Considering Chance and Serial Music

This exercise asks us to compare twentieth century chance (also known as indeterminate) music with complex music such as serialism.  I have listened to music written in both of these styles and made notes on each in my listening log: Listening to Serialism and John Cage.

Some of the works I listened to by John Cage I do consider to pass my own personal definition of music – comprising at least some form of either melody, rhythm or harmony.  His Sonatas and Interludes for Piano definitely fit into this category, and Imaginary Landscape No. 1 also just about does – this piece is less musical but does have a brief melody and a definite minor tonality to it.  The exceptions in my mind are 4’33” and Music of Changes, both of which contain none of these elements to my ears.  Defining what it means to be a work of art is a harder challenge – the definitions I found around the web use phrases such as:

imaginative; aesthetic appeal; attractively presented; great skill; human creativity; beauty; emotional power;

Most of these terms don’t really work in the context of modern arts however, there are plenty of famous works in the visual arts which are decidedly not beautiful and don’t require much skill to create, as I’ve talked about earlier in my log.  ‘Emotional power’ perhaps opens up more possibilities.  I think it is possible to gain emotional impact from music without necessarily understanding how it was put together – many non musicians for example enjoy listening to and are emotionally affected by classical music although they don’t have the first idea about its harmonic relationships, counterpoint or structure.  I think that understanding the systems used to compose a piece of music helps me to appreciate it at a higher, more abstract or intellectual level, and perhaps gives me a better insight into how to interpret it as a performer, but isn’t strictly necessary for me to enjoy listening to it.  The opposite extreme to this is formalism, the concept where the entire meaning of the music is determined by its form.

In music, I think emotion is largely created by the build up and resolution of tension.  In more traditional classical pieces, this is mostly dictated by a number of elements such as melodic lines and harmony changes, which are carefully planned and written down by the composer.  Chance music is an interesting concept as the composer is no longer in complete control of how the music will sound to its listeners.  In contemporary music which is often more repetitive (e.g. in minimalism), perhaps it does make sense to leave some of the decisions up to the performer to create the maximum impact.  For example if a particular phrase is being repeated a number of times, the best time to stop and move on may well depend on a particular performance (for example how quickly he/she has changed tempo or dynamics, or even by gauging the audience’s response).  I think there’s no fundamental reason why chance pieces of this kind can’t deliver the same impact as traditionally written pieces, though it’s dependent of course on the skills of both composer and performer.  The subtype of chance music which involves chance purely in the compositional process (such as in Music of Changes) I don’t see adding any value however.  This seems a complete gimmick to me, and I don’t know why a composer would choose random chance over his or her personal creative process which surely has more capacity for creating art/music – whatever your definition.

Serialism is a very different beast to chance music as it is completely crafted by the composer, often through a very complex process.  Listening to some of the pieces by Berg and Schoenberg, I wasn’t often able to hear directly the processes that were used, but they did nevertheless result in a kind of evident cohesion to the music.  Whereas Cage’s chance music sounds pretty much random, disconnected and often quite sparse, the serialism pieces I listened to were much more complex, structured and polyphonic.

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