Freeing Notation from Itself - Improvisation & Indeterminacy in 20th Century Classical Music

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[This article first appeared in the December 1984 issue of Keyboard magazine.]

Experimentation and exploration have been the twin pillars supporting classical music composition in the twentieth century. In their constant search for new means of expression, composers have engineered a number of major revolutions in musical thought.

The years immediately following World War II provided a setting for a number of these revolutions: Electronic music, serial music, and chance music all came into their own in the 1950s. Of course, with so many compositional movements occurring simultaneously, there was a great deal of disagreement over what course of action was the proper one. Controversy centered not only on the kinds of music that should be written, but also on the relationship between the composer and the performer (and the means of communication between the two). As a result, music notation became one of the primary battlegrounds.

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The opposing forces in this battle leaned in two directions. On the one hand, composers who searched for more exacting means of control over musical material also looked for an equivalent control over the musicians who performed their music, leaving fewer and fewer areas to interpretational choice. On other hand, many felt that the composer's role was already too dictatorial, and sought ways to remedy the situation, either by giving performers more interpretational latitude or by finding ways to remove the composer’s taste and experience from the finished composition.

Twelve-tone music, the non-tonal method of composition developed by Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, was developed into an all-encompassing method involving dynamics, rhythms, and musical articulation. This approach came to be known as serialism. The demands of total serialism led to a notation that was unprecedented in its complexity: Intricate proportional note groupings were superimposed on one another, metronome markings ran to two decimal places, and each note often had its own dynamic and articulation marks. Very little was being left to the discretion of the performer.

The opposing camp looked for a way to escape what they saw as the tyranny of the overly specific. Two basic approaches were developed. In one, composers sought to reintroduce improvisation into classical music; in the other, they sought to remove themselves from the process of creating music, so that sounds could stand on their own, without reference to the composer's taste and experience.

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The degree of improvisation called for varied widely. In some cases, notes were specified but durations were left up to the performer; in other situations, notes and relative durations were specified, but the overall combination was left to the performing group. In the most extreme examples, the notation itself became ambiguous or completely nonrepresentational, leaving the performer to both interpret the meaning of the symbols and find an approach to performing the piece.
As music merged with graphic design, some composers sought to create large graphic scores in which the graphic elements were developed in the way musical material is developed during a composition; the result was a graphic composition, the interpretation of which was once again left up to the performer.

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Composers like John Cage, on the other hand, sought music that was independent of prior taste and experience—music that was “indeterminate with respect to performance." He developed elaborate technique for the creation of scores through chance operations using the I Ching, the ancient Chinese oracle. In other situations, Cage provided the performer with elaborate materials for the creation of a performing score (or realization). In neither case was improvisation involved, however. The realizations were supposed to be arrived at through the application of elaborate rules that ensured the randomness of the result.

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Cage felt that improvisation was part of the same trap as composition, in that it relied on the taste and experience of the performer. The two processes, indeterminacy and improvisation, were the inspiration for a great many composers, each of whom pursued a slightly different path. In many cases, though, the end result—the notation—appears to be quite similar. In order to prepare a performance of any piece involving seemingly ambiguous notation, it is important to understand the composer's viewpoint. Even if no specifics can be obtained about a particular piece, knowledge of the composer's methodology can help you to find your own way through the music. [Ed. Note: For a discussion of the preparation of an ambiguous graphic score,Piano Piece #3 For David Tudor by Sylvano Bussotti, see the interview with Aki Takahashi in the March '84 issue of Keyboard.]

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It is obviously beyond the scope of this brief article to explore the music of these composers in detail. For that reason, we have provided an extensive discography and a lengthy list of material for further reading. Of course, the best introduction to this kind of music is the music itself, Take a careful look at the examples on these pages-they may give you some ideas.

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There have been many recordings of twentieth century compositions that employ improvisation or indeterminacy. Many of these records are out of print, but can still be found in libraries (especially college music department libraries) and at rare record shops, Records that focus on works by one composer are listed under the composer heading below, while records that feature the works of many composers are listed by performer. In many cases, only a partial listing of compositions is given.

By Composer:

Brown, Earle: Music Of Earle Brown, Composers Recordings.
David Tudor, piano. Includes December 1952.
Brown, Earle: Feldman/ Brown, Mainstream.
Includes Hodograph by Earle Brown and Durations by Morton Feldman.

Cage, John: Atlas Eclipticalis, Winter Music, Cartridge Music, Avant Garde (manufactured by Deutsche Grammophon). Ensemble Musica Negativa, directed by Rainer Riehn.

Cage, John: John Cage/Christian Wolff, Mainstream. Includes Cartridge Music by John Cage and Summer by Christian Wolff.

Foss, Lukas: The Contemporary Composer In The USA, Turnabout. Includes Paradigm.

Foss, Lukas: Echoi, Heliodor, Lukas Foss, piano. Also includes The Fragments Of Archilachos and Non-Improvisation.

Foss, Lukas: Time Cycle, Columbia Specia Projects. Lukas Foss, piano; Leonard Bernstein, conductor.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz: Aus Den Sieben Tagen, Deutsche Grammophon

By Performer:

Ensemble Musica Negativa (directed by Rainer Reihn and Earle Brown): Music
Before Revolution
, Odeon, C165-28954/7 Y, four records (out of print). Includes Concerto For Piano And Orchestra by John Cage, Folio and Four Systems by Earle Brown, Electric Spring 2 by Christian Wolff, and The Straits Of Magellan by Morton Feldman.

La Salle Quartet, Avant Garde. Includes string quartets by Lutoslawski, Mayuzumi, and Penderecki.

La Salle Quartet, Avant Garde. Includes string quartets by Brown, Ligeti, and Rosenberg.

Ellsworth Snyder Plays New Piano Music, Advance Recordings, FGR-21S. Includes two sections of Treatise by Cornelius Cardew.

Aki Takahashi: Piano Space, CP2 Records,
CP2I3-5, three records (out of print). Includes Klavierstuck XI by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Winter Music by John Cage, Piano Piece For David Tudor #3 by Sylvano Bussotti.

Gerd Zacher, Organ, Deutsche Grammophon,
139 442 (out of print). Includes Intersection 3 by Morton Feldman and Variations 11/ by John Cage.

Gerd Zacher, Organ, Heliodor. Includes Improvisation Ajoutee by Mauricio Kagel and Variations I by John Cage.

Musical Improvisation, by Derek Bailey (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1980)

Perspectives On Notation And Performance, edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone (Norton, New York, 1976)

Silence, by John Cage (lectures and articles, 1939-61, MIT Press;

Treatise Handbook, by Cornelius Cardew (Edition Peters, London, 1971)

Sounds And Signs, by Hugo Cole (Oxford University Press, 1974)

New Directions In Music, by David Cope (Wm. C. Brown Company, Dubuque, lA, 1971)

Modern Music: The Avant-Garde since 1945, by Paul Griffiths (George Braziller Inc., New York, 1981)

Notation In New Music, by Erhard Karkoschka (Praeger, New York, 1972) Experimental Music, by Michael Nyman (Schirmer, New York, 1981)
Music Notation In The Twentieth Century, By Kurt Stone (Norton, New York, 1980)
The Bride And The Bachelors, By Calvin Tomkins (Viking Press, New York, 1973) Dictionary Of Contemporary Music, edited by John Vinton (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1974)
Twentieth Century Music, by Peter Yates (Greenwood House, New York, 1967)

"John Cage," in Keyboard, Sept. '82

"Forum: Improvisation," in Perspectives Of New Music, Fall-Winter '82/Spring-Summer '83.

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