Aleatory music is not as many think, a composition based on chance and probability alone. It is more relaxed than its previous avant-garde composition structure, serialism, yet it had guidelines that are just as rigid. In order to understand the influence aleatory music, we must understand the philosophies already predefined.
Total serialism, popular in the early twentieth century, believed that every note had equal value, unlike classical tonality. Using the original rows determined by a number or the like, it was then played as a retrograde (backwards) or inversion (melody mirrored around first note), and so on. The timbre created was unique and the jagged melody was generally dissonant, presenting to audiences clusters of sounds that have not been heard before. However, composers such as Stockhausen realised problems with serialism. For one, audiences were alienated from the music because the complete control the rules of serialism had over compositions, therefore the listener could not perceive the music in an artistic fashion as it seemed like chaos in their minds. The strict linear and regulated sounds created limited choices for composers over their compositions led to less artistic creativity.
Realising these things led to the release from strict guidelines, not the release of all rules, but through the use of indeterminacy through chance and probability. Xenakis strived for this through his search for continuity. His background in maths and architecture led him to make his own philosophy on music: maths mirrors the physical work, the ear and mind are physical, therefore they will be especially responsive to music carefully constructed through mathematical models. Therefore, Xenakis used probability distributions to create sounds over a range of notes and using a range of noises. Unlike Serialist compositions, Xenakis used the rules of probability to create an interesting distribution of sounds, structure and density of compositions, but not the instrumentation and timbre. Therefore the math, or rules, did not drive the music, and Xenakis still had control over his composition in the sense of the instrumentation which guaranteed the most perceptually successful outcome for the audience.
Similarly using indeterminacy was a major contributer to aleatory music, John Cage. He broke free from serialism because he found he was mediocre in harmonising, but as the son of an inventor, John Cage Senior, he was a pioneer in creating new music that caught attention and acclaim all over the world. Cage used methods of chance such as rolling a dice or using a pack of cards to determine rhythms, dynamics and often notes. This, along with the graphic and untraditional scores he uses contribute to the indeterminacy of the performance. The prepared piano which Cage created also led to the unfixed result of performance. Cage not only established aleatory music as an acceptable structure of composition, but it led to more more composers that are bold enough to try new things, such as Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra where indeterminacy was the basis for the orchestra. Unfortunately, unlike Cage’s slightly more organised sound, the scratch orchestra presented music so dense, complex and hard to follow that it was impossible to perform and create a music that an audience can enjoy.
- McHard, J.L. 2008, Future of Modern Music: A Philosophical Exploration of Modernist Music in the 20th Century and Beyond, 3rd Edition, Iconic Press.
- Griffiths, P. 1978, A Concise History of Avant-garde Music, Oxford University Press, Great Britain.
- Cardew, C. 1972, ‘Introduction - Scratch Music’, Scratch Music, Latimer New Dimensions, London, Pg 9-18.