John Cage and AleotoricismThu, 04 Jan 2018
This week we’re taking a step away from our monthly themes and exploring the question “what is music?” by focusing in on several compositional theories introduced in 20th-century music. Last time we looked at the early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone method which stretched the concept of music based in tonality. Today, let’s look at a major musical movement that occurred in the last century known as aleotoricism.
Aleotoric is a term used to describe the use of chance to create something. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, composer John Cage often used aleotoric methods in his work, believing music with structure that creates a sense of emotion or imagery for a listener was old news. His approach opened up opportunities for audiences to hear sounds as they are, leaving it up to chance to determine the performance outcome. One example of this method can be found in his Music of Changes, a piano work that uses the Chinese I-Ching method of tossing coins to determine the outcome.
Another aspect of aleotoric music is indeterminacy. Indeterminacy leaves certain aspects of a piece unspecified so that the outcome is up to the performer’s interpretation. The composer may provide various graphics or instructions in the score but the performance will vary each time it is played. Cage’s infamous 4’33’’ discussed in one of my January blog posts is a great example of this.