One style of experimental music in the mid-twentieth century was an interest in using chance, or indeterminate, procedures in music composition. This meant that composers would leave some element of a piece of music to chance, and this varied greatly between different pieces. Sometimes certain elements of a piece, like pitch, note duration, or rhythm, would be determined by chance procedures, like throwing dice or using the ancient Chinese divination book the I Ching. Other times the composer might tell the performers that they can arrange sections of music in any order they like. Significantly, this means that every performance of chance music will be unique and will not sound the same. This was a big development in music and quite controversial, as it downplayed the importance of an authoritative version of a piece, downplayed the role of the music as a fixed text that could be performed, and also gave more freedom to the performers or interpreters, while taking away certain elements of compositional control from the composer.

John Cage (1912-1992) was one of the most well known composers of chance music. In many of his compositions, one or more elements are left to chance. One of his compositions is called Imaginary Landscape No. 5, and is a piece of music that is recorded (not performed live) with a score in block graph notation that indicates the volume and duration of 42 different pre-existing recordings. Cage was very specific about the duration and volume of each recording, but he left the choice of which recordings to use up to each individual performance. This recording shows the score as well – you can see that Cage did not use traditional music notation, since it would have no meaning in this kind of piece.

Other recordings available are very different:

(The baton twirler is not part of the score, but it does fit well with Cage’s philosophy of mixing different kinds of performance in indeterminate ways)

Cage was also known for writing music with his partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, where the dancing and the music were written independently, and did not necessarily sync up as music and dance traditionally do.

Cage’s other major contribution to music history was his pioneering thoughts on the role of silence in music. Cage believed that silence was just as important as what we traditionally call music. Much of his philosophy was inspired by his study of Zen Buddhism. He gave a lecture first printed in 1959 called “Lecture on Nothing” in which he wrote:

I am here, and there is nothing to say. If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking. Give anyone thought a push: it faIls down easily; but the pusher and the pushed pro-duce that entertainment called a dis-cussion. Shall we have one later? Or, we could simply de-cide not to have a discussion. What ever you like. But now there are silences and the words make help make the silences.

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it. This space of time is organized. We need not fear these silences, — We may love them.

What is especially remarkable about this text is that Cage wrote it as though it were music, in proportional spacing with measures and large amounts of space in between the words to indicate silences. This is how those first two paragraphs look written out:

lecture on nothing

You can listen to Cage himself read from the middle of the “Lecture on Nothing” here, follow along with the score below on the right-hand page:

lecture on nothing middle

What’s fascinating is that if you look at the text surrounding this part of the lecture, it’s all the same thing with slight variation. Cage is repeating the same text, with slight variation, over and over, narrating the progress through the lecture. He encourages us to see the art in that and to let go of our preconceptions of what a lecture “should do” (just as we must let go of our expectations of what music “should do”) and take pleasure in present, which is inspired by Buddhist philosophy. In some ways, Cage sees no difference between the performance of this lecture and the performance of what we traditionally call “music.”

Here, Cage articulates his beliefs about sound and silence towards the end of his life:

Cage’s beliefs about silence and sound as music are represented in the extreme in his most famous piece composed in 1952, which is called 4’33” (pronounced “four minutes thirty-three seconds” or just “four thirty-three”). In this piece, Cage wrote a score in proportional notation (the size of the score represents the passage of time exactly) in which there is nothing written on the page. It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, to be performed by any instrument or group of instruments.

Here, we see that our expectation is going to be one of a “musical” performance. We see a pianist, and a piano, and so we have certain expectations about what is going to happen. Do we really hear silence? In fact, with no sound in the piece, we hear everything else. Cage encourages us to listen to all the sounds that are constantly present, challenging our notion of whether there is such as thing as “silence.” In fact, we hear lots of sound: we hear the ticking of the stopwatch, primarily, but we also hear breathing, the sound of the pianist shuffling, the sound of the audience moving in their chairs. In fact, 4’33” could be considered chance music as well, because every performance will have a different set of ambient sounds that you’ll hear (e.g. the ambient sound of a room, HVAC systems, wind through open windows, the sound of cars passing by outside, the sound of the audience coughing, etc.). If you search YouTube for performances of 4’33” you’ll find a wide variety of different versions, each that sounds different even though each one is “just” silence.