Tag: definitions

Towards The Future: New Music in the 21st Century

What is New Music

To open the final essay in this series, I would like to provide summarized definitions of New Music and contemporary music:

New Music is an artistic praxis which aims at generating alternative sonic-aesthetic models to those determined by the prevailing material conditions. New Music offers a glimpse of potential futures: it is a token of different material realities. It is necessarily linked to some of the most advanced facets of modernity, such as the pursuit of self-critique and a belief in the possibility of material progress.

Contemporary music embodies pieces written by composers who have been trained in higher education institutions and write for European classical music ensembles. Contemporary music may also be composed for electronic or electroacoustic instruments, or generated through computer-assisted compositional means. This music assumes attributes of European classical music and builds its own ontology upon them. Contemporary music may reject certain ideas associated with classical music in order to differentiate itself, but that does not make it less engaged with classical music on a conceptual basis. In the U.S., contemporary music exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. 

At this point, I could prescribe what creating New Music should mean today, but I am afraid that this would be an entirely pointless endeavor. My view of reality is partial and any suggestions that I may have will be based on rather limited knowledge and personal experience. Furthermore, I would not want to interfere with the vast multiplicity of aesthetic paths that artists may generate by reducing the potential of New Music to the judgement of a sole individual. Instead, I believe that sharing brief examinations of musical pieces that appear to have some connection to the project of New Music may be a more productive action to take.

I will focus on three examples of works by the following artists: Kendrick Lamar, Ryoji Ikeda, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Kendrick Lamar: “Wesley’s Theory” and “For Free? – Interlude,” from To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)

Before delving into this further, Lamar’s work is not notated. This is an important feature, since it implies that New Music is not necessarily a notational practice. New Music may be expressed through notation, but it can also operate through recordings, oral traditions, and a wide variety of platforms.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was released in 2015. This hip-hop album investigates a variety of political topics, such as racial inequality, structural discrimination, and police brutality. Here I would like to focus on the first two tracks, which appear to explore a few peculiarities that one may encounter in New Music.

“Wesley’s Theory” is the opening track. It presents a simple backbeat pattern in 4/4, which does not change significantly throughout, except for the occasional intrusion of a drum break. In addition, a low and dynamic bass line, as well as several synthesized sounds established as short melodies and cells, add sonic variety to the monotony of the rhythmic pattern. The words introduce a dialectical relationship between the two verses. The first verse represents a Black American artist who has had access to fame and capital, though she or he does not use these resources outside the logic of capital (“I’m gonna buy a brand new Caddy on fours; Trunk the hood up, two times, deuce-four; Platinum on everything, platinum on wedding ring (…) Uneducated, but I got a million-dollar check like that”). The second verse anthropomorphizes corporate America, which structurally subjugates Black Americans by promoting debt and consumerism (“Anything, see, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog; Motherfucker, you can live at the mall; I know your kind (that’s why I’m kind); Don’t have receipts (Oh, man, that’s fine); Pay me later, wear those gators”). One should remember that “Wesley’s Theory” is based on Wesley Snipes’s tax evasion case, which led Snipes to serve three years in jail. About that situation, Lamar pointed out that “no one teaches poor black males how to manage money or celebrity, so if they do achieve success, the powers that be can take it from right under them.”[1]

The second track, “For Free? – Interlude,” is centered around a critique of how corporate America constrains Lamar’s desire—explicitly, Lamar refers to sexual desire, but one could speculate that there is a larger component to desire here, such as the freedom to explore one’s humanity outside structural oppression. However, I do not want to focus on the lyrics. Here, I am particularly interested in the accompanying musical background, which has evident stylistic characteristics found in the works of post-bop bands such as Miles Davis’s second quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Both this particular feature and the backbeat in “Wesley’s Theory” suggest a historical correlation between both genres (hip-hop and jazz) by virtue of aesthetically stating the rather obvious connection between this music and its Black American creators. This formal quality, expressed across both tracks, seems to point to a view that criticizes the hijack of Black American culture on behalf of a logic entrenched in racism and the perpetuation of poverty.

Lamar’s work may indicate that Black American musicians, regardless of the specific aesthetic qualities they have explored in the past, have been ‘pimped’ by corporate America. Radical Black American art has been commodified, with everything that this implies. An example of that may be in the fact that post-bop has become a standardized genre—treated as the quintessential form of jazz—which is studied today in prestigious conservatories and music schools, where economically and racially privileged students learn and master its stylistic particularities—at the very least, this is something that needs to be addressed. In other words: this art, which originally operated outside and beyond the expectations of a complacent culture industry, may have now lost the power to provide some degree of ideological friction. Lamar’s critique may suggest that the potential for disruption of this art may have possibly vanished.

Consequently, in the two tracks above, I would argue that New Music is generated by: (1) the anti-establishment content of the lyrics and (2) pastiching stylistic qualities from historically black genres such as hip-hop and jazz, which potentially enhances critical readings of the history of black music through the capitalist economy. Whether Lamar provides an alternative view of the material conditions—what should be done considering these circumstances—remains to be seen. (A deeper analysis of the entire album would perhaps lead to a definitive conclusion.) That said, both tracks discussed here present a highly critical view of not only discriminatory socioeconomic structures in the U.S., but also of the assimilation of radical Black American culture—in the form of music—by these very structures.

Ryoji Ikeda: the transfinite (2011)

Ryoji Ikeda is primarily known for his electronic music albums, which tend to use minimal and repetitive materials often expressed through a representational aesthetics based on glitch and temporary computer malfunction. the transfinite is an audiovisual installation piece:

There is much that could be said about the transfinite, but I would like to focus on the interrelatedness of two aspects that I personally find significant: the overwhelmingness of the experience and the semantic implications of the audiovisual materials employed.

Nick Srnicek has argued that,

Ryoji Ikeda’s work on dataphonics is exemplary of this approach. Wielding massive datasets and numbers that defy human comprehension, Ikeda has built installations and soundscapes that operate at the very boundaries of human sensibility. The sonic frequencies of his music often just barely enter into the range of human auditory capacities, and his visual installations are designed to overwhelm and incapacitate. The technical sublime emerges here: where perception recoils at an incomprehensible vastness whilst cognition and reason sits back and black boxes it. The sublime here is the parallax tension between a horror at the level of sensibilia and conceptual understanding at the level of cognition.[2]

the transfinite may be understood as a representation of the vast complexity of underlying networks that form the present world. It is a constant flux of monolithic information, which swamps human sensorial experience with exceedingly fast changes in light and sound. As Srnicek contends, it is “designed to overwhelm and incapacitate,” an argument with which I would agree. I would also like to point to the fact that the viewer/listener is located inside the piece: the spectator truly is in a position where she or he has to navigate through these streams of data. In addition, I would suggest that the nature of the sounds employed conveys a landscape that resembles that of encrypted data, thus contributing to the illusion of the impossibility of deciphering the true meaning of these materials.

