capitalist society. As Emmerson (2000, p.125) explains:

“Our western world is obsessed with ownership; copyright and royalties are a central plank of the system of remuneration for composers. This was made easy through notation (the score – an object) and, later, recording (initially an object but now, problematically, simply ‘a stream of binary information’). Performances were more important as purveyors of these objects, than they were valued uniquely in themselves.”

The goal of composers was to notate so accurately that performers would have no questions (or freedom). The trend toward complete determinism, or complete composer control, reached its apex in the 20th century.

2.5 The Apex: Electroacoustic music

The most indeterminate aspects of music notation are timbre, dynamics, and tempi. These elements of music have traditionally be interpreted by performers, but  with the advent of electroacoustic music, composers could control all of these aspects of a work without the intervening medium of a performer.  The piece could simply exist, exactly as the composer had imagined and created it. For some, recording technology supplanted the need to notate for a future performance. The composer could take the sounds themselves and stitch them together exactly as he would like. Although the earliest recordings were representations of past performances, after the development of musique concrète in the 1940s, the recording became compositional material. In the end, the recording became the music itself; the music existed in a fixed form (Grossman, 2008).

One might suppose that electroacoustic music (and much pop music, which also uses sampling and synthesis extensively) could lead to the death of the performer. Earle Brown (1986) dismisses this idea, writing that electronic music exists because of an unlimited world of timbre, space, and density, not super-human accuracy; humans are not obsolete. Truax (1998) justifies the practice of electroacoustic music, saying that the use of technology simply gives a composer “new perceptual experiences and new compositional ideas, things that could not be achieved in any other way.”  Still, tools such as the computer allow composers to create sounds which will be, as Varèse said, ‘obedient to [their] thoughts’ (Varèse 1967).

 2.6 Reaction: Indeterminate works

In the 1950s, while highly deterministic music was in vogue (notably total serialism), a small group of composers was interested in indeterminacy. Their aim was to leave some of the decision-making process to the performers (or to chance) in hopes of creating a more collaborative work (Lewis, 1996). This idea was radical at the time, since indeterminacy and chance “invade some of the most tender areas of the artistic ego: craft, expressiveness, and individuality” (Reynolds, 1965, p. 136). Indeterminacy did not fit with the prevailing Kantian view of the composer as a god-like creator of ideal objects. However, as Eco (1989) points out, these musical objects have always been, to some degree, open to interpretation by the performers or by the audience. These indeterminate, “open” works more accurately reflected the modern aesthetic of visual arts, in which the ideal is to view a work from multiple perspectives. Eco compares music which enforces one viewpoint to medieval paintings, which similarly enforce a particular perspective.

These composers became interested in creating musical works which potentially had radically different realizations from performance to performance. For Earle Brown (1986, pp. 192-3),

“the most fascinating aspect [of composition] was the ambiguous relationship existing between the artist and the work, and the delicate balances one had to deal with between subjective-objective contact with the work; between freedom and control; explicit-implicit notations; and between compositional necessity and performance reality as an intimate collaborative process. I wanted (and still want) very much for the work to have a ‘reality’ of its own in addition to the specific controls imposed by myself and by the performer.”

Brown’s artistic ego was not diminished by allowing performers to inject decisions into his works. The instructions and suggestions he makes form the identity of the works, for they elicit certain reactions and decisions from the performers.

Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff are often unfairly grouped with John Cage (Thomas, 2007; Welsh, 1967). Cage was the most prominent proponent of indeterminate music, but his methods differed greatly from the other three composers. The works of Cage are indeterminate in their composition, while the works of the other three composers are indeterminate in performance (O’Grady, 1981; Thomas, 2007). In Music of Changes, Cage used the I Ching to create the score, but intended for the performer to realize the score faithfully, in the traditional manner. Cage enjoyed unique performances with unique sounds, and some of his works required creativity on the part of the performer, such as choosing instruments or choosing how to interpret the notation. Interestingly, Cage generally rejected outright improvisation, especially when it was similar to the improvisation found in ‘hot jazz’ (Kutschke, 1999; Lewis, 1996).

Hoogerwerf (1976) contrasts traditional determinate music with indeterminate music by comparing the thoughts of Stravinsky with Cage. In contrast to Stravinsky, Cage hoped to relinquish control when selecting sounds, and saw that the uncontrollability of chance reflected and affirmed the uncontrollability of everyday life. Stravinsky believed in the composer’s individual expression; by choosing and controlling elements, a composer deliberately sets a work of art apart from everyday life.  By choosing not to set his work apart from life, Cage’s approach reflects a modern view that is observational, experimental, and scientific (Kutschke, 1999).

