Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950

Although one can observe indeterminate moments in many works of the performing arts throughout the centuries, “indeterminacy” was not part of the musical vocabulary until the late 1950s. It was mainly used in mathematics, physics, biology, linguistics, philosophy, and jurisprudence and it means “having inexact limits,” “indefinite,” “indistinct,” “unsettled.” John Cage was one of the first to use the word “indeterminacy” in musical contexts and used indeterminacy as a compositional dimension with regard to performance. In his 1958 essay, “Indeterminacy” he presented and explained compositions indeterminate with respect to their performance such as Bach‘s Art of the Fugue which lacks specific instrumentation. One of Cage’s most significant indeterminate compositions is his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957/58) which is a collection of individual parts consisting of ambiguous notations, and no score. The number of passages to be played, the order of the sections and the duration of the whole work, for instance, are left to the performers’ choice. One could assume that the indeterminate graph notations might allow for some improvisation. But Cage objected to improvisatory techniques strongly: “Improvisation… is something that I want to avoid. Most people who improvise slip back into their likes and dislikes and their memory, and… they don’t arrive at any revelation that they are unaware of.”(1) His indeterminate pieces ask the performer for responsibility, discipline, and compositional decisions within the framework that Cage designed. Cage is well-known for his use of chance operations (for instance by tossing coins) which are part of his compositional processes and come into focus after defining materials and designing systems and rules for the application of chance procedures. Yet chance operations and indeterminacy are two different things, as Cage explains: “Bringing about indeterminacy is bringing about a situation in which things would happen that are not under my control. Chance operations can guide me to a specific result, like the Music of Changes. An example of indeterminacy is any one of the pieces in a series called Variations which resemble cameras that don’t tell you what picture to take but enable you to take a picture…”(2)

For a long time Cage viewed his concepts of chance operations and indeterminacy as not compatible with improvisation. Yet in the seventies he reconsidered improvisation: “Chance operations are a discipline, and improvisation is rarely a discipline. Though at the present time it’s one of my concerns, how to make improvisation a discipline. But I mean doing something beyond the control of the ego.”(3) Cage’s goal was to free improvisation from taste and memory, likes and dislikes. In pieces like Child of Tree (1975), Branches (1976) or Inlets (1977) the players have to make discoveries with unfamiliar materials such as plants or conch shells. In the case of Inlets, for three performers with partly filled conch shells and a fire live or recorded the players moving and turning the conch shells have no control over the occurrence of the gurgles and their rhythms.

Cage called this new improvisational concept “structural” improvisation and explained: “What delights me in this thing… is that the performer, the improviser, and the listener too are discovering the nature of the structure… Improvisation… that is to say not thinking, not using chance operations, just letting the sound be, in the space, in order that the space can be differentiated from the next space which won’t have that sound in it.”(4) This definition of improvisation which seems to have nothing in common with the conventional idea of improvisation actually comes very close to its etymological meaning: “to bring forward the unforeseeable,” it comes also close to the notion of “creating sounds extempore without any preparation.”

Incidentally the score of Inlets is one of the few indeterminate notations by Cage allowing for improvisation. What did Cage, whose works are often declared as aleatory pieces, actually think about aleatory? He rejected it. When asked about his view of aleatory, he stated that, Pierre Boulez brought it up in his polemic essay “Alea” (1957) to distinguish between the right and the wrong use of chance operations, the wrong use being Cage’s approach.(5)

From Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950
By Sabine Feisst
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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