As I see it, the transfinite functions as a rather clear parallel to how global markets operate today: high-speed algorithmic trading which allows capital to fluctuate internationally at extremely fast speeds. Simultaneously, people—biopower, as Michel Foucault and later Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri would describe it—have neither the physical ability nor the means to change their geographic location at a similar rate. the transfinite operates according to the same paradoxical logic: digital data is highly dynamic, while spectators are physically stuck in this ever-changing space.

While the transfinite may be an excellent example of a representational aesthetics of early 21st-century capital, I am not sure whether it provides a critique of this situation, let alone an alternative. I will leave this up to the reader’s discretion.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110: I. Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo (1821)

In spite of having been dead for almost two centuries, Beethoven is a paradigmatic composer of New Music—here the word “New” emerges as a major contradictory entity. Beethoven produced a body of work which, in my view, exemplifies the two fundamental priorities of the modern project of New Music: (1) the critique of (possibly flawed) traditional models and (2) the creation of newer (perhaps more productive) alternative means. The surface of the composer’s discourse—the rhetorical tools rooted in functional tonality—is certainly old and familiar to many, but I am not sure that his ability to question, deconstruct, and reassemble musical discursivity has been recognized by large audiences yet. Beethoven, as Adorno and Charles Rosen have argued, is possibly a Classical and a modernist composer at once. (This has also been contended by Michael Spitzer in his book Music as Philosophy[3].) In fact, one could speculate that Beethoven is the ultimate New Music composer, since the object of his critique—the Classical style—is a consistent stylistic formation relatively easy to categorize and scrutinize. From Haydn to Mozart, to the likes of Muzio Clementi and Johann Christian Bach, the Classical style demonstrates a highly systematic approach to formal development. What we know as sonata form is an example of this aesthetic. Sonata form is rooted in a dialectical means of organization, in which two contrasting themes (A and B) in different keys are ultimately reintroduced (and reconciled) in the original key of the movement after having gone through multiple potential organizational options in a developmental section. This form, in its most basic iterations, was commonly used in some movements of instrumental sonatas, chamber music, and symphonies, and was a fundamental pillar of Central European notated music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beethoven was thus a composer working in this tradition.

The first movement of Beethoven’s thirty-first sonata for piano is an excellent instance of the composer’s interest in disrupting the traditional logic of sonata form. Firstly, though, it may be of help to provide an example of the quintessential structural organization of sonata form. Here is the first movement of Clementi’s first piano sonata in C:

Clementi’s first piano sonata in C

One can easily see the two themes introduced in the exposition: A in the tonic key; B in the dominant. The dialectical opposition of thesis (A) and antithesis (B) blossoms in the development, while the synthesis of the two appears in the recapitulation, where both themes are now reintroduced in the original tonic key.

This model is significantly challenged by Beethoven:

Beethoven’s thirty-first sonata for piano

The movement opens with a similar discursive approach to the Clementi, with the addition of introductory material. Among the many special peculiarities that one could discuss here, what is particularly striking is the insertion of a false recapitulation, which reintroduces the A theme in the predominant key (IV) instead of in the tonic. This practice, however, had already been pursued by earlier composers. One may think of Haydn’s Symphony No. 55 or Mozart, whose first movement of the Piano Sonata K. 545 introduces the A theme in the recapitulation in the key of the predominant. Nonetheless, in the example above, it seems as if Beethoven wanted us to be aware of this structural discrepancy, to the extent that one can perceive mm. 75-78 as his deliberate attempt to write a tonal correction. The third measure in the attached excerpt from the score, where the key signature changes, may be considered to be an interruption and repurposing of the previous material:

Beethoven Key Correction

That a composer would think of writing a measure of music whose main purpose is to raise consciousness of and point to the “mistake” committed by a false recapitulation is something that impresses me very much. This compositional move suggests Beethoven’s awareness of the tradition he operates in, which I suspect he did not take for granted, but rather assumed as a historical artifact open to further problematization. It is this externality of tradition, paradoxically accomplished by the deepest knowledge of its intricacies, that allowed Beethoven to generate a New Music. The alternative here lies in the possibility of thinking musically beyond the Classical style, in particular outside sonata form. Or, demonstrating that musical expression may be successfully achieved (and enhanced!) outside of a particular tradition.

At the expense of losing nuance, if I were to oversimplify my language, New Music is an emancipatory project largely dissatisfied with the world, which thus attempts to project the possibility of other worlds. On the other hand, contemporary music is music created today based on rather superficial aesthetic qualities (instrumentation, gesture, harmony, counterpoint, texture, timbre) found in European classical music. This distinction explains why I define some of Kendrick Lamar’s work as New Music, while it cannot certainly be understood as a form of contemporary music. That is also why there may certainly exist New Music that uses some aesthetic features from contemporary music. In addition, New Music does not have to be new: Beethoven has strong New Music qualities—whether these convey any real potential today or not is an entirely different conversation. To sum up: New Music is ultimately an anti-establishment (and by that I mean all forms of anti-establishment: economic, cultural, educational, artistic) ideologico-aesthetic project, whereas contemporary music does not have to be.

As a composer myself, I do my best to write New Music. Whether it is notated or not, whether it uses recent technological developments, whether and how it uses Western instruments: these are—to some extent—secondary aspects of my music. Ultimately, I am at a point in my career where my priority is to create works that do not accept a given tradition as a natural artifact. I try to persistently reevaluate the knowledge I have gained over years of study, as well as the tools that I have been given throughout my formal education. This does not come from a dogmatic position, but rather from an experimental hypothesis. My contention is that music may serve to open alternative paths for human existence, through which we may gain access to uncharted phenomenological territories.

At a time when our most immediate collective reality is not only mediocre, but also dangerous and pathologically against the creation of fairer worlds, I would like to believe that there is some work to be done in our field, where perhaps we can reclaim creativity and imagination through the difficult—yet hopefully productive—process of constant self-critique, rigorous historical analysis, and the development of a holistic praxis that is skeptical of the thoughtless reiteration of obsolete models.

At the very least, I would suggest that it is our social responsibility to stick our fingers into the small cracks in this wall of concrete located in front of us—that is, a standardized and commodified existence—which has robbed us of the possibility of imagining a better future.

1. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/the-juice/6517089/kendrick-lamar-to-pimp-a-butterfly-caterpillar-album-title.

2. Nick Srnicek, “Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in an Age of Crisis,” presented at The Matter of Contradiction: Ungrounding the Object, Vassivière, France, 8-9 September, 2012.

3. Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

The Defeat of New Music

University of Arkansas

In this third post, I would like to delve into a narrative of what might have brought New Music to the serious impasse it finds itself at in the United States. Like any narrative, it is partial and incomplete. I acknowledge that there are other reasons that may have contributed to the obscuration of this type of music, but it seems to me that what I describe below had such a significant impact on the erasure of New Music that it deserves special attention.

