Saturday, August 18, 2012

What “Choosing Chance” Really Meant to John Cage

I just finished a piece for about the latest concert given by sfSound to celebrate the centennial of his birth. (His 100th birthday will be on September 5.) All of the works on the program were instrumental; and most of them were composed by some deliberate chance procedure. (The most important exception was “Atlas Eclipticalis,” which was composed by tracing star charts onto staff paper.) I wrote about Cage’s motivation for “choosing chance” as follows:
Cage’s interest in chance was grounded in his desire to find an approach to remove the ego from the process of making music. As Cage would later observe in an interview with Roger Reynolds (published in the The Musical Quarterly in October of 1979), the ego was only responsible for deciding what questions to ask, which would then be answered by chance operations. If he wanted to reject the answers, so to speak, he could only do so by posing alternative questions.
This turned out to be a rather long piece, because there were such significant differences across the pieces being performed. So I chose to write about the Reynolds interview, rather than cite it. Nevertheless, in this more flexible forum, it seemed appropriate to reproduce just what it was that Cage said about chance:
It says in the I Ching that if you don’t accept the answer, that you have no right to ask again. I have never used chance operations to arrive at a preconceived goal. In other words, I’ve never been in the situation of not liking, and because I didn’t like, changing the answers I received. I have sometimes renounced the questions that I’ve asked. I have thrown away some work, seeing that it was trivial, since I had not found the proper questions. But I’ve never thrown away the answers to the questions that I’ve considered to be useful questions to ask.
I chose to reproduce this because it makes clear just how deliberate Cage was in his use of chance. Cunningham was the same way; and I strongly suspect that both of them sometimes (often?) had to revise the ways in which they framed their questions in the interests of coming up with results that were not impossible to perform. For that matter the philosophical goal of detaching the ego is also a deliberate act, and what this quote shows is that it was far from as aspiration to mindlessness!

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