As I prepare for a semi-improvised performance at the NIME conference this week, I find myself thinking a great deal about improvisation and indeterminacy (more on the distinction between the two in a bit). Specifically, why is indeterminacy still looked upon with such suspicion in the new music world, 100 years after John Cage’s birth? Oh sure, certain aleatoricisms have been tamed and have found their way into the standard notational vocabulary—familiar gambits like box notation and feathered beaming. At this point almost no one objects to their use, and they’ve entered into common performance practice. But paradoxically, this renders them almost wholly determinate in sound, encouraging rote and mechanical use. Casually deployed, they can become conspicuous signposts that announce “this is a new music piece” and not much else.

Thankfully, thoughtful composers continue to develop new notational gambits, but this presents its own challenges, and puts an extra burden on performers to absorb this new information. Composers can try to take on as much of that burden as possible by making the notation as clear and vivid as they can; in this respect, I admire David Smooke’s approach. In a recent post on his toy piano concerto, Smooke describes a subtle and flexible notational system capable of loosening some musical parameters (e.g. rhythm, time) in order to make other parameters (e.g. texture, ensemble coordination) easier to control. Of course, some aspects of this notation are not exactly new (the unmeasured preludes of Couperin and Pandolfi come to mind).

So far, so good. But when indeterminacy gets bigger and scarier, people’s attitudes start to change. We can distinguish between indeterminate notation meant to evoke a specific sound, and indeterminate notation that is meant to prompt or provoke the performer in some way. The former is almost universally sanctioned; the latter is still controversial. I wish it wasn’t, because it’s a powerful locus of creativity. Too often I’ve encountered the attitude that, by leaving too much up to the performer, the composer has abdicated his or her professional duties. I hope that this is mostly due to misunderstanding, but I worry that it’s an impossible ideological divide. In this provocative model of indeterminacy, a little willful notational obscurity is even desired, because it compels the performer to engage with the piece deeply. That is, if they’re not put off right away—it’s a tactic that requires great trust between performer and composer.

I wonder if the resistance to indeterminacy is somehow a part of the long hangover from the musical culture of deliriously extreme specificity which dominated the last century. Perhaps ironically, even this musical movement culminates in a kind of indeterminacy of ability in the music of Brian Ferneyhough. Here, the notation is about as specific as you can get, but the near-impossibility of it shifts the nexus of indeterminacy from the details of the notation to the capabilities of the performer.

Some of my music also ends up occupying an awkward middle ground between indeterminacy and specificity, and I’d like to defend this awkwardness if I can. In Mobile I for violin and electronics, the pitch content of the electronics is unspecified, but descended from the spectral content of the violin, ensuring that it remains musically connected to the violinist’s performance. Like Smooke’s concerto, the end result has a particular texture that is unique to the piece. I wonder, though, if it’s too vague to satisfy those fixated on specificity, and too predictable to appease those who prioritize exploration.

This also raises questions about the distinction between indeterminacy and improvisation. Often this distinction seems more semantic to me than anything, and this is especially true when it comes to music with live electronics. If we view the computer as a willed agent, then surely it is improvising. On the other hand, if you break the program down into its rule-based or stochastic components, then it is merely another layer of notation, this time in the form of code. Part of this is due to technological limitations; often the tools are not as reliable or predictable as we would like.

But working with these limitations can also lead to novel, inventive solutions. This crosses my mind many times while working with Mimi (Multi-modal Interaction for Musical Improvisation, a software system for live human-machine improvisation designed by Alexandre François). As I practice with Mimi, the fear of a less-than-perfect improvisation is often present, and so there is a strong temptation to make the performance as predictable as possible. However, Mimi won’t let me. Every time I sit down with the system, it does things I don’t expect and can’t predict. In the end, I think this is why I like indeterminacy—it compels me to do the things I am afraid of.

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9 thoughts on “Indetermination

  1. jh983

    Interesting post with a lot of neat observations.

    “Specifically, why is indeterminacy still looked upon with such suspicion in the new music world, 100 years after John Cage’s birth?”

    Because at a certain point indeterminacy is more than just a new Tristan chord, but an approach that collides with the tradition of static composition that has stood at the core of European art music for almost a millennium. (A term like ‘static composition’ can only be vague, but I mean works that are reliably consistent from performance to performance in terms of pitch and rhythm, secondly in terms of instrumentation and tempo, and thirdly in terms of dynamics, etc.)