The connection between contemporary music and academia in the U.S. is crucial in order to address New Music’s ramifications. According to Brigham Young University Professor Brian Harker, composition “found its rightful place as an intellectual proposition under the umbrella of ‘theory’ in virtually all college curricula of the early century.”[1] In this respect, “the emphasis was not on original work (…) but ‘on playing the sedulous ape’ to the best models of music literature in the attempt to know how if not what to write.”[2] Composition was thus subordinated to theory as a means to gain greater knowledge about existing music.

However, in the beginning of the second half of the last century, the relationship between theory and composition as intertwined academic disciplines was responsible for the eventual establishment of composition as a serious scholarly field in its own right. Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore, despite the fact that composition may not be easily evaluated by means of academic structures associated with scholarly disciplines such as history or physics.

Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore.

Milton Babbitt was a pivotal figure in accelerating this endeavor. With Roger Sessions, Babbitt prompted a number of young composers and theorists to explore a scientistic approach to music-making and analysis. This group would later be associated with the journal Perspectives of New Music. Harvard Ph.D. candidate Monica Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm’s two seminars in Advanced Musical Study, which took place at Princeton in 1959 and 1960, might have “paved the way for the journal Perspectives of New Music and the founding of the Ph.D. in music composition.”[3] The seminars included lectures by Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Edward T. Cone, Allen Forte, Felix Galimir, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and others. Some of the titles of these lectures (“Polyphonic Time in the Music of Stravinsky,” “Form in Music”) should point to the close relationship between theory and composition that those musicians were trying to nurse. By virtue of its relation to consistent methodology, music theory was the pretext through which composition could be relatable to scientific developments and gain a similar status to the work that a number of logical positivists in U.S. academic circles fostered after World War II. It was precisely due to this connection that composition most likely evolved into harboring its own scholarly sphere. Ultimately, it appears that Babbitt was largely responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition at Princeton.[4] And, for all we know, the justification of composition as a field that could be somehow compared to science is what led contemporary music to be embedded in U.S. academia.

My colleague Franklin Cox has described this type of “American modern music” as a form of Reductive Modernism:

Reductive Modernism (…) maintained most of the apparatus—most importantly the notion of aesthetic progressivism—of Modernism, but converted it into more testable and propagatable form, which was most easily done by functionalizing it and stripping it of all “fuzzy” residue, such as its immanent political aims, its moral pretensions, its delicately balanced tensions, its cultivation of tasteful critics and readers, and its redemptory (albeit highly conservative) aims. Often modeled on scientistic beliefs, it favored innovation as its own goal, and favored above all else technical and material innovation.[5]

The works of Babbitt and his acolytes may be processed through the lens of Reductive Modernism, since their authors did not seem to be concerned with the critique-based project of New Music that I introduced in the second essay of this series. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not their music that is Reductive, but the academic discourse that they developed surrounding that music. Without delving too much into ontology and semiotics, I would propose that the actual sounds that shape music, regardless of the particular cultural context where they were created, may be perceived and processed in a wide variety of ways. Music is a cultural artifact that cannot be isolated from its socioeconomic context: it is not recognized as such through how it solely sounds, but rather by how it has been defined according to the specific material conditions during the time of its creation, the ways that it has been interpreted throughout historical change, and by whether it conforms (and to what extent) to the prevailing state of affairs. It would be unreasonable to imagine the sounds that belong to a particular musical context separated from the social, economic, cultural, and discursive conditions that led to the realization of those sounds in the first place. The alleged “Reductive Modernist” music that Babbitt and other East Coast serialists practiced (the sounds they produced) may actually be Reductive, but it is not Reductive only as a result of the way it sounds, but rather by both how it sounds and relates to global circumstances beyond the sonic domain.

Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college.

At any rate, the intricacies surrounding U.S. modern music had an impact on the perception of academic contemporary music on behalf of future generations. Babbitt’s proposal in “Who Cares If You Listen?,”[6] which suggests that modernist composers should seek refuge in the university’s ivory tower, is a paradigmatic example of an ideology of withdrawal. Because of Babbitt and others, contemporary music gained access to academia and did find some solace, but the price of admission was nevertheless very high. By fundamentally treating contemporary music as a field of scientistic exploration, this type of music neglected most of its bonds with modernity and its emancipatory project based on self-critique. This compositional discourse, which echoes the prioritization of newness for its own sake, has considerable potential to be subsumed under a complacent cultural logic by virtue of the discourse’s indifference toward treating music holistically. By not expanding music’s critical capacities beyond its internal qualities (structure), I am afraid that the East Coast serialists helped to build, perhaps unknowingly, a musical-academic culture that is unable to act counterculturally. The recontextualization of methodologies historically associated with the natural sciences into the realm of sonic creativity resulted in a positivist music that runs the risk of validating the status quo, thus helping to support some type of emancipatory stasis—the illusion of musical (and social) progress. The musical culture that the East Coast serialists nurtured not only has the potential to be satisfied with its own conditions due to its intrinsic tendency to glorify technology and its false promise of a better future, but also it is prone to become unfit to function as a force of critique. By disengaging itself from this facet of modernity, contemporary music fostered an environment where New Music became largely residual.

At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity. Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college. Perhaps from the very beginning, the project of New Music had already been defeated, but that does not mean it is dead.

The final essay in this series will suggest some paths for contemporary music practitioners to tackle the future.

1. Brian Harker, “Milton Babbitt Encounters Academia (And Vice Versa),” American Music 26, 3 (Fall 2008): 340–341.

2. Ibid., 341.

3. Monica Hershberger, “Princeton Seminars (1959 & 1960),” Fromm Foundation,

4. Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm could have wanted Perspectives of New Music—a journal he helped establish—to “be a vehicle for the learned articles that would be the university composer’s response to the administration’s demand for the kind of articles faculty members in most fields write to get academic advancement.” (Arthur Berger, Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 142–143). In this regard, Fromm might have been indirectly responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition.

5. Franklin Cox, “Critical Modernism: Beyond Critical Composition and Uncritical Art,” in Critical Composition Today (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2006), 145.

6. http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html.

New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music


In the second essay for this series, I would like to define New Music and contemporary music. These are two terms that are often viewed as equivalent, but I will argue that they have different meanings.

In my view, New Music is a term that embodies a wide variety of artistic projects, mainly focused on sonic forms—though secondarily may also be expressed through the visual, the literary, or the theatrical—which position themselves under the umbrella of modernity in a critical manner. New Music is inherently in a difficult ideological position: it is in conflict with the economic, educational, and political structures that contribute to its birth, but it must simultaneously reconcile itself to them in order to attempt to bypass the anticipated consequences that these very conditions cause. It thus problematizes this inextricable contradiction in the hopes of generating potential alternative realities; hence New Music’s non-autonomous nature, for it conceals an ultimate purpose that surpasses its most superficial formal qualities. In this regard, New Music is embedded in modernity through a number of aesthetic forms—such as some instances of 20th-century modernism—and cannot be understood as such without its necessarily redemptory allegiance to “universal ideals of progress, reason, freedom and democracy.”[1] In consequence, New Music fits Terry Eagleton’s description of modernist works: “self-divided phenomena which deny in their discursive forms their own shabby economic reality.”[2] Beyond stylistic specifics commonly associated with this type of music (e.g. musique concrète instrumentale, spectralism, New Complexity, New Conceptualism, etc.), New Music is at its core an artistic project based on critique: this is its link to modernity—what fundamentally defines its nature.

