Week 7 – Pseudo Random Composition

In music, indeterminacy began with the compositions of Charles Ives in the early 1900’s, was continued in the 30’s by Henry Cowell and taken further by John Cage from the 50’s on (Griffiths, 2001). John Cage an experimental composer provides the best definition of indeterminacy in music as follows: “refers to the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways” (Pritchett 1993, 108). ‘Indeterminacy’ can be thought of in tandem with ‘chance composition’. There can be indeterminacy of composition as well as indeterminacy of performance.

There are actually three classifications of indeterminate music. In the first class are scores in which chance only plays a part in the composition, every parameter is fixed prior to the performance. For example, in composing Music of Changes (1951), John Cage used the I-Ching to determine duration, tempo and dynamics which were then fixed prior to performance.

The second class of indeterminism involves chance in the performance. Notated events are provided but, their arrangement is left to the determination of the performer or chance. Cage regards this as the only true type of indeterminate music. A good example of this type of indeterminism is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI (1956), in which nineteen events are presented and notated traditionally, but the arrangement is determined spontaneously by the performer as it is performed.

In the third class of indeterminate music traditional notation is replaced by visual or auditory signifiers which suggest how a piece may be performed, for example graphic scores. This is the case in Earl Brown’s December 1952 (1952) where various lines and rectangles can be interpreted as loudness, duration, pitch etc… It is determined by the performer how it is read.

Perhaps the most iconic piece of indeterminacy in music is John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” for 12 radios (1951). Using FM radios the piece is always different as it depends what is on different radio stations at the moments they are tuned in.

This week’s composition is more in line with the second class of indeterminism in that events are provided in the form of samples which were loaded into several instances of the sampler Kontakt. Five ‘instruments’ full of samples were loaded into Kontakt. The five ‘instruments’ were of five basic classifications: Percussion; Bass; Mid; Hi; and FX. The instruments were loaded with up to 127 samples selected very randomly but in accordance with the five classes. Bass example picture below:


The 5 ‘instruments were then ‘played’ by a P.D. patch which I constructed to select samples randomly at different rates/time signatures which would change periodically. The P.D. patch entitled John Cage Random Midi Selector is pictured below:

JC's MIDI Selector
The idea with the patch was to randomly select samples from 127 (MIDI) at the rate of a specified metronome. Each class of sounds has a master metronome which periodically selects from three lower metronomes which trigger samples at different rates/time signatures. The idea is that this will make the piece busy at times and sparser at other times. As you will hear in the composition I don’t think this aim was achieved as it sounds very busy all the time, but I’m sure different results could be achieved with longer metronome times. Also, the sound of the piece is characterised by the samples which were loaded into the sampler. Many of the samples came from a few house music sample folders, the end result is a chaotic composition which sounds a bit like John Cage plays house music. Obviously different results could be achieved with different samples and it could be possible to produce a well-structured piece of music with well thought out samples and metronome times. However, I feel this composition is a good demonstration of the John Cage style of indeterminism. A link to this week’s composition is below:



  • Cage, John. (1961) Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Childs, Barney. (1974) “Indeterminacy”. Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Music, edited by John Vinton. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-01100-1 American edition published under title Dictionary of Contemporary Music (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974) ISBN 0-525-09125-4.
  • Griffiths, Paul. (2001) “Aleatory”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Hunter College (NYC) (2008). John Cage: “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” for 12 radios (1951). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0BNsBlzQII#t=130 – accessed Tue 25th March 2014.
  • Machtlen, P. (2010). Performance of December 1952 (Earle Brown). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlGkaP4u2cw – accessed Mon 24th March 2014.
  • Pritchett, James. (1993). The Music of John Cage. Music in the 20th Century. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41621-3 (cloth); ISBN 0-521-56544-8 (pbk).
  • Wellesz Theatre (2012). John Cage: Music of Changes (1951). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_8-B2rNw7s – accessed Mon 24th March 2014.
  • Wellesz Theatre (2012). Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück XI (1956). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76BlqTGqAgc – accessed Mon 24th March 2014.
  • Worby, Robert (2009). Turn on, tune in: John Cage’s symphony for 12 radios. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/aug/06/john-cage-symphony-for-radios – accessed Mon24th March 2014.

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