    The kind of indeterminacy-lite that you mention (feathered beaming, stochastic textures, etc.) is not controversial because it’s simply an extension of the kind of local indeterminacy that has been successfully integrated into static composition for centuries (e.g. cresc., the fermata, mood/tempo markings). Such techniques truly can be like new Tristan chords; superficially unfamiliar but ultimately consonant with the tradition.

    “Too often I’ve encountered the attitude that, by leaving too much up to the performer, the composer has abdicated his or her professional duties. I hope that this is mostly due to misunderstanding, but I worry that it’s an impossible ideological divide.”

    It’s not ideology that’s divisive, but taste. Anyone who criticizes your latter type of indeterminacy on the grounds of a composer’s cosmic duty is a moron, but for art music listeners not to be moved by it is perfectly understandable; it’s not the game that many of them fell in love with (in fact it might be the complete opposite).

    To use an analogy, I think if the average person opened a work of fiction and it was full of statements like, “Imagine that two characters are walking through the forest and they’re having a really interesting conversation. Now imagine what they might be saying,” he’d close it and move on to something else, because most people read fiction to be delighted by someone else’s thoughts, not their own (directly).

    I think most people feel this way about music, too, including myself, and I don’t think it’s stubborn conservatism, anymore than would be a preference for a book with a plot.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I agree that there’s an important distinction between indeterminacy that plays well with the European art music tradition and indeterminacy that doesn’t.

      I think your analogy to fiction breaks down a little bit, though, because unlike the written word, musical communication tends to be mediated and activated by performers. It would be more like handing that book to an accomplished voice actor who would weave those statements into a tale for a live audience. It relies more on the creativity, stage presence and interpretive prowess of the performer. Now, the statements you describe would make for a very lazy “score,” and I think that most pieces that incorporate indeterminacy — most successful ones, anyway — actually prompt the player in much more clever and thoughtful ways.

      Of course, if you’re more like John Cage than Earle Brown, maybe you don’t really believe in stories at all. That may be a matter of taste. Or ideology. I’m not sure the two are all that different in the end.

      1. jh983

        Thanks for your response. When I think of an indeterminate score, I think of two chief varieties: (1) an ambiguous score that the performer must craft into a relatively determinate performance, and (2) a score that outlines a set of procedures to be followed, but in the event of performance it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen. In reality lots of scores are both, but I’m not totally comfortable with either.

        In the former, what one has is a kind of half-score that is peddled to performers to try and get them to finish it. Some performers may enjoy the chance to play co-composer, others will feel like, “I’m a performer and not a composer for a reason.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach in principle, I just question whether it can produce results. What I love about most pieces I love is how the details correspond to the bigger picture, and with an ambiguous score that leaves the details to the performer, it’s hard to see how this might be achieved in a way that doesn’t result in mediocrity. In any case I almost don’t even consider this indeterminacy, as much as collaboration.

        In the latter, which I have more experience with (as an audience member), what one has is a work that needs to be listened to in a completely different way. Most works I’ve heard like this have been for piano and live electronics, and clearly as a listener it would be unreasonable to listen to such music with the same ears you use for Beethoven and Stravinsky. I’ve always felt that the most productive way to listen to these works is to listen the way one would in a park or busy city, open to finding connections but aware of a general unpredictability. This is pleasant enough, but it’s not the kind of experience that got me hooked on music, and I doubt I’m alone in this (nature has a corner on this kind of music anyway).

        What initially turned me on to art music coming from rock was the fact that its practitioners composed and executed works that sounded like they were, at their best, focused and moving forward at every moment, with every detail contributing somehow; no quixotic guitar solos or tedious breakdowns. What other musical tradition structures sound in time so carefully? This is what I meant about indeterminacy colliding with art music’s tradition of static composition. It’s a tradition so entrenched that, in a way, to do away with it is to branch off into some other sort of music. In that case, it shouldn’t be surprising when art music listeners don’t follow, anymore than you’d expect a metal fan to still like Metallica* if they became a reggae band (although some might, as some might like both Bach and Zorn).