New Music questions past, dysfunctional normative models as a means to generate newer, more appropriate aesthetic fields through which another future (however one wishes to understand this term) may be built. More specifically, the avant-garde, experimental music, free improvisation…: all of these may become New Music if they recognize a connection to modernity—they are not immanent in New Music per se. For this reason, one should not make the immediate assumption that New Music is a European or, at its worst, a Eurocentric endeavor. Far from it, New Music—quite similarly to how Srnicek and Williams define modernity—“names a set of concepts that have been independently developed in numerous cultures across the world, but which took on a particular resonance in Europe.”[3] New Music does not necessarily emerge from classical European traditions only. On the contrary: one could go as far as to claim that some instances of free jazz, punk rock, hip-hop, or music with politically revolutionary lyrics may be facets of New Music. Likewise, following this logic, it would be incorrect to presume that any music that uses sounds often heard in works by Brian Ferneyhough, Gérard Grisey, or Helmut Lachenmann should be categorized as New Music. New Music is not only recognized through how it sounds, but also by its clear-cut ideological stance against the uncritical employment of conventional means of expression. By virtue of this position, New Music is an artistic project forced to challenge its necessarily required material conditions, which, unless scrutinized through internal formal strategies, will contribute to the reiteration of flawed traditionalisms; hence the exceedingly difficult and contradictory space where New Music lies (un)comfortably. Finally, New Music cannot be defined through its material conditions only. New Music is a project of potentials; it is prescriptive with regard to what is to be heard, aesthetically and beyond. New Music cannot be understood without its projection of what different futures may look like: it is modeled after potential futures.

New Music seems to be largely negligible in U.S. culture when compared to other types of music. In this country, its influence may be mainly recognized in some university departments, conservatories, a number of summer festivals (which usually have an educational side to them), and a few—often small—venues in large metropolitan areas such as New York or Chicago. There are, of course, exceptions.[4] Today one can also listen to New Music in a few festivals across the English-speaking world.[5] However, not all of the music that is performed as part of these events can be considered to be New Music. It certainly is new, since it has been created recently, but that does not intrinsically result in this music’s pursuit of the historical and aesthetic critique that New Music does. This type of new music—contemporary music[6] from now on—does not have to be in dialogue with modernity; it does not have to aim for the (future-bound) transformational imperative that New Music endeavors towards. New Music, nevertheless, can certainly be a subset of contemporary music and is often disseminated by those institutions that support the creation, performance, and discussion of contemporary music works.

Contemporary music may also be at home in situations closer to cultural imperatives explicitly designed by market forces than those associated with academia. John Adams, David Del Tredici, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, and the members of Bang on a Can are examples of composers who have been trained in academic institutions, have (at some point or another) participated in discussions about aesthetics, culture, and philosophy, and have eventually earned significant economic success by promoting their music through structures located outside academic environments. It would be incorrect to assume that these artists downgraded the quality of their works in order to follow marketability. There is plenty of popular music developed in the antipodes of academia that is financially successful and displays substantial quality. What places these composers under the umbrella of contemporary music—and not of popular music—is their connection to academia, without which it is unlikely they would have developed their particular aesthetic ideas. Firstly, their works generally display some relation to European traditions of classical music (even if they function as clear-cut negations of some of the basic principles of these traditions); traditions that seemed to access Anglo-American intellectual discourse primarily via academic institutions. Secondly, all of the aforementioned composers use notation in order to express their music—this is another crucial feature of European classical music. Thirdly, these composers benefited from analytical discourses that have generally taken place in Anglo-American academia; discourses that had an impact on the particular aesthetic paths that their works followed. To sum up, while some of these composers may not be active members of the academic community at the moment and may earn their living by pursuing careers outside this domain, they are participants in the field of contemporary music by virtue of their education, collaborators (individual performers, ensembles, and orchestras), analytical discourse, and general aesthetic ideas.

For the most part, contemporary music embodies pieces written by composers who have been trained in higher education institutions and write for traditional, classical music ensembles such as orchestras, wind and vocal ensembles, and string quartets. Contemporary music may also be composed for electronic or electroacoustic instruments, or generated through computer-assisted compositional means. In short, contemporary music assumes basic attributes of European classical music and builds its own ontology upon them. Whether such an ontology predominantly accepts European classical music as a positive feature or not is largely peripheral. Contemporary music may explicitly reject certain ideas associated with classical music in order to differentiate itself, but that does not make it less engaged with classical music on a conceptual basis. Nowadays, contemporary music in the U.S. exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. Consequently, contemporary music institutions appear to be prone to take an indifferent stance toward their relation to the self-critical view of history embedded in some discourses around modernity.

The next post will explore the crisis of U.S. modern music in relation to scientism and the successive defeat of New Music.

1. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

2. Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism,” 67.

3. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

4. Omaha Under the Radar (Nebraska), Versipel New Music, and ANODE (New Orleans) are three recently launched small festivals that are not associated with higher education institutions and are not located in large metropolitan areas.

5. The following is a partial list of prominent contemporary music festivals and concert series across the English-speaking world not associated with universities or conservatories: MATA (New York), Bang on a Can Marathon (New York), Aldeburgh Festival (United Kingdom), Ojai Music Festival (California), Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (Massachusetts), Ear Taxi Festival (Chicago), London Ear Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival, Sound Scotland (Aberdeen), Sonorities (Belfast), Monday Evening Concerts (Los Angeles), BIFEM (Bendigo, Victoria), the NOW now (Sydney), SoundOut (Canberra), Liquid Architecture (Australia), and Metropolis New Music Festival (Melbourne). The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, one of the leading festivals of contemporary music in the United Kingdom, has a partnership with the University of Huddersfield.

6. I would like to thank my friend and colleague Alec Hall, who brought to my attention that Michael Rebhahn has also developed a similar taxonomical divide between New Music and the oxymoronic term Contemporary Classical Music.

New Music: A Product of Modernity (and Capitalism)


What is New Music? Is it different from contemporary music? What about modern music? Is it related to modernity? Why music at all? I am quite sure that these are questions that many contemporary music practitioners ask themselves on a regular basis. That said, finding concrete answers may be difficult due to the overwhelming complexity of the topics at hand. In addition, many of us have to teach, compose, and perform incessantly in order to earn a decent living wage, which may not leave much time to reflect upon these ideas.

In this series of essays, I would like to provide concise answers to some of the questions above. (Most of the thoughts that I will be sharing here are expressed in detail in my dissertation, which can be downloaded from my website.) Despite the fact that I arrived at these notions after several years of research, I would like to stress that my answers are preliminary and that, in no way, am I attempting to present them as conclusive. In fact, I would like to think that some of the ideas below may trigger a much greater conversation, which hopefully will enrich our understanding of the music we make in connection with our surrounding reality.

