Music Happens


“No matter what we do, sooner or later it all sounds melodic.”
—Christian Wolff

Despite the best laid plans of composers and performers, music happens.

Like life itself, music always involves some degree of indeterminacy. Improvisation, wrong notes, reluctant instruments, failing technology and other messy realities are integral elements of all music.

But it wasn’ t until about 1950 that Western “art” music began to fully embrace its own indeterminate nature. John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff began making a new music in which notation, the sequence of sounds, and the sounds themselves were left open to an unprecedented extent.

This was a uniquely American phenomenon. It evolved directly out of the music for percussion ensemble composed by Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, William Russell, Cage and others in the late ’30s and ’40s. Since the sounds of individual brake drums, pod rattles, temple gongs and tom-toms vary much more than the sounds of pianos, strings, brass and woodwinds, a high degree of indeterminacy was already inherent in the percussive medium.

Taking his lead from Cowell, Cage “invented” the prepared piano to place an entire percussion ensemble at the fingertips of a single performer. He got more than he bargained for.

With traditional composer’s precision, Cage’s early scores for prepared piano contained exacting specifications for the size, location and materials of the objects to be placed on or between the strings of the piano. But when he heard his music played on a piano different from his own, the sound was shockingly different. Cage had to decide whether this was or wasnÕt the piece he had composed. He decided it was.

From this epiphany, Cage and his circle went on to incorporate the I Ching and other indeterminant processes into composition and performance. By the end of his life, Cage had come to the radically elegant definition of music as “Sounds heard”.

This shifts our center of musical gravity from “saying something” to simply listening. As composers, performers and audience members, our primary participation in music is to listen. Music becomes less of an artifice and more a part of the ecology of our lives. We step off the grid of regularly measured time and into the more open and immeasurable flow of time that we experience in nature.

The first work in my catalog is songbirdsongs Ð a cycle of pieces for piccolos and percussion. In this music, I set fragments of bird songs in a way that I hoped would ring true with the experience of listening in the soundscape. All the notes are written out. But the printed music is what Harrison called a “performance kit”, with the specific order of events left to the performers to decide in the moment of playing and listening.

Since these early pieces, my music has ranged from one end of the determinate/indeterminate spectrum to the other Ð from rigorously detailed scores to more open forms of notation and performance. Some of my music explicitly celebrates nature. Much of it is more sonically “abstract”. But to this day all of my music is still informed by the lessons of indeterminacy, and by Cage’s aspiration “to imitate nature in her manner of operation”.

What about you?

How do chance, indeterminacy and “the music that happens” influence your listening, composing, performing?