Entries tagged with “indeterminacy”.

Untitled score (excerpt)
A scan of a small part of the Electric Score

I thought that I should write just a bit about the work-in-progress that my last couple of posts have been referencing.  I’ve tended in the past to work on projects, usually for quite some time, finally producing some sort of finished piece.  Eleven Clouds, with its requirement of producing something monthly, was a fairly new process for me.  While generally there was a lot of behind the scenes work each month some months were fairly major undertakings that normally I’d have probably spent a lot more time on. So in a way that project was a kind of a work-in-progress as the project. Or to put it another way the entirety of the Eleven Clouds content was the actual release and each month was a work-in-progress toward that whole.

Contrast this to my Book of Musical Patterns, which I worked on for two years and then published the book and its two companion CDs. While it was not work entirely in isolation (I released one of the tracks on an i hate music comp)  that is more indicative of my process -long,  slow, contemplative with a final product being released at the end. So for this current project I’m trying to take sort of a middle ground. It will be a long, well thought out process but I thought that I’d put out some of the work as I do it could be seen to develop. The sketches of the previous two posts are the first part of the process I’ve put out so far, but at some point there will be posts on other aspects of the project. It’ll probably be quite some time before I’m satisfied with the network configuration that I’m working toward for the live electronics setup and the sketches probably won’t ultimately be very indicative of the overall sound but I thought it might be of some interest to experience some of how things develop.

This project has three major components to it:

I) An overall structure for the piece that combines an “Electric Score” which is a meta-score used for generating scores that are used with a live electronics setup and a set of companion scores that can be played along with the Electric Score by additional performers. Look for a forthcoming post on “meta-scores” and “electric scores” in particular and the score(s) for this project in particular. The header image is one (tiny) part of the Electric Score for this project.

II) A Network Instrument setup which is said live electronics setup, that is as I’ve written about, somewhat of a score in and of itself. This is what the series of sketches is working through, the attempts to create this “score” that is flexible enough to realize the primary piece. As I’ll discuss in the third point below, this is a long and involved score and the network is not required (or even expected) to be static for each performance, but it should be iteratively developed. So this also is part of the process- developing a flexible network that can evolve as per the score.

III) Performance of the score. The end result of this project is not a recording, or at least not explicitly. The Electric Score (which has been created as of this post) is quite large – the largest score I’ve made since the Book of Musical Patterns. It is expected to be played in parts, though it is not created in segments like the BoMP. The expectation is that in a performance you play a section of the whole, though given sufficient time one could conceive of performing the entire thing. However one performs it it must be played sequentially from beginning to end.  That is to say that it is not a score like, say, Treatise, where you can pick pages to play. Performance does not necessarily have to be public, one could sit down in ones backyard, or living room or studio and over a series of sessions perform the piece. My goal though is a mix of private and public performances until I have played through the piece. When circumstances arise to perform with other musicians the companion scores, which can be played with any portion of the primary score, can be utilized.

This project (as readers of this blog I’m sure have noted) combines a lot of my primary interests: Graphic Scores, Indeterminacy of Performance, Live Electronics and the Network Instrument, Structured Improvisation, Experimentalism in various forms, Long Form Works, Novel Forms of Collaborations and of course a lot more that I’ve yet to get into.  It can be seen in a way as a direct continuation of both the Book of Musical Patterns and Eleven Clouds and certainly as a product of a lot of the ideas that have interested to me for the last five or more years. Of course this is an ambitious project and there certainly is a chance (perhaps even a likelihood) of failure, or of not meeting expectations and these kind of posts can certainly add to that – they can make something seem overhyped, or overworked or less than the sum of its parts. So there is definitely some risk in these posts, but I think it’ll be interesting and informative to myself as well as any readers/listeners.

Anyway to conclude, there will be a continuing series of posts on the score(s) and probably some further sketches as I work on the network configuration and then at some point, I hope, announcements of the performances as they begin.

John Cage Two2 (Mode)
(Rob Haskins, piano I, Laurel Karlik Sheehan, piano II)

This album may be the album released this year that I listened to the most.  I’m somewhat of an insomniac and takes me a long time to get to sleep every night. So I listen to music when I go to bed and tend toward music that is not aggressive but also is interesting, deep and complex.  Sort of how Brian Eno initially defined ambient music, as music that can fade into the background without demanding your attention, but if you do grant it your attention it is fully engaging. Feldman for me is a favorite night time music, it fits this definition perfectly.  This disc of John Cage’s Two2 has served this function for me many times this, as well as being given a number of full attention listens on my main stereo.