In the modern era, humanity became an active participant in the construction of the world.

I would like to open this first post by defining modernity—an exceedingly laborious task but a good place to start, as I am sure the reader will gradually recognize. Much has been written about modernity, by a number of individuals who have spent their lives studying this phenomenon and its ramifications. I am thinking of Theodor W. Adorno, Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, bell hooks, and a long list of other influential intellectuals from across the globe. I would like to provide three different definitions of modernity that I find rather fitting. The first one was written by Art Berman:

A new form of human self-consciousness is to intervene in history, not only as a mode of awareness, but as a mode of power. Human rationality will predominate, subordinating irrationality, custom and superstition, with the efficacy to plan for and attain progressive improvement in all social institutions through the free exercise of will.[1]

The second definition is by Jürgen Habermas, who writes:

With a different content in each case, the expression ‘modernity’ repeatedly articulates the consciousness of an era that refers back to the past of classical antiquity precisely in order to comprehend itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new. This is not merely true for the Renaissance, with which the ‘modern age’ begins for us; people also considered themselves as ‘modern’ in the age of Charlemagne, in the twelfth century, and in the Enlightenment—in short, whenever the consciousness of a new era developed in Europe through a renewed relationship to classical antiquity.[2]

The third definition can be found in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s recent book on post-capitalist alternatives, Inventing the Future:

[Modernity] can refer to a chronological period, typically filtered through European history with a variety of events having been posited as its origin: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution. For others, modernity is defined by a distinct set of practices and institutions: widespread bureaucratization, a basic framework of liberal democracy, the differentiation of social functions, the colonization of the non-European world, and the expansion of capitalist social relations.[3]

What these definitions seem to have in common is the underlying conviction that, in the modern era, humanity became an active participant in the construction of the world. “Modern” humans became conscious subjects and built societies according to their needs. Of course, the modern world has many facets, some of them conflicting: Emma Goldman’s modernity is different from Joseph Stalin’s; Angela Davis’s view of progress is antipodal to Alan Greenspan’s. Yet, these four individuals share the conviction that humanity is in charge of the development of history. Modernity is not necessarily an egalitarian and democratic endeavor, but rather seems to emerge as a product of 19th-century industrialization and the accompanying exponential growth of technological means. In this regard, it is difficult to imagine modernity without capitalism.

At this point, I hope the reader will bear with me if I provide my own definition of the term. In my view, modernity is the ideological product of an era in which significant scientific and technological advancements successively led a notable portion of humanity (certainly not everyone) to have greater access to some degree of welfare and basic living comfort. Consequently, this betterment of the material conditions may have been partially responsible for the collective behavioral transformation that caused us to believe in and act upon the notion that we humans do indeed have the power to shape our own future.

Eixample in Barcelona

The district of the Eixample in Barcelona. Photo by alhzeia via Flickr

Modernity can be expressed in many forms. It may look like Nonoalco Tlatelolco, Mario Pani’s huge apartment complex built in Mexico City in the 1960s, which had its own schools, hospitals, and other public services. It may also take the form of the Eixample, a district of Barcelona made into a grid pattern of streets and avenues, which urban planner Ildefons Cerdà designed in the late 19th century. Modernity is also Taylorism, efficient productivity, and the exploitation of workers. Or, it can be expressed in the Russian proletarian revolution and other actions that demonstrate social consciousness. In fact, it is this contradictory facet that interests me the most about modernity: while technical advancements have improved the living conditions of many, it is equally true that oppression has taken new forms, different from those that we associate with earlier times. At its core, modernity carries a capacity for self-critique: it is a paradoxical phenomenon that acknowledges the possibility of human progress while it simultaneously scrutinizes the means that lead to this very progress. In this regard, modernity advances a locus whereby humans can seek emancipation by committing themselves to some ideal of freedom. This is what we learned from Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche—or, what Paul Ricœur called l’école du soupçon [the school of suspicion].

Any type of music, like any type of art, is a product of the social relations that evolve from a given set of material conditions.

How is music related to this discussion? Any type of music, like any type of art, is a product of the social relations that evolve from a given set of material conditions. In the present situation, music is a product of neoliberal capitalism and, therefore, it is susceptible to becoming a commodity exchangeable in the market. This is the case for the vast majority of music that is created today: from Beyoncé and Kanye West to Mathias Spahlinger and David Lang. Regardless of genre and other internal aesthetic qualities, as long as music is supplied in exchange for economic capital (through record sales, concert tickets, or commission fees) musicians participate in the logic of capitalism. The question is whether this is perceived as an issue that needs to be addressed or, on the contrary, if it is an inevitable consequence that cannot be tackled through the music itself. My contention is that New Music is an aesthetic project that ultimately demands the illusion of alternative material conditions, perhaps fairer than the ones we presently endure or even more dystopian in order to warn us of where society should never go. For this reason, New Music is at the very least obliged to inquire into its own material status.

In my next post, I will attempt to define New Music in contrast to the term “contemporary music,” which does not necessarily assume the ideological imperatives associated with New Music.

Joan Arnau Pàmies

Joan Arnau Pàmies

The music of Joan Arnau Pàmies (IPA: [d͡ʒu’ɑnəɾ’nɑu’pɑmiəs]) has been performed internationally by new music specialists such as the Arditti and JACK Quartets, Fonema Consort, Ensemble Dal Niente, ensemble recherche, and Vertixe Sonora Ensemble. Pàmies’s writings have been published by the University of Huddersfield Press, NewMusicBox, Open Space Magazine, and Sul Ponticello, among others. He holds degrees from Northwestern University and the New England Conservatory of Music.

1. Art Berman, Preface to Modernism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 3.

2. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” in Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity, eds. Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves and Seyla Benhabib (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 39.

3. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015), 71.

Indeterminacy 2.0: Under the Hood


Image from variant:SONiC by Joshue Ott and Kenneth Kirschner

This week, I want to talk about some of the actual work I’ve done with indeterminate digital music, with a focus on both the technologies involved and the compositional methods that have proven useful to me in approaching this sort of work. Let me open with a disclaimer that this is going to be a hands-on discussion that really dives into how these pieces are built. It’s intended primarily for composers who may be interested in writing this kind of music, or for listeners who really want to dig into the mechanics underlying the pieces. If that’s not you, feel free to just skim it or fast-forward ahead to next week, when we’ll get back into a more philosophical mode.

For fellow composers, here’s a first and very important caveat: as of right now, this is not music for which you can buy off-the-shelf software, boot it up, and start writing—real, actual programming will be required. And if you, like me, are someone who has a panic attack at the sight of the simplest Max patch, much less actual code, then collaboration may be the way to go, as it has been for me. You’ll ideally be looking to find and work with a “creative coder”—someone who’s a programmer, but has interest and experience in experimental art and won’t run away screaming (or perhaps laughing) at your crazy ideas.


