But why should a recording be the same every time you listen to it? Until recently, this question wouldn’t even have made sense. You had to physically scratch the sound onto those old wax cylinders, and one can only imagine the mess it would have been to try un-scratching it. You can’t re-lathe a vinyl record, or reach into an old-fashioned compact disc and start moving those microscopic pits around. But our notions of what our recordings are have not kept up with what our recordings actually are: digital data. Code. Our recordings are no longer hardware—they’re software. And yet we listen to an mp3 or an online music stream in the exact same way in which we have listened to CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, 78 rpm phonographs, wax cylinders—starting at the beginning, playing linearly to the end, and hearing music that’s exactly the same on each listen.
But there’s no reason why this must be the case. With digital music, it’s possible to build complexity, chance, and intelligence into the recording itself, to create a music that is ever-changing and open-ended, indefinite in duration and indeterminate in composition—to create an indeterminate recording. A listener can press play on a piece of recorded music that will be different on every listen, that can be heard for as long or as short a time as they wish, and that will continually grow and evolve for as long as they choose to listen.
Last year I reviewed Andrew Durkin's Decomposition, which more and more resides in my memory as the first draft of what could have been a fantastic book that seems more and more like it was a cobbled together reworking of an existing academic paper (and there's a reason for that, it turned out). Questioning assumptions about the "ideology" of "authorship" or "authenticity" was largely a defense of academic jargon rather than a defense of music, unfortunately. But then the book wasn't exactly setting out to interact with indeterminacy in contemporary musical approaches. Kenneth Kirschner's writing about music as code presents an interesting possibility (not one I'll necessarily explore in my own music), that since music in recorded form exists as code, digital data, a form of indeterminacy can be used to create music that isn't necessarily even the same sonic experience any given time you hear the music.
... “An indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound—which unified everything.”
To [Morton] 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.
This idea, articulated in this way, was what the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer was characteristic of a group of composers he called transcendental particularism, the quest to recover when the arts an appreciation of sensation itself; the goal was, in Meyer's account, more of a philosophy of experience than an artistic manifesto as such.
Kirschner had a different idea to share about what indeterminacy could provide ... in particular.
Indeterminacy became for me a way to have my musical cake and eat it, too. Rather than accept the roll of the dice as a source of raw material, I could accept all possible rolls of the dice and call them the composition itself. With an indeterminate work, there is no longer one piece, but a potentially infinite number of pieces, all of them “the” piece. Here was an entirely different way of thinking about what music could be.
Where does the composition reside? Is it in the specific notes or sounds of one particular score, one particular performance, one particular recording? Or is it in the space of possibilities that a particular composition inscribes, in the wider set of potential outcomes that a given system of musical constraints, techniques, or limits marks out? Even with a lifetime’s constant listening, it would be impossible to hear every imaginable realization of even a moderately complex indeterminate piece—and yet we still somehow feel we have grasped the piece itself, have “heard” it, even if we’ve directly experienced only a tiny subset of its possible realizations. Such a composition resides in a space of pure potentiality that we can never fully explore—yet in glimpsing parts of it, we may experience more music, and perhaps intermittently better music, than a single fixed composition could ever give us.
Accepting this is not without costs. The first, and very important, lesson I learned in writing indeterminate music was that I missed editing. ...
Of course the not being able to edit is the thing about indeterminate music, whether it's the music formally known as indeterminate music or whether we're talking improvised solos in a rock or jazz context. I've written in the past about how this kind of indeterminate music, at a conceptual level, could correspond to another code-based form of entertainment we have in our time, the video game. A musical experience that can be different every time depending on unforeseen variables as well as foreseen variables could correspond to a video game. Depending on what decisions the player makes in the game the corresponding musical soundtrack could change. That a super-majority of video games probably have no use for this kind of music doesn't mean this kind of music couldn't be composed (or that it hasn't been). While on the one hand music in a video game could be the ultimate realization of Satie's reported music-as-furniture aim at another level introducing indeterminacy at a coded level to music for a video game could be the most active way to give the audience (i.e. the player of the video game) the power to collaborate with the composer through music conceived as being able to change in response to the decisions of the audience/player.
So it's interesting to read stuff like this because from the new music side of it (or as I sometimes call it the new-music side) the challenge of reintroducing indeterminate elements in music composition and performance is a reminder that improvisation was part of the art music tradition for some time. The elimination of improvisation from what we call classical music was something that began to happen, kind of, around Beethoven's time. It was during the 19th century that the shift away from the space to improvise to writing exactly what the composer wanted began to take place.
I don't think there's really a problem with "high" music or "low" music. I think the problem is that the previously permeable boundaries between "high" and "low" have been stratified by the educational empires in place in the West. In what might be a paradox, the commercial music industry and folk traditions may have preserved elements that, at one point, existed in the art music tradition but that got banished over a couple of centuries--what composers like Cage and Feldman provided an opportunity for was, in this much larger historical sense, not so much a revolution of casting off centuries of traditions as their critics have sometimes liked to put it; it's more like they found ways to bring back into the art music tradition different versions of fairly old and formerly commonplace elements.
Does this mean I'm a big fan of Feldman or Cage? Well, no, not really. I like the prepared piano music I've heard but I haven't exactly warmed up to Feldman. On the other hand, I've gone through life not hugely loving the Romantic era. I love music from the 18th century and from the 20th century but there was always a bunch of stuff about the 19th century I couldn't stand in the art music tradition. I don't hear 20th century music as some affront to the century of decorum and good taste; I hear the 20th century as a century long process of cleansing the palette of what had become the ersatz tropes of Romantic era music. But this wasn't a complete purge, a lot of the things in 19th century music I can appreciate (and I've learned to appreciate it more over the years) are preserved. The amusing irony/paradox about this is those things about 19th century music I like get preserved in American popular/vernacular traditions like ragtime.
Every era needs to have its moments of reinventing the wheel, I suppose. Indeterminacy is not necessarily throwing out the old but going back to something that is observably a part of the Western music tradition and bringing it back in a new context. That which has been shall be again, someone wrote somewhere.
My own tiny interest in indeterminate elements in a composition are more inspired by Ellngton--I like the idea that 80% of a composition is scored out in some fashion but that there's a space left for a soloist to wing it and play something fun. But this isn't intended to be a blog post about stuff I compose.
I sometimes have the feeling that aspects of indeterminacy were striving to regain what popular musical styles never lost. Actually I have that feeling often but not everyone who was into indeterminacy as an approach to music really wanted improvisation as we'd conventionally define it.