“No matter what eventuality.”
Interesting I-Ching reading today (oh, and happy holidays to whoever out there is actually reading this). I’m in the thick of Cage’s Darmstadt lectures as I mentioned last week, and “Indeterminacy” was the second address given on a cold fall Monday evening in Germany to a crowd of largely bewildered composers and artists. The image of the primary reading “Lü/Treading [Conduct] is of “Treading upon the tail of the tiger. It does not bite the man. Success.” The interpretation states, “in terms of a human situation, one is handling wild, intractable people. In such a case one’s purpose will be achieved if one behaves with decorum. Pleasant manners succeed even with irritable people.” The secondary hexagram is 60. Chieh/Limitation, and the interpretation states that “In relation to the moral sphere it means the fixed limits that the superior man sets upon his actions—the limits of loyalty and disinterestedness.”
“This is a lecture on composition which is indeterminate with respect to its performance,” notes Cage in the opening line to “Indeterminacy,” which was written in excessively small type to “emphasize the intentionally pontifical nature of this lecture.” “Indeterminacy” is a detailed analysis of the necessary parameters for a work to be considered indeterminate according to Cage’s definition, and I think it is revealing as much for what it leaves out as what it leaves in.
Rebecca Kim recently embarked on an extensive archival investigation on the origins of indeterminacy as a concept and as a practice, and she notes that the origins of this essay are likely from Cage’s New School lectures the prior summer in New York. Cage’s invitation to Darmstadt was last minute—as I mentioned he was filling in for Boulez—and he prepared these lectures in a very short amount of time, which is quite amazing considering the breadth they cover. Kim argues that one of the students, future Fluxus artist George Brecht, had a particular influence on Cage’s taxonomy of the conditions for the possibility of indeterminate music.
Here is an example from the first page (24 June, 1958) of Brecht’s personal notebook (which is available in publication, but very expensive):
Dieter Daniels, (ed.), George Brecht, Notebook I (June 1958-September 1958), (Cologne: Walther König, 1991).
Here we have what by now is getting a little redundant: the four characteristics of sound Cage repeated ad nauseum of pitch, duration, amplitude and timbre, followed by a fifth, “morphology,” with simply the note “attack-body-decay” followed by a course note that explained the obvious:
“At one time Cage conceived of a sound-silence opposition, but after the anechoic chamber experience (hi [sic] note nervous system noise, low note blood circulation, concluded silence was non-existent.”
This last addition to the Cagean empirical taxonomy is most interesting, because it becomes a recurrent trope in “Indeterminacy” as an evaluative means for determining if a work adheres to the parameters of indeterminacy. Cage calls it the “morphology of the continuity,” which has several connotations, especially if one is familiar with linguistics. I have never been entirely sure what to make of this term, but it seems that Cage was looking for a different way to characterize syntax or grammar according to the general concept of similarity in morphological analyses of basic sound types—morphemes in linguistics—that build up the basic cognitive structure of language according to generative grammar theories, but again it’s always tricky to read into this too far, he could just have easily lifted the term from someone else.
What Cage did lift in this essay, as Kim has noted, was Brecht’s analysis of these parameters in several of the works discussed in the essay. With limited time and many engagements in the fall of 1958, Cage took a note from academics by doing what every professor does: assign it as homework for the class, collate the observations, and put them into a paper. Later on in Brecht’s notebooks are several pages of a loosely written essay that contain many observations similar to “Indeterminacy.” One that is interesting here is the opening paragraph, where Cage equates Bach’s Art of the Fugue with Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI. Here is a little comparison between the two sections:
This is a lecture on composition which is indeterminate with respect to its performance. The Klavierstück XI by Karlheinz Stockhausen is an example. The Art of the Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach is an example. In The Art of the Fugue, structure, which is the division of the whole into parts; method, which is the note-to-note procedure; and form, which is the expressive content, the morphology of the continuity, are all determined. Frequency and duration characteristics of the material are also determined. Timbre and amplitude characteristics of the material, by not being given, are indeterminate. This indeterminacy brings about the possibility of a unique overtone structure and decibel range for each performance of The Art of the Fugue. In the case of the Klavierstück XI, all the characteristics of the material are determined, and so too is the note-to-note procedure, the method. The division of the whole into parts, the structure, is determinate. The sequence of these parts, however, is indeterminate, bringing about the possibility of a unique form, which is to say a unique morphology of the continuity, a unique expressive content for each performance.
Another aspect of these works, it seems to me, is that of the extent to which the sound structure (of the piece as a whole) partakes of the situation in which it occurs, as opposed to its arising from some pre-existent structure (score notation, symbolism, i.e. form arrangement), which determines (to a greater or lesser extent), a scale of situation participation. Situation non-participation might comprise a magnetic tape sound reproduction system at one end of the scale (relative non-participation), through most conventional 19th and 20th century scores, toward certain “abstract” scores (such as the “Kunst der Fuge,” determining structure but not substance), contemporary music given the performer choices, to (say) the harmonic structure of Cherokee in its 10th variation by Charlie Parker (smoky club context), real blues, inspired folk music, etc.
Noticeably, Cage avoided—here and just about everywhere else—any comparison with Cagean indeterminacy and jazz improvisation, despite their many common grounds. I think the comparison between all three is apt:
Cage later speaks at length about Christian Wolff’s Duo II for Pianists, where the “morphology of the continuity” is unpredictable because “each performer, when he performs in a way consistent with the composition as written, will let go of his feelings, his taste, his automatism, his sense of the universal, not attaching himself to this or to that, leaving by his performances no traces, providing by his actions no interruption to the fluency of nature. The performer therefore simply does what is to be done, not splitting his mind in two, not separating it from his body, which is kept ready for direct and instantaneous contact with his instrument.”
I think that improvisatory structures are more along the line of a close neighbor to Cagean indeterminacy, and the problem historically is that Cage was determined to maintain a division between indeterminacy in its “purest” sense—i.e. according to the parameters of notation—and the visceral (and popular) forms of jazz improvisation. Taken in one sense, early jazz improvisation adhered to a similar indeterminacy as Cage’s earlier works. A “standard,” for which an improviser bases his performance on, contains a tonal-schematic shell for which the player has a limited number of harmonic/melodic relationships in which she can improvise within. There are standard licks and passages from past traditions that a performer may choose from in order to refer to another work or a genre or style, and this dialogue constituted much of the “classical” jazz repertoire that has now become perfected and canonized in American culture.
However, in the late 1950s and early 60s, a number of New York performers were already beginning to combine elements of Cagean indeterminacy with the classic model of jazz improvisation. This is a complex web of interaction and influence far beyond a blog post, but I will ask this question: at what point does Cage’s conception of “direct and instantaneous contact with his instrument” run up against this?