John Cage’s music has become increasingly important to me ever since Vancouver New Music’s John Cage Retrospective, Begin Anywhere (my reports here). I’d of course checked out Cage before that, his music, ideas and thought are the philosophical and conceptual basis for the modern improvised (and composed) music I’m so interested in, but wasn’t really aware of the breadth of his compositions until this festival. The final night of the festival featured several of his late compositions that have collectively come to be known as the Number Pieces. The numbers refers to the fact that they are titled by the number of performers followed by a superscript of the number of the composition with that many performers. So Two2 refers to this being the second composition for two instruments, in this case two pianos.  The number pieces were all composed in between 1987 and his death in1992 and were his primary compositional interests in these last years.  The compositional technique that was the basis for the majority of these pieces was his Time Bracket notation(2.6) , in which the performers are giving time ranges in which to perform the notation pitches.  Two2 however was one of the exceptions to this in that instead of time brackets the performers are instructed to perform each measure of music at their own speed. However they are additionally instructed to not proceed to the next measure until both performers have completed the measure in question(2.10).

“As Cage explains in his performance notes for the work, his decision not to incorporate time brackets owed itself to a remark made by the soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whom he had met in 1988 at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad: “There is an inner clock.”  This gives the pianists the luxury of playing the piece at the speed that suits them best; in the finest performances, the freedom also allows them to discover surprising new relationships between the sounds — relationships unexpected even to them, no matter how much rehearsal time they spend preparing. ” Rob Haskins(2.10)

Another important feature of the number pieces was that they represented a rather late re-examination of harmony by John Cage.  Cage famously decried harmony: “I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.”. Instead he devoted his compositional efforts to focusing on sounds in and of themselves: “To Cage, listeners so conditioned would never hear sounds as sufficient in themselves–would not, in other words, be able to hear with the kind of open mind that he felt was essential(2.1). ” Though as Haskins points out his relationship with harmony was a bit more complex then is usually thought, it wasn’t until this final phase of his life that he really explored it. The time bracket notation allowed for a different approach to harmony one that was not a “device to make music impressive, loud and big” but instead  “means that there are several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.” The flexibility of the time brackets, which themselves were create via chance operations meant that the piece varied in performance and these sounds “being noticed at the same time” were always subtly varied. The coincidence of sounds was indeterminate and thus the harmony wouldn’t fall into any recognizable patterns of development.

Two2 with its performer directed time scales also subverts traditional notions of harmony in the same ways: the coincidence of sounds are indeterminate and spaces  between sounds are disruptive. Structurally the piece was based on Renga, which was poetic style developed in China and refined in Japan(3). It is a collaborative form of poetry where each poet contributes a few lines following a proscribed structure. The initial three lines (hokku) became haiku, and follow that structure. The next poet then wrote two connecting lines (waki), following a 7-7 syllaibic structure. The third poet repeats the structure of the hokku and this continues unitl the desired length is written, often 36 stanzas (kasen renga).  In Japan there were many other rules surrounding content (as there is with haiku, which is almost always ignored in western attempts) which were obviously not a part of this piece. See the excellent Renga Wikipedia article for more on this poetic form.

“The essence of renga is in the idea of “change” (変化). Bashō described this as “newness (新み), and as “refraining from stepping back”. The fun is in the change, the new, the different, and the interesting verses of others.”(3)

Two2 follows the structure of Kaisen Renga, in that it has 36 five-measure sections (the three hokku lines plus the waki) each of which follows the syllabic constraints in number of musical events(2.9).  One of the primary aspects of Renga that the poets particularly enjoyed was the use of disparate elements in the poetic content, distinct sometimes dramatic change in subject between each of the hokku.  Cage captures some of this with interjections of dissonant seeming sounds an of course the disparities provided by the individual performers following their own time. 

The sounds are almost all soft, of a sedate and constant tempo but with these sudden, but never overly jarring, discontinuities. Maybe the occasional joining of chords will give a bit more volume or a couple of notes just out of step as if in a doubling.  This is perfect music to drift to sleep to – it won’t shock you into wakefulness but for those nights when sleep is far away it is constantly rewarding of your attention. The performance, beautifully captured on this recording, by Rob Haskins (who wrote the liner notes, which are essential reading) and Laurel Karlik Sheehan is impeccable. While no performance will ever be definitive due to the indeterminate nature of the piece, this performance is marvelous and an essential recording from this somewhat under-appreciated period of Cage’s compositions.

Cage’s number pieces, like the late work of Feldman, have an all enveloping almost dreamlike feel to them, yet they are filled with silence, dissonance, indeterminacy, unexpected harmonies and a diverse variety of sounds. It undermines all of the stereotypes of so called avant-garde music bringing all of Cages disruptive ideas to music of incredible richness and beauty. Those that dismiss Cage’s music as mere illustrations of his ideas have clearly not spent sufficient time with his later music, nor really understood his ideas.


1) John Cage database
2) Rob Haskins,
The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2 Two2 liner notes
3) Renga at Wikipedia
4) Mode’s Two2 page
  John Cage at Wikipedia
6) Number Pieces at Wikipedia