Chance vs. Serialism Redux

In my recent post How to Care How It Was Made, I did not at all mean to invoke, as a
couple of commenters suggest I did, the old canard about serial music and
chance music being indistinguishable. Boulez, in his letters to Cage,
absolutely rejected chance as a legitimate musical technique. I find it odd
that, having said so so stridently, he was at that very time using pitch techniques that were
theoretically just as groundless and arbitrary. This does not mean that I think
Le Marteau

sounds like chance music, nor that it sounds like Cage. The wonderful thing
about Cage works like, say, Music of Changes
and Four for string quartet is that
they do sound something like imagined nature, with so much unpredictable
variety in every parameter (nothing is excluded, even triads can appear
fortuitously). Le Marteau’
rhythms and timbres and textures sound completely busy and purposeful – it’s the pitch
language that seems literally meaningless, and I am hardly alone in this
opinion. In this respect, one could argue that what Boulez said about Schoenberg in his article
“Schoenberg est Mort” of the previous year is equally true of Boulez in Le
that there’s a conceptual mismatch between his rhythmic profile and his pitch
profile. (It strikes me that Boulez never made that mistake again.)

[UPDATE: Carson Cooman points out that when I interviewed Boulez and mentioned Nancarrow, he said that Nancarrow’s rhythm was extremely sophisticated, but that “the pitch language doesn’t follow.” Sounds like a theme.]

fellow graduate student of mine at Northwestern did her master’s thesis or
doctoral dissertation on precisely the supposed aural equivalence of serialism
and chance music. In the course of it, she performed a demonstration in which
she played ten musical examples, half of serialism and half of chance music
(Cage and Xenakis, I think, exemplifying the chance half), and challenged us,
her fellow grad students, to guess which were which. Had we gotten half of them wrong, that would have confirmed her thesis. I not only got
nine of the ten examples right, I identified the composers correctly. (The remaining example was a poor recording.) Serialism
and chance music are abstractions that are not independent of the composers in
whose styles they are embodied. To pretend that one could compare generic serialism, per
, with generic chance music, per se, is to blunder into a syllogism. To defend the point, one
would have to be able to compare a chance piece by Boulez or Babbitt with a serialist
piece by Cage, which is, of course, impossible. Not only do Cage and Xenakis
sound (even in excerpts of a few measures at a time) different from Boulez and Babbitt, Cage doesn’t sound like Xenakis, and Boulez doesn’t sound like Babbitt. For all its continuing popularity as a historical concept, the
supposed perceptual equivalence of serialism and chance music had a grain of
truth to it, but one, I thought, that was infertile, and from which nothing
important ever grew.


  1. peter says

    As we’ve discussed here before, if one accepts the Taoist philosophy underlying the I Ching, which Cage mostly used to generate random-looking events, there is even less reason to imagine that the resulting music would sound like any one else’s music. The point of the philosophy is that the events express something unique, timely and personal to the specific person invoking the I Ching at the specific time they are doing it. So, to a Taoist, the resulting music is not “chance” or “random” or “aleatoric” at all, but profoundly deterministic, being the necessary consequential expression of deep, synchronistic, spiritual forces. I don’t know if Cage was a Taoist, but his own beliefs or attitudes are irrelevant to the workings of these forces.
    KG replies: A point that can’t be brought up often enough, thanks.

  2. says

    Let me also add that it is possible to put forth the hypothesis that a musical surface could be seen as a system to which an unstable dynamic will correspond, driven by a multiplicity of forces in interaction.
    A composition will then be seen as a process in permanent movement, a permanent search for meaning between the different levels of the considered musical space, with moments of stabilization, moments of destabilization and mainly the phenomena of emergence.