The other composers mentioned above shared an interest in indeterminacy but approached it in different ways. Like Cage, Feldman did not favor improvisation. After experimenting with open “graph” scores in which he gave only minimal directions for tessitura, Feldman decided to dictate the pitches he desired (Thomas, 2007). Still, he left rhythm free, allowing flux within the ensemble and performances which would always be unique compared to each other, yet still share a ‘family resemblance’ (O’Grady, 1981).

The works of Earle Brown and Christian Wolff emphasize the interactions of performers over matters of time and pitch. Brown compares his music to mobiles, and he allows musicians to reassemble his materials as they please. In Available Forms and Mobiles I and II, the decisions are made by the conductor, but in other pieces, such as December 1952 from Folio, performers see a graphic score which can be interpreted in various ways (Welsh, 1967). Similarly, much of Wolff’s music is based on a system of visual cues which help players determine how to coordinate attacks and releases (Behrman, 1965). The focus of the piece is social rather than musical, and has a much more democratic point of view than traditional, dictatorial composition (Nelson, 1989).  Still, the composer’s voice is not lost, since the types of interactions used by the composer become recognizable as his ‘signature moves’ (Behrman, 1965). Also, listeners can perceive the structures he has created in traditional terms, such as contrast, balance, and repetition (O’Grady, 1981).

2.7 Indeterminacy in electroacoustic music

For much of the history of electroacoustic music, composers have sought ways to enliven the listening experience – essentially adding indeterminacy. Two notable manners for accomplishing this were to create pieces for an instrument accompanied by a recording, or to actively diffuse the sound in the space during a concert (Chadabe 1997). In 1957, Belgian composer Henri Pousseur composed Scambi, a tape piece in which the form could be rearranged like the Boulez Third Piano Sonata and the Stockhausen Klavierstück XI (Lansdown Centre, 2008). Performance (instrumental or diffusion) and open forms add indeterminacy, interest, and life to otherwise fixed works.

In the mid-1970s, The League of Automatic Music Composers began a different approach by using computers to create music during a  performance. According to Gresham-Lancastre (a member of the League’s offspring, The Hub), their music grew out of the experimental tradition of Cage and others who used or created new instruments and thus were forced to devise new notation or instructions for using these instruments. For the League/Hub performances, the players generally adapted “solo” compositions for the group performance; they determined whose data could be sent to whom in order to make interesting results. Bischoff and Brown (2008) describe a typical performance situation:

“Gold’s station executed circular readings at audio rate of a virtual 3-D landscape that resulted in looping patterns of tuned noise . . . Horton’s algorithm spun a thread of continuous melodic invention built from just-intoned pitch relations, and Bischoff’s machine played a punctuating role as it looked for chance tunings between Horton’s melodies and Gold’s timbres, beeping in agreement when it detected them.”

Gresham-Lancastre (1998) considers the most important contribution of these groups to be the idea of a machine that invites participation but allows for intricate algorithms. Computers were super-instruments with which a performer could interact but with which a performer could create a higher level of complexity than he could with other instruments. The way of working started by the League and the Hub continues today with laptop performance; it brings together algorithmic computer music and improvisation.

As stated in the introduction, free improvisation and manipulations of algorithms do not have to be the only possibilities for live computer music. Works could be composed in which the performers recreate a score, in the manner expected by late romantic and modernist acoustic composers. Due to the precision of computers, these pieces could be realized exactly as intended, basically eliminating the need for performers. However, imprecise human interpretation can add interest to the work, both to the performance and to the piece’s overall identity.  According to Garnett, by performing a piece many times, the identity of a work becomes clouded and unfixed. Because it is unfixed, the work can adapt to changing contexts and therefore have a longer life. He cites this adaptability as the primary reason for the longevity of Western classical music (Garnett, 2001). Likewise, Alperson writes that when a performer interprets a work, he comments on the work; the work is imbued with new possibilities, but retains the essence of the original (Alperson, 1984).

“Adam, I have been thinking about your post for days. There is so much here. I am continually interested in strategies, methods, procedures, processes, instructions, rules, influences, antecedents, limits, conceptions, considerations, re-considerations, manipulations, attenuations, formulations, inspirations, inscription - materials, circumstances and methods of approaching and composing a work, any work, in all the arts, all that concerns the event of art the creating as an event and when where and how it happens and what it is and can be. Thanks for this great post. ”
Posted over 4 years ago
Adam Scott Neal replies:
“Hi Marc - thanks for the feedback. This was an important project for me, as it helped me grapple with composition and improvisation, which to that point had been very separate streams in my work. To me, both are acts of exploration - of setting up constraints and finding ways to work around them. By setting up loose rules for other players, I am able to hear possibilities I may not have considered if I had written instructions in more detail (e.g. traditional notation).”
Posted over 4 years ago
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