Determining Indeterminacy by Dean Wilcox

The Legacy of John Cage
Dean Wilcox, The University of North Carolina School of the Arts

 John Cage made you realize that there wasn’t a thing called noise,
it was just music you hadn’t appreciated. ~ Brian Eno 

For years now John Cage has been my “go-to guy” for potent examples for essays, class discussions, and even casual conversations. I have drawn on 4’33” to discuss ambient space, Imaginary Landscape #4 to address chance driven events, and Williams Mix to discuss indeterminacy. Cage was, without question, a great liberator who embodied the spirit of Romanticism that burst out of the 18th century to land with the Symbolists and Alfred Jarry in the late 19th century, and on to the Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. This spirit of rebellion is evident in Cage’s philosophy and compositional style and he emerges as a fulcrum that cleaves the 20th century in half by influencing a wide range of artistic experimentation. Although it was Luigi Russolo who opened our minds to the art of noises, it was Cage who opened our ears.

As one of the major artist/thinkers of the 20th century Cage’s legacy is built on a number of key elements. While there are quite a few ideas to choose from, the first three that I generally think of are indeterminacy, non-intention, and chance operations. Cage developed these techniques as a way of negating, or at least limiting his ego, taste, and musical discretion.  Subsequent generations would employ these ideas in varying degrees for various purposes. I am invoking Cage here mainly as a way of discussing his legacy and how these ideas on sound and composition have inspired, been used, been altered, and expanded by succeeding generations of artists. Attempting to capture the full scope of Cage’s influence is impossible, it is too vast and too multi-disciplinary to be addressed in a single article, so I have opted to narrow this focus to discuss generative art, post-digital art, and glitch as three recent developments with Cagian roots.

It is certainly well known that Cage studied with Arnold Schoenberg, absorbing at least part of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Although, as Henry Cowell points out, “Cage was more interested in [Schoenberg’s] philosophy than in acquiring his technique.”[i] While it is possible to discuss Cage’s use of such things as chance operations in the compositional process in opposition to Schoenberg’s teachings, Cage felt that his systematic use of chance was faithful in spirit to his teacher’s methods. He is quite clear in stating, “Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance don’t realize that I use chance as a discipline. They think that I use it as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask.”[ii]  In this respect, his compositions derived from coin tosses, dice rolls, the I Ching, and Tarot cards (and latter computerized versions of these elements) can be discussed as a methodology as systematized as Schoenberg’s.

Although Cage’s use of chance operations can be viewed as a methodology, his use of indeterminate elements, such as relying on performer(s) to sonically interpret the score, added another layer to this process. Unlike the generation of composers that followed Schoenberg (here I am thinking of Webern, Boulez, and Stockhausen) and developed a serialist approach to composition that worked to control pitch, duration, tone, color, rhythm, and dynamics, Cage bowed to the idea of non-intention and actively worked to remove his own taste and judgment from the compositional and performance process. Whereas Schoenberg once told his students during a summer course at the University of Sothern California, “you can contrast in music only things which are related – you cannot join tone + apples,”[iii] Cage’s legacy suggests that perhaps you can.

While Cage’s compositional process clearly articulates a philosophy of indeterminism, he is careful to point out that a non-deterministic work may sound quite similar to a deterministic one