Art &Technology
- Chance and Indeterminancy

John Cage was one of the first composers of the 20th century who consciously used aleatoric processes as compositional tools. Chance as opposed to determined processes became a favourite topic for many composers of the 50ies and 60ies - with different concepts of what an aleatoric process, a random process or a stochastic process would be.

John Cage once said. "When I started flipping coins, I sometimes thought: Let's hope that something will emerge from that." In this respect chance is used to trigger a process the result of which would then be accepted or rejected by the artist. This is not unlike the method Brian Eno invented with his "Oblique Strategies" project.

In his book "Order and Chaos" Ehrenzweig criticises the practise to call such strategies "random art":

"An artist's work is always reacting upon something and projecting forwards. Therefore chance can be an integral part of the painter's master plan. Insofar as this is the case, chance cannot be separated from design. It is the subjective relation to artistic methods which determines the character of chance. Therefore everything in art which does not correspond to the artistic method should be called randomatic."

(Ehrenzweig: Ordnung und Chaos, München 1974)

("Die Arbeit eines Künstlers ist reaktiv und projektiv und damit wird auch der Zufall sofort in den Plan des Malers übernommen. In dem Maße, wie das geschieht, läßt er sich nicht mehr von dem beabsichtigten Entwurf trennen. Die subjektive Beziehung zur künstlerischen Planung entscheidet über den Charakter des Zufälligen. In diesem Sinne ist an dem Medium alles zufällig, was nicht mit dem vorgefaßten künstlerischen Plan übereinstimmt, was als absolut nicht dazugehörig empfunden wird.")

Karlheinz Stockhausen who studied information theory with Werner Meyer-Eppler discovered chance as an artistic problem, when he used random generators to decompose texts and computed the redundancy of these texts. (Redundancy R = (Hmax - H) /Hmax * 100%, H being the Information). Stockhausen then started to compose music based on statistical criteria. What he wanted to achieve was to create a synthesis of randomatic processes as introduced by John Cage and deterministic processes as developed by serial compositional methods. He thought he would be able to find an "offspring of rich and lively new music, which would allow to experience order on a wide scale from 'out-of-control' and utmost organisation."

("Den Quell einer reichen und lebendigen neuen Musik, in der zwischen den Extremen des Unkontrollierten und des äußerst Organisierten eine weite Skala von Ordnungsgraden erlebbar würde finden")

"Zyklus für einen Schlagzeuger", composed in 1959, was an example of a composition forcing the performer to select chunks of material which were precisely notated. In "Klavierstück XI" (1956), Stockhausen distributed 19 groups of notes on a large sheet of paper. The piano player was said to "look at the sheet of paper without any intention" and to start with any of the 19 groups.

Another approach of using chance for music was developed by the Dutch composer Gottfried Michael Koenig. Koenig did not favour the anarchistic qualities of chance in a way Cage did, neither did he celebrate the subjective processes of the individual musician. Koening did not want to insert randomatic aspects of the musical work via the performing artists, he rather tried to use stochastic processes for the compositional process. Koenig thought that "control of chance is the central problem of contemporary composition." His compositional system using ALGOL procedures, can be described as computer-aided composition, where the composer arranges modules of code, the machine however computes the final musical piece. This was very much in the line of other composers like Lejaren A. Hiller, the composer of the ILLIAC suite for strings.


Further Reading:

George Brecht: Chance-Imagery. New York: Something Else Press, 1957/1966.

John Cage: Extract from "A year from Monday". In: Jasia Reichardt (ed.): Cybernetic Serendipity. The Computer and the Arts. Special issue of Studio International, 1968.

John Cage: For the Birds. 1981.

Dick Higgins: Computers for the Arts. Somerville, Mass.: Abyss Publications, 1968/1970.

Jacques Monod: Chance and Necessity, an Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology", translated from the French by Austryn Wainhouse, Vintage Books, 1972.
(Click here for an excerpt from Monod's text called: "Of Strange Objects")