Considering Chance and Serial music

In listening to the Chance or Aleatoric period of Cage’s output we must bear in mind that here was a man that was moving outside the realm of standardised composition. Given a little bit of instruction and the opportunity the majority of people could create a line of melody and, once the concept were explained, an accompanying harmony. This isn’t happening with Cage’s work. He has moved beyond the cerebral or mechanical process of composition as a task or puzzle to be solved and into an entirely new world of sound as expressive art that is his own domain and entirely of his own making.

An argument is frequently made by those outside of the musical world along the lines of “anybody can bang two cans together and detune a radio”. This is true. It would also be true to say of Jackson Pollock’s work that “anybody can splash a bit of paint around”. These comparisons are drawn because (as I mentioned in my piece on the Qualities of Pop Music we like to see someone (and to be impressed by seeing someone) doing something that we ourselves cannot do. The point here might be that, yes, we could bang a piano or splash a canvas; THEY actually did it. Given the time and the training, most people could run a marathon. Most people either can’t be bothered or can’t release the time required from that which is available after work and family commitments. For the same reason, most people don’t break new artistic ground.

Considering Cage’s Imaginary Landscape series, I find No. 1 to be the most accessible, followed by No. 3. I suspect that this is because I’m still heavily “tuned in” to tonality and these two offer more or come closest to what I expect “music” to sound like. I could even make comparisons bands like Neu! in 1 and the sound of Javan Gamelan in 3.

Listening to Imaginary Landscape reinforces my belief that nothing has to be present to call a piece “music”. Everything and anything can be present and I feel strongly that to seek an explicit answer to “what is music” is a facile attempt to generate argument for the sake of argument. The very fact that we do argue about it justifies its existence and its worth (assuming that the performer isn’t being puerile or purposefully unskilled).

It does help to satisfy the argument of what defines a valid piece of work, in this case music, by having a working knowledge of the mechanics of the form itself. Understanding the complexities (or otherwise) of a piece of music certainly helps one in the analysis of the work but not necessarily in the enjoyment or consumption. I can rarely listen to a piece without picking it to bits or separating the parts in my head. One might argue that I hear less of the intended emotion as I don’t let the waves of sound merely wash over me.

This helps with my final question as to how aleatoric work might be consumed as an emotionally moving musical form. I prefer to listen to tonal music and what I listen for in tonal music is the interplay of intervals creating harmony. For me, the interval is everything, making the chord. For others, rhythm could be everything and this is equally acceptable. Listening to Goa Trance or the beginning of Eye of the Beholder might really move you. What we don’t tend to see is a listener that accepts whatever comes without a preconceived idea.

Schoenbergian serial music delivers that preconceived idea as we know that the method of creation is standardised to a degree. It might not be harmonic and it almost certainly wouldn’t be tonal, but it would be expected. Aleatoric music couldn’t deliver this as we would be neither impressed by the technical virtuosity nor moved by our expectations.

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