For the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, musical harmony could be explained through, and provide insight into, the essential mathematical properties of the universe. Most famously this led to the theory of the ‘music of the spheres’, proposing that the planets themselves are in harmonious relation. Few today would accept the extreme hypotheses of the Pythagoreans, but there is nevertheless a long and continuing history that follows them in taking music to be exemplary of determinate order. Even recently the field of music theory has witnessed a heated response to a social critique of Schenkerian analysis, a method of analysing musical works beginning from purportedly fundamental formal structures, with its supporters seeking to reaffirm its status as an objective framework for studying determinate musical objects, untouched by any contingencies.
Yet since the beginning of the twentieth century there has been a series of important challenges to music’s determinations, and to the orderliness supposed of Western art music. Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘dodecaphonic’ undermining of the principles of harmony from within provided a key point of reference here, but two outside sources were equally important. On the one hand, developments in technological sound reproduction made accessible a world of sound beyond that demarcated by notation, with magnetic tape in particular giving composers the opportunity to manipulate this new world. On the other hand, increased access to music outside of the Western art music tradition introduced composers to new possibilities in pitch, rhythm, and timbre.
Some composers sought new kinds of systems. Harry Partch, for example, developed a 43-tone octave that required his remarkable self-built instruments to play. But other composers challenged systematicity itself. In an early piece of writing John Cage predicted the music of the future to be an ‘all-sound’ music, and in his lifelong pursuit of this idea he would pose new ways of dissolving music’s characteristic distinction between the order of music and its unruly ‘others’ of noise and silence. His ‘prepared piano’, for example, had household objects inserted between the piano’s strings, meaning that the piano produced not readily identifiable pitches but a diverse set of rich, resonant, unpredictable, percussive sounds. The prepared piano helped Cage realise that neither the composer or the performer could have complete control over the sounds made in a performing situation, and Cage’s work increasingly pursued works that were ‘indeterminate with respect to performance’. The performance space was opened to unexpected sounds and events that did not readily fit into any preconceived ideas about music.
As Cage’s pursuit of musical indeterminacy became more radical, it stretched beyond the boundaries of music and into other artforms, and even beyond art and into ‘life’. Is La Monte Young’s instruction to ‘Draw a straight line and follow it’ (Composition 1960 #10), or Yoko Ono’s to ‘Take the sound of the room breathing’ (Tape Piece II), music, or art, or neither?
– Iain Campbell