Let me rewind a little and talk about how I first got interested in trying to write this sort of music. I had used chance procedures as an essential part of my compositional process for many years, but I’d never developed an interest in working with true indeterminacy. That changed in the early 2000s, when my friend Taylor Deupree and I started talking about an idea for a series we wanted to call “Music for iPods.” An unexpected side effect of the release of the original iPod had been that people really got into the shuffle feature, and suddenly you had all these inadvertent little Cageans running around shuffling their whole music collections right from their jean pockets. What we wanted to do was to write specifically for the shuffle feature on the iPod, to make a piece that was comprised of little fragments designed to be played in any order, and that would be different every time you listened. Like most of our bright ideas, we never got around to it—but it did get me thinking on the subject.

And as I thought about it, it seemed to me that having just one sound at a time wasn’t really that interesting compositionally; there were only so many ways you could approach structuring the piece, so many ways you could put the thing together. But what if you could have two iPods on shuffle at once? Three? More? That would raise some compositional questions that struck me as really worth digging into. And under the hood, what was this newfangled iPod thing but a digital audio player—a piece of software playing software. It increasingly seemed like the indeterminate music idea was something that should be built in software—but I had no clue how to do it.


In 2004, while performing at a festival in Spain, I met a Flash programmer, Craig Swann, who had just the skills needed to try out my crazy idea. The first piece we tried—July 29, 2004 (all my pieces are titled by the date on which they’re begun)—was a simple proof of concept, a realization of the “Music for iPods” idea; it’s basically an iPod on shuffle play built in Flash. The music itself is a simple little piano composition which I’ve never found particularly compelling—but it was enough to test out the idea.

Here’s how it works: the piece consists of 35 short sound files, each about 10 seconds long, and each containing one piano chord. The Flash program randomly picks one mp3 at a time and plays it—forever. You can let this thing go as long as you like, and it’ll just keep going—the piece is indefinite, not just indeterminate. Here’s an example of what it sounds like, and for this and all the other pieces in my first indeterminate series, you can download the functioning generative Flash app freely from my website and give it a try. I say “functioning,” but these things are getting a bit long in the tooth; you may get a big security alert that pops up when you press the play button, but click “OK” on it and it still works fine. Also potentially interesting for fellow composers is that, by opening up the subfolders on each piece, you can see and play all of the underlying sound files individually and hopefully start to get a better sense of how these things are put together.

It was with the next piece, August 26, 2004, that this first series of indeterminate pieces for me really started to get interesting (here’s a fixed excerpt, and here’s the generative version). It’s one thing to play just one sound, then another, then another, ad infinitum. But what if you’ve got a bunch of sounds—two or three or four different layers at once—all happening in random simultaneous juxtapositions and colliding with one another? It’s a much more challenging, much more interesting compositional question. How do you structure the piece? How do you make it make sense? All these sounds have to “get along,” to fit together in some musically meaningful way—and yet you don’t want it to be homogenous, static, boring. How do you balance the desire for harmonic complexity and development with the need to avoid what are called, in the technical parlance of DJs, “trainwrecks”? Because sooner or later, anything that can happen in these pieces will happen, and you have to build the entire composition with that knowledge in mind.

August 26, 2004 was one possible solution to this problem. There are three simultaneous layers playing—three virtual “iPods” stacked shuffling on top of each other. One track plays a series of piano recordings, which here carry most of the harmonic content; there are 14 piano fragments, most around a minute long, each moving within a stable pitch space, and each able to transition more or less smoothly into the next. On top of that are two layers of electronics, drawn from a shared set of 21 sounds, and these I kept very sparse: each is harmonically open and ambiguous enough that it should, in theory, be able to hover over whatever piano fragment is playing as well as bump into the other electronic layer without causing too much trouble.

As the series continued, however, I found myself increasingly taking a somewhat different approach: rather than divide up the sounds into different functional groups, with one group dominating the harmonic space, I instead designed all of the underlying fragments to be “compatible” with one another—every sound would potentially work with every other, so that any random juxtaposition of sounds that got loaded could safely coexist. To check out some of these subsequent pieces, you can scan through 2005 on my website for any compositions marked “indet.” And again, for all of them you can freely download the generative version and open up the folders to explore their component parts.

INTERMISSION (2006–2014)

By late 2005, I was beginning to drift away from this sort of work, for reasons both technological and artistic (some of which I’ll talk about next week), and by 2006 I found myself again writing nothing but fully “determinate” work. Lacking the programming skills to push the work forward myself, indeterminacy became less of a focus—though I still felt that there was great untapped potential there, and hoped to return to it one day.

Another thing holding the pieces back was, quite simply, the technology of the time. They could only be played on a desktop computer, which just wasn’t really a comfortable or desirable listening environment then (or, for that matter, now). These pieces really cried out for a mobile realization, for something you could throw in your pocket, pop some headphones on, and hit the streets with. So I kept thinking about the pieces, and kept kicking around ideas in my head and with friends. Then suddenly, over the course of just a few years, we all looked up and found that everyone around us was carrying in their pockets extremely powerful, highly capable computers—computers that had more firepower than every piece of gear I’d used in the first decade or two of my musical life put together. Except they were now called “phones.”


In 2014, after years of talking over pad kee mao at our local Thai place, I started working with my friend Joshue Ott to finally move the indeterminate series forward. A visualist and software designer, Josh is best known in new music circles for superDraw, a “visual instrument” on which he improvises live generative imagery for new music performances and on which he has performed at venues ranging from Mutek to Carnegie Hall. Josh is also an iOS developer, and his app Thicket, created with composer Morgan Packard, is one of the best examples out there of what can be achieved when you bring together visuals, music, and an interactive touch screen.

Working as artists-in-residence at Eyebeam, Josh and I have developed and launched what we’re calling the Variant series. Our idea was to develop a series of apps for the iPhone and iPad that would bring together the generative visuals of his superDraw software with my approach to indeterminate digital music, all tightly integrated into a single interactive experience for the user. Our concept for the Variant apps is that each piece in the series will feature a different visual composition of Josh’s, a different indeterminate composition of mine—and, importantly, a different approach to user interactivity.

When I sat down to write the first sketches for these new apps, my initial instinct was to go back and basically rewrite August 26, 2004, which had somehow stuck with me as the most satisfying piece of the first indeterminate series. And when I did, the results were terrible—well, terribly boring. It took me a little while to realize that I’d perhaps learned a thing or two in the intervening decade, and that I needed to push myself harder—to try to move the indeterminate pieces forward not just technologically, but compositionally as well. So I went back to the drawing board, and the result was the music for our first app, variant:blue (here’s an example of what it sounds like).

