Date of Degree
Joseph N. Straus
Musicology | Music Theory
indeterminacy, aleatory, experimental, performance analysis
This study elucidates the relationship between notation, performance practice, and musical realization in several indeterminate compositions by John Cage and Earle Brown. While both Cage and Brown emphasized the multiplicity of possible outcomes in these works, the distinct configurations of fixed and unfixed elements in each ensure particular kinds of musical results to the exclusion of others. In tracing the musical limits and possibilities of each work, this research project also seeks to correct a longstanding belief that indeterminate music is not meaningfully responsive to the tools of music theory.
Chapter one historicizes the emergence, presentation, and reception of indeterminate compositions within the European and American avant-garde, framing Cage’s 1958 lecture at Darmstadt as only the most visible manifestation of aesthetic trends already underway in both Europe and the United States. I subsequently address indeterminate music in the context of contemporaneous improvised music, following the critique laid out by George E. Lewis, and consider how it has been extended by artists and musicians working across disciplines.
Chapter two is an analysis of Cage’s composition Four2 for mixed chorus, composed in 1990. I begin by conducting a virtual Monte Carlo simulation of possible performances of the work, which is then analyzed as a corpus to obtain the most prevalent musical results, and a comprehensive accounting of all possible pitch combinations, sonorities and textures. This is followed by the presentation of four “imagined” performances that are intended to reveal some of the most extreme variations in musical outcome possible in a given performance of the piece. The chapter concludes with a comparison between the musical results obtained in the simulations, real-world performances, and the imagined performances through the lens of performance practice.
Chapter three focuses on Earle Brown’s open form composition Novara, composed in 1962 for mixed octet with conductor. Although many writers interpret the fragmentary presentation of musical passages in Brown’s open form scores to indicate a discontinuous texture in performance, Brown was adamant that the conductor must create formal continuities through their intervention. Through a transcription and analysis of three performances of Novara conducted by Brown, I highlight the ways in which the conductor can articulate form and function, and by extension the unique agency accorded the conductor in Brown’s conception of open form.
In chapter four I draw a comparison between Brown’s compositional activities in the late 1960s and 1970s and an aesthetic conceit exemplified by the early-1960s work of La Monte Young and Robert Morris that I term the “minimalist dialectic.” Through a close reading of scores and other performance materials, I propose an alternative reading of compositions such as Modules (1965-6) and New Piece (1971) that centers the unique agential arrangements of performance, along with a compositional focus on unitary and sustained sounds.
Andersen, Drake R., "The Limits of Indeterminacy: The Performance and Analysis of Selected Indeterminate Compositions by John Cage and Earle Brown" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.