Thursday, October 23, 2014

Aleatory Quiz

Theory professors have blogs too and Luke Dahn has an interesting one. The current post is an "aleatory quiz" that tests whether you can distinguish between extremely complexly organized contemporary works for piano by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and music written using chance operations by John Cage. Go read the post and listen to the pieces. Luke acknowledges the

"ironic fact that aleatory of the kind represented by Cage’s Music of Changes often produced results that are strikingly similar to works of composers in the modernist avant-garde, composers that came to loathe Cage’s aleatory."
I think he might have taken this thought just a bit further. All these pieces by the three composers, were composed at around the same time: between 1948 and 1952. They all have the distinct flavor of the extreme modernism of the immediate post-war years. It is interesting that all the pieces sound so very alike, but from a historian's point of view, this is not so surprising. Why the composers who write highly organized music loathe the composers who use chance methods is that they believe that it is their methods that guarantee the significance of their music and its place in posterity. The music of Cage, sounding so very similar, disproves this entirely, does it not? It is too bad that our modernist-leaning commentator Bridge seems to have departed, as I'm sure he would have something interesting to say.

It seems to me clear that there are macro and micro epochs in music history: little moments of extremity and larger moments of shared style. The Classical Era from around 1770 to around 1830 (give or take a decade) is an important one that originated a great deal of the music we enjoy greatly. The "sturm un drang" was a micro moment of extreme expression within that period. Similarly, the Modernist Era from immediately after WWI (say, around 1920) to around 1970, was one of a shared style of atonality and rhythmic complexity. Within this era was the micro moment of extreme complexity that we can hear in these piano pieces: wide intervals, jagged rhythms and harmonic dissonance. Here are some links so you can read up on this music:

What is really, really interesting is that what you have just read, about the details of the structure of these pieces--or, in the case of the Cage, the details of how chance operations using the I Ching were used to make compositional choices--all seems to end up with the same results. Here is how Wikipedia describes Cage's methods:
The structure of the piece is defined through the technique of nested proportions, just like in most of Cage's pieces from the 1940s. The proportion remains the same for the entire work: 3, 5, 6¾, 6¾, 5, 3⅛. So there are 29⅝ sections, each divided into phrases according to the overall proportion: 29⅝ by 29⅝. This is then divided into four large parts of one, two, one and two sections respectively. The tempo is varied throughout the piece, using the I Ching and a tempo chart. The rhythmic proportion is expressed, then, not through changing time signatures as in earlier works, but through tempo changes.
All this has to do with what we might call the "aesthetics of production", that is to say, the aesthetic principles that the composers used. But when we listen to the music, we have a different point of view that might be described as the "aesthetics of reception". How do we listen? What do we hear? How does it affect us? And the fascinating thing is that from a reception point of view, all this music is very similar. If you were just a tiny bit cynical you might suspect that the elaborate scenarios and structures discussed by the composers were merely a kind of bizarre marketing or promotion scheme. Cage, for example, has so much of his music predefined through his "nested proportions" that whatever the I Ching says, the music is going to sound the same. No C major chords here! But the fact that he publicized his use of chance methods, distinguished him from his contemporaries, the composers with whom he competed for public attention. Smart marketing!

Let's listen to the Music of Changes of John Cage:


Rickard Dahl said...

I did the quiz and got 2/6 correct answers. I actually recognized the 2nd audio clip as I think I've listened to that part of Boulez's Piano Sonata No. 2 a few times (so that one was a bit unfair I suppose). Also guessed correctly that the 5th one was Cage. I could have probably gotten the same result by choosing the 2nd one correctly from previous listening experiences and using a random number generator for the other 5. With that said: It is indeed hard to guess which one is Cage, Stockhausen or Boulez. I think that someone (maybe Cage) is quoted in the Oxford History of Western Music saying that aleatory music can produce major or minor chords but in serialist music it is avoided.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good score!! I think that on this quiz that is outstanding. You know Boulez much better than I do. It is odd to realize that at exactly the same time these pieces were being written, that Shostakovich was writing his preludes and fugues in all the keys in homage to Bach.