        I always give all music a chance when it’s in front of me, and with your piece it was a similar experience to what I’ve had with other live electronics pieces: a nice way to pass ten minutes but nothing like listening to a tightly argued piece of music. The most compelling part was the beginning, in which the electronics sounded more like reverb surgically applied. Around 7:00 you have these really cool timbres coming in but I didn’t feel like I was being taken anywhere too interesting; the appeal seemed to be in the little moments themselves, which are nice but don’t flood my head with dopamine the way the brilliant organization of such moments does. In every piece like this I’ve heard I’ve felt like if the composer could go into the recording and alter it with an omnipotent touch there would be a zillion things changed.

        (P.S. My analogy to fiction above is a little extreme, but I think it’s valid in principle. The reader would be the ‘performer,’ the only difference in the arts being that there would be no passive audience to read the reader’s mind as he is ‘performing.’ Also, consider that musical performers are the audience, too, and most of them probably didn’t start performing because they like to compose.)

        *if any metal fans even still like Metallica

        1. Isaac Schankler

          Well, it would be churlish of me to dispute your perfectly valid perception of my music, but I’d argue that what you’re hearing are actually weaknesses in the piece and nothing inherent to indeterminacy.

          (I know, I know, I’m falling on my sword here.)

          I hear you about the appeal of music in which every gesture is considered — though I think a lot of pop music fits that description. (What’s more tightly constructed than a good 3-minute pop song?)

          I also find that I sometimes have the opposite reaction to a piece of music — like someone is trying to imbue every gesture with a too-specific meaning, instead of letting it contain multitudes. This kind of sterility feels especially strong to me in many fixed media electronic pieces, which is why I tend to gravitate towards live electronics.

          That feeling of multiplicity is something I seek out when writing my own music. Something that has the richness of an ecosystem, rather than the construction of a polemic. I am probably a long ways off yet.

          1. jh983

            (Not to run in circles endlessly; I see you’ve already posted a new article, but…)

            Actually, I’m not sure that my perception of your music is valid. As someone who has always learned how to read and experience depth of expression through musical narrative, I find the task of uncovering a similarly deep experience via musical ecosystem elusive. Sure, any attentive listener can sit there and perceive this note and that, different timbres weaving in and out of each other, etc. Those things are present in Berlioz, too, but in and of themselves they’re only pleasant; what makes them brilliant in his music is how they link up narratively.

            What makes these sonic events in a musical ecosystem brilliant? I have no frickin’ clue; despite lots of effort I have never perceived any brilliance, which means (I can only guess) that my entire concept of musical depth is predicated on narrative construction. It’s possible that I’m alone in this, but in truth we never are, and my guess is that the resistance you perceive to indeterminacy stems from exactly this sort of conflict of orientation (which, as I said above, runs much deeper than resistance to new dissonances, textures, etc.).

  2. Cole T

    I find it odd that so many composers today think that performers need their hands held at every measure. Leaving aside the thornier issues of pitch and rhythm indeterminacy (as uncontroversial and musically appropriate when they are necessary), how about just dynamic ‘indeterminacy’ and indetermination of articulation? A well trained, musically sensitive performer should be able to INTERPRET a piece of music, and I think some composers forget that by hyper-notating scores we impinge upon the performers role in the whole process of making the piece a reality. Feldman got consistently beautiful results with largely indeterminate scores, and notating every plink and plunk could never match the subtle results obtained by leaving more choice up to the performers, just as letting the performer decide the more minute dynamic gradations will often yield a more nuanced result than assigning dynamic markings note by note. There is a reason performers are considered artists as well, and not technicians; lets let them use their minds instead of just their fingers.

    1. Kyle Gann

      I’d like to set this comment to music, and have it performed by chorus and orchestra at every composers’ conference.

  3. Corey Dargel

    We’ll be spending part of the episode talking about this article on SoundNotionTV streaming live at 11am(ish) ET Sunday and archived a little bit later. Go here to watch the show live.

  4. Phil Fried

    “I wonder if the resistance to indeterminacy is somehow a part of the long hangover from the musical culture of deliriously extreme specificity which dominated the last century….”

    Not sure about that.

    To me this all come from Schoenberg (Cage’s teacher) as its all about creating music from an “outside idea.” A 12-tone row can be categorized as an “outside idea” just as silence can.

    Rather I think that many performers and larger ensembles don’t think of themselves as improvisors (for lack of a better term) or sound artists. Professionals musicians are paid to get it right and the specific training for indeterminacy or free improvisation, sound art etc. is not always there. So when faced with this kind of score they blanch.


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