“An indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe.”
It’s a catchy quote, coming as it does from one of the founders of indeterminate music—but to be fair, we should perhaps let the tape run a little further: “An indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound—which unified everything.”
To Feldman, indeterminacy was a means to an end—a way to break through the walls of traditional composition in order to reach the pure physicality of sound beyond. Just as Wittgenstein had dismissed his Tractatus as a ladder to be thrown away after it was climbed, Feldman climbed the ladder of indeterminacy and, having reached the top, discarded it.
So indeterminacy can theoretically be assessed as if it were saying something about the cosmos as a whole but we can look to a statement by someone who helped pioneer indeterminacy in music and see that it was a means to an end, a recalibration of our understanding for and appreciation of sound as the foundational physically perceived sensation from which we make music.
Whether we're looking at Stravinsky's assimilation of Russian and Ukrainian folk songs into his early works; T. S. Eliot going back to Dante and metaphysical English poets; or even Cage with Zen and Feldman with indeterminacy seeking to recover sound as the foundation of musical perception in place of a mental lexicon of aural syntax, there may be a sense in which any avant garde is always is in some paradoxical sense a move backward to something an artist believes we have missed in whatever our path to the present was moving forward.