Classical Music Secrets: What is Chance Music?

Classical Music Secrets: What is Chance Music

During the early 20th century, composers began making use of scores that consisted of purely text. The Dada artists enjoyed doing this, and they were followed by various movements that used chance and experimentalism to create a new series of sounds and music, like the Fluxus movement in the mid-20th century.

There are many ways that a composer can include chance elements, from John Cage's use of random radio stations in his work Radio Music to allowing the performers to improvise and even choose the instruments or melodic materials.

As a composer I use chance in a variety of ways. I might include a section with no time or rhythm to counter an extremely rhythmic section of music or leave the instrumentation up to the musicians. I may include improvisation from the performers or audience.

In my work Conversations on a Bus I used chance operations that gave some direction to the performance artists. Conversations on the bus is more a theatrical piece than a musical composition, and it was inspired by the hours I spent taking public transportation in college. The day after 9/11 I was riding the bus (the same bus I was riding on 9/11) and I started writing down the conversations I heard. Snippets, really. Randomness. People talking about life, jobs, and the tragedy the day before, all mashed up.

I took these words and created a piece for six performers. They each narrated specific text (according to elaborate instructions). They also were instructed to act as if the theater was the bus. Each performer emphatically repeated their lines, sitting next to someone in the audience, invading personal space just like any other day on the bus. I felt the piece needed the randomness. It needed the slightly organized chaos. If I had written everything down perfectly it wouldn't have worked. The point was to recreate the fear and the anger and the emotions in that bus on 9/12/2001. Writing it down perfectly would have been wrong. Very wrong, because life wasn't perfect or structured or organized. Life was chaos.

There are definitely certain risks in allowing the performers full freedom in their works. For example, in graduate school I wrote a work called World Order #4. In WO4, the final page simply consisted of the word "CHAOS". Most musicians in the ensemble, including myself, maintained some semblance of a musical framework. However, during one performance, the viola player became inspired and decided to attack the narrator of the work, pummeling him to the ground. It was dramatic, but entirely unintended by the composer.

My oratorio Creation had many sections that were "chance" and free. However, the ensemble did an excellent job completing what I required. Most of the time I give very specific instructions that give the performers an exact framework for the improvised sections. For example, I might give them certain notes or chords to improvise off of (like a jazz chart) or might draw a graphic that indicates how thick or thin a texture should be (ex. a thin line for thin texture, a thick rectangle for thicker musical texture).

Always remember, if you decide to include "chance" elements in your work, be sure to provide explicit instructions for the performers to achieve the best musical results.


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