It’s immediately clear that this is much denser than anything I’d tried to do in the first indeterminate series—even beyond the eight tracks of audio running simultaneously. It’s denser compositionally, with a more dissonant and chromatic palette than I would have had the courage to attempt ten years earlier. But the piece is actually not that complex once you break it down: each audio file contains a rhythmically loose, repeating instrumental pattern (you can hear an example of one isolated component here to give you a sense of it), with lots of silent spaces in between the repetitions. The rhythms, however, are totally free (there’s no overarching grid or tempo), so as you start to layer this stuff, the patterns begin to overlap and interfere with each other in complex, unpredictable ways. For variant:blue, there are now 48 individual component audio files; the indeterminate engine grabs one sound file at random and assigns it to one of the eight playback tracks, then grabs the next and assigns it to the next available track, and so forth. One handy feature of all of the Variant apps is that, when you click the dot in the lower right, a display will open that shows the indeterminate engine running in real time, which should hopefully give you a better sense of how the music is put together.

In one way, though, the music for variant:blue is very much like my earlier indeterminate pieces: it’s straight-up indeterminate, not interactive. The user has no control over the audio, and the music evolves only according to the indeterminate engine’s built-in chance procedures. For variant:blue, the interaction design focuses solely on the visuals, giving you the ability to draw lines that are in turn modified by the music. True audio interactivity, however, was something that would become a major struggle for us in our next app, variant:flare.

The music for variant:flare has a compositional structure that is almost the diametrical opposite of variant:blue’s, showing you a very different solution to the problem of how to bring order to these indeterminate pieces. Where the previous piece was predominantly atonal and free-floating, this one is locked to two absolute grids: a diatonic scale (C# minor, though sounding more like E major much of the time), and a tight rhythmic grid (at 117 bpm). So you can feel very confident that whatever sound comes up is going to get along just fine with the other sounds that are playing, in terms of both pitch and rhythm. Within that tightly quantized, completely tonal space, however, there’s actually plenty of room for movement—and each of these sounds gets to have all sorts of fun melodically and especially metrically. The meters, or lack thereof, are where it really gets interesting, because the step sequencer that was used to create each audio file incorporated chance procedures that occasionally scrambled whatever already-weird meter the pattern was playing in. Thus every individual line runs in a different irregular meter, and also occasionally changes and flips around into new and confusingly different patterns. Try following the individual lines (like this one); it’s a big fun mess, and you can listen to an example of the full app’s music here.

We were very happy with the way both the music and the visuals for the app came together—individually. But variant:flare unexpectedly became a huge challenge in the third goal of our Variant series: interactivity. Try as we might, we simply couldn’t find a way to make both the music and the visuals meaningfully interactive. The musical composition was originally designed to just run indeterminately, without user input, and trying to add interactivity after the fact proved incredibly difficult. What brought it all together in the end was a complete rethink that took the piece from a passive musical experience to a truly active one. The design we hit on was this: each tap on the iPad’s screen starts one track of the music, up to six. After that point, each tap resets a track: one currently playing track fades out and is replaced by another randomly selected one. This allows you to “step” through the composition yourself, to guide its evolution and development in a controlled, yet still indeterminate fashion (because the choice of sounds is still governed by chance). If you find a juxtaposition of sounds you like, one compelling point in the “compositional space” of the piece, leave it alone—the music will hover there, staying with that particular combination of sounds until you’re ready to nudge it forward and move on. The visuals, conversely, now have no direct user interactivity and are controlled completely by the music. While this was not at all the direction we initially anticipated taking, we’re both reasonably satisfied with how the app’s user experience has come together.

After this experience, my goal for the next app was to focus on building interactivity into the music from the ground up—not to struggle with adding it into something that was already written, but to make it an integral part of the overall plan of the composition from the start. variant:SONiC, our next app, was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for the October 2015 SONiC Festival, and my idea for the music was to take sounds from a wide cross-section of the performers and composers in the festival and build the piece entirely out of those sounds. I asked the ACO to send out a call for materials to the festival’s participants, asking each interested musician to send me one note—a single note played on their instruments or sung—with the idea of building up a sort of “virtual ensemble” to represent the festival itself. I received a wonderfully diverse array of material to work with—including sounds from Andy Akiho, Alarm Will Sound (including Miles Brown, Michael Clayville, Erin Lesser, Courtney Orlando, and Jason Price), Clarice Assad, Christopher Cerrone, The Crossing, Melody Eötvös, Angelica Negron, Nieuw Amsterdams Peil (including Gerard Bouwhuis and Heleen Hulst), and Nina C. Young—and it was from these sounds that I built the app’s musical composition.

When you boot up variant:SONiC, nothing happens. But tap the screen and a sound will play, and that sound will trigger Josh’s visuals as well. Each sound is short, and you can keep tapping—there are up to ten sounds available to you at once, one for each finger, so you can almost begin to play the piece like an instrument. As with our other apps, each tap is triggering one randomly selected element of the composition at a time—but here there are 153 total sounds, so there’s a lot for you to explore. And with this Variant you get one additional interactive feature: hold down your finger, and whatever sound you’ve just triggered will start slowly looping. Thus you can use one hand, for example, to build up a stable group of repeating sounds, while the other “solos” over it by triggering new material. variant:SONiC is a free app, so it’s a great way to try out these new indeterminate pieces—but for those that don’t have access to an iOS device, here’s what it sounds like.

variant:SONiC is, for me, the first of our apps where the audio interactivity feels natural, coherent, and integral to the musical composition. And to me it illustrates how—particularly when working with touchscreen technology—indeterminacy quite naturally slides into interactivity with this kind of music. I’m not sure whether that’s just because iPhone and iPad users expect to be able to touch their screens and make things happen, or whether there’s something inherent in the medium that draws you in this direction. Maybe it’s just that having the tools on hand tempts you to use them; to a composer with a hammer, everything sounds like a nail.

In the end, though, much as I’m finding interactive music to be intriguing and rewarding, I do still believe that there’s a place for indeterminate digital music that isn’t interactive. I hope to work more in this direction in the future—though to call it merely “passive” indeterminate music sounds just as insulting as calling a regular old piece of music “determinate.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that, despite all these wonderfully interactive technologies we have available to us today, there’s still something to be said for just sitting back and listening to a piece of music. And maybe that’s why I’ve called this series Indeterminacy 2.0 rather than Interactivity 1.0.

Next week, our season finale: “The Music of Catastrophe.”

Indeterminacy 2.0: In Which We Agonize Over Terminology


Image from variant:flare by Joshue Ott and Kenneth Kirschner

Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.

—Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies

I have a certain tendency to refer to my indeterminate pieces as “my indeterminate pieces.” But wait, aren’t they generative? Haven’t we forgotten about Brian Eno?

