Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950

The concept of “aleatory” was preferred by European composers, among them Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutoslawski and Franco Evangelisti. It was first used by Werner Meyer-Eppler in the context of electro-acoustics and information theory for describing a course of sound events that is determined in its framework and flexible in detail.(6) Aleatory, a word derived from the latin alea, has many different meanings such as dice, game of dice, risk, danger, bad surprise, and chance. Most composers using aleatory referred to the meaning of chance, but some composers referred to meanings like risk (for instance Evangelisti) and dice (Henri Pousseur composed a piece called Répons pour sept musiciens, 1960, where performers throw dice for sheets of music and cues, a procedure similar to pieces by Kirnberger or Mozart in which the order of the measures is determined by throwing a dice.). Many composers thought they dealt with chance and created chance compositions when they allowed for greater performance flexibility. None of them used chance operations as Cage did. Since many composers were skeptical about “pure” chance and mere accident they came up with the idea of “controlled chance” and “limited aleatorism” (preferred by Lutoslawski).

In his Third Piano Sonata (1955/57), for instance, Boulez tried “to absorb” chance, that is “controlled chance” for the first time. While composing that piece he intentionally allowed for certain “automatisms” or variability in serial structures. And he introduced some limited liberties with respect to performance such as the flexible order of sound events (mobility) and multiple combinations of certain structures, similar to Stockhausen‘s Klavierstück XI (1956). Inspired by literary works of Mallarmé and Joyce, Boulez compared his sonata to a labyrinth where the performer can choose different ways to get through the piece. Yet, unlike in Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, Boulez’s choices are much more limited. Stockhausen actually wants the performer to play the sections he accidentally looks at.

In some earlier works Boulez aimed at the appearance of improvisation and spontaneity when he, in regard to some sections of his Livre pour quatuor (1948/49) and Le marteau sans maître (1953/53), asked the performers to make it sound improvised, so that one does not hear the hard work, but experiences an impression of flexibility.(7) This reminds one of efforts to construct and suggest improvisation in such forms as the impromptu, toccata, or fantasia. However, in 1957 Boulez explored improvisation further as he composed his Improvisations sur Mallarmé I, II and III. Each of the three pieces presents one of Boulez’s interpretations of improvisation. The first represents the zero point of improvisation and therefore offers the performer no liberties. The second improvisation includes certain flexible tempos. The third piece which is the culminating point of improvisation offers choices between various melodic lines, alternative passages which can be performed with or without a vocal part. Yet Boulez withdrew this daring score of 1959, revised it, and eliminated most aspects of mobility.

Boulez’s concepts of controlled chance, aleatory, and improvisation coincide and refer to a dimension of flexibility in music (if some of his so-called improvisation is not bare construction and make-believe). Boulez, doubtless, rejects all the other types of improvisation in contemporary music, in particular “free” improvisation. He considers the latter a psycho-drama consisting of indifferent sound events since the memory cannot mix certain elements.

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

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