Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950

A further concept which came up in the late fifties was “open form” or “musique informelle.” Open means “unfinished,” “indeterminate,” “accessible,” “available,” or “liberal.” Since form, a word rooted in visual imagination, means shape, outline, or mold which gives shape to materials, the expression “open form” seems contradictory and abstract. When consisting of mixed formal elements, works of the past by Mozart and Charles Ives, for instance, were declared to be pieces with open form (Adorno, Wolff).(8) Certain serial compositions, often accused of being devoid of form, were considered harbingers of open form. Their form seemed to be the result of chance. Yet, “open form” refers rather to a certain degree of indeterminacy in a work, notation, structure, content, material, and only rarely to the traditional concept of form. Open form mostly points toward the interchangeability of parts with determined details (Stockhausen, Klavierstück XI) or to the variability of details whereby the course of the piece is determined. Henry Cowell actually can be considered a pioneer of open form techniques. The five movements of his Mosaic Quartet of 1935 can be played in any desired order.

Earle Brown was among the first to claim the term open form for a number of his compositions. Influenced by Alexander Calder‘s mobiles, he aimed at a great mobility of musical elements. He also attached considerable importance to spontaneity and improvisation since he had a jazz background. Brown’s open form piece December 1952, part of the seven-piece set Folio (1952-53), provides one of the earliest and most famous examples of graph scores. The notation of December 1952 is ambiguous. Horizontally and vertically arranged thin and thick lines offer the performer extremely little information. The musical content, material, structure, form and instrumentation are not fixed and musicians, according to Brown, ” “[have to improvise] the sound materials relative to the very simple graphic implications of the score.”(9) Later Brown questioned whether “open form” was an adequate term for this approach or whether he should have called it “solo or collective improvisations based on graphic implications” since the content was not fixed.(10)

December 1952 is not representative of Brown’s approach to open form. Numerous compositions written after the Folio pieces such as Twenty-five Pages for piano (1953) or Available Forms I and II for orchestra show more or less worked-out segments of which the order is left open. After 1953 Brown incorporated opportunities to improvise only occasionally as in String Quartet (1965) and Centering for violin and chamber orchestra (1973).

Brown explored open form possibilities extensively and improvisation to a certain degree, yet he dissociated himself from concepts of aleatory and chance. In an interview he stated: “I don’t use chance! Do you think Indian music is chance-music? Do you think jazz is chance-music? … When you conduct my open-form pieces, you are not doing it by chance. You’re doing it because you want the next thing to happen. Because you think it’s right. And that’s what an improviser does. It’s what a composer does who writes closed-form music: but he does it in his room upstairs, rather than doing it on stage… There’s a huge difference between improvisation (spontaneous decisions) and chance. Chance really has to be an exterior, objective thing.”(11)

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

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