In this week’s episode, I want to try to hash out some of the terminology floating around this sort of music. This is very much intended as a conversation: I don’t feel I have the right answers myself, and I’d like to hear in the comments below your thoughts, disagreements, and differing interpretations of what all these words mean—or should mean. A certain amount of this is squares and rectangles, and more than one of these terms could apply to any given piece of music. So let me pick a few of the key concepts out there and start to try to pin them down a little…


Let’s start with an easy one: the Cagean distinction between chance procedures and indeterminacy. Chance procedures are the incorporation of a random element into either the process of creating a composition or into the actual structure of the composition itself; as such, they can just as much be used to create a fixed work as an indeterminate one. The classic example is Cage’s own Music of Changes, in which he employed coin tosses and the I Ching to decide the notes of a fixed, fully determined score. Chance procedures can give you a piece that’s indeterminate or a piece that’s not, and an indeterminate piece can be based on chance or on some other uncertain element (such as performer choice, as in Feldman’s graph pieces).


Let’s start by calling an indeterminate composition a piece of music that differs with every realization, whether that realization is a performance or a recording. Or whether that difference comes from chance procedures, performer or listener choice, or a generative process. Cage called The Art of the Fugue an indeterminate composition because, while each and every note is fixed by the score, Bach never specified the instrumentation and so every realization is potentially different. Push this too far and the concept disintegrates: after all, every performance of any score will be different every time, with big huge millisecond differences between even the most robotic human performances. So we need to try to isolate the concept a little more, perhaps by saying that there’s an aspect of the composition’s fundamental structure that opens itself to uncertainty and difference, and that this structural rather than performative element is what properly characterizes indeterminacy.

Throwing out some examples beyond the odd one of The Art of the Fugue:

  • Feldman’s early indeterminate pieces—starting from the Projections series, in which the performer chooses their own notes among “high,” “middle,” and “low” pitch ranges—or the Durations pieces, in which the pitches themselves are fixed but the tempos and rhythms are free.
  • A huge number of Cage pieces, from Imaginary Landscape No. 4 with its radios, up through the late Number Pieces with their wide-open spaces and vast freedoms of time and sound.
  • Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, which forms a sort of musical mobile of individually fixed elements that can be permutated into endlessly varying combinations (and which, as we’ll see next week, is similar to the approach I’ve been trying with software-based indeterminate composition).

Or there’s Terry Riley’s In C, there’s Ives and Cowell, Brown and Wolff—the list goes on. But let’s change gears…


Okay, now we get to Eno. His concept of generative music starts with 1975s Discreet Music and runs to the present with interactive apps such as Bloom and Scape. I’m tempted to say that generative music is music that uses a clearly defined process—an algorithm, a set of axioms or rules, a list of instructions—to create a composition that evolves strictly according to that process but not necessarily deterministically; the end result can be fixed or indeterminate, autonomous or interactive. Eno cites wind chimes as an example of a generative music. Or consider Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain: we can think of this as a generative work in that it takes a specified process (two tape loops gradually phasing) and lets that process run—but interestingly, it’s not an indeterminate composition; the result is a fixed recording. Conversely, a generative piece can be indeterminate—through built-in randomness, external inputs, or other means. We’ll need a Venn diagram for all this.

Perhaps one possible direction in helping differentiate generativity and indeterminacy is as a process vs. a result: generativity is a way of making something, indeterminacy is a trait of the thing made. So you can have a generative indeterminate work, or a generative determinate work. Could you have a non-generative indeterminate work? Perhaps Feldman’s approach to indeterminacy might fit the bill: his focus was on performer choice, rather than system or chance. So by the time you try to force a Projections or a Durations into the category of generative music, the whole concept has become blurred beyond recognition.


In a way, interactivity is an even bigger jump than the leap from certainty to indeterminacy. Let’s call an interactive composition a piece that actively integrates the listener or audience member into the structure of the composition itself. Or a piece in which the listener, rather than just the composer or performer, participates in the realization of the work. But perhaps a better word than “listener” would be “user”—because questions of interactivity arise naturally and almost automatically when dealing with indeterminate digital music, in a way that they don’t necessarily in a concert hall. The iPad apps I’ll talk about next week have, as we’ve worked on them, become far more focused on interactivity than on a more traditional, “passive” sense of indeterminacy, all through a process that has seemed both natural and inevitable.

Distinguishing interactive music becomes a question of the “stance” of the listener: Are they an active participant in the realization of the music? Do their actions alter or guide the development of the piece? Or do they experience the piece as they would a traditional work—sitting back, letting it unfold, just listening. Having now worked on both non-interactive indeterminate music and interactive indeterminate music (cue the Venn diagram again), I can tell you that this is a very, very significant difference from a compositional point of view. But more on that next week.

I want to throw out one final term—though more as a proposal, as I’m not sure it actually exists yet:


My indeterminate pieces all use software-based chance procedures to reshuffle their component parts, creating random juxtapositions of different fragments of material—a sort of digital mobile (pronounced like Calder rather than your phone). But in listening to them, I can’t escape the feeling that sometimes the results are better and sometimes worse; the roll of the dice sometimes gets it right—sometimes that random number generator is just on. From this, I got to thinking about how I could cheat—how I could bias the piece toward better results, more reliably, more consistently than just through pure chance alone. One idea was to “weight” the outcomes with perhaps something as crude as a “thumbs up” button: the piece hits upon a good concatenation of material and you hit “yes,” which then statistically biases it to move more often toward that part of its “compositional space” in the future. As you develop the piece, you’d gradually refine these “likes,” and the piece would slowly adapt itself toward a set of outcomes that sound better and better. So it’s random, but a structured, learned, constrained randomness. You could also have different versions or interpretations of the piece: the composer could painstakingly develop an adaptive profile—their vision for the piece—but then the listener could reset it and develop their own interpretation, their own way of weighting the dice and biasing the outcomes of chance toward a better or different musicality. We haven’t tried this yet, and I’m not sure if anyone else has, but I feel like it’s a promising idea.

There are plenty of terms still out there—aleatoric music, stochastic music, algorithmic music—that I don’t have the space or, in truth, the clarity on to start locking down right now. But maybe in the end it’s better to think of all these conflicting and converging words as adjectives rather than nouns—ways of describing a piece rather than static categories or classifications. Because, again, push any of them too far and they become absurd. What piece of music doesn’t have an element of chance back there somewhere in the history of its creation? What performance of a scored composition isn’t innately indeterminate in its microphysics, its performative nuance? And don’t forget that any playing of any recording is indeterminate as well—across different speakers or headphones, in different rooms, amidst different sonic environments, with different interruptions, pauses, and distractions.

And doesn’t every composition, “generative” or not, involve a formal system that structures it, that organizes and limits it within the vast space of all possible music? Consider the following perfectly legitimate set of rules and constraints: Take a harp and knock it on its side. Now, instead of playing it with your fingers, build an elaborate system of mechanical hammers to strike the strings. Tune those strings to a strange compromise in temperament that allows modulation between keys at the cost of twisting certain intervals away from their ostensibly more natural whole number ratios. Oh, and 88 might be a good number of strings to use.

Is this an interactive composition? A generative one? It has a clearly defined system of axioms and rules that constrain the possible space of musical results. But is it really necessary to say that a piano is one big indeterminate composition?

I’d like to see the answers to this and every other question I’ve asked today in the comments below, so that I can get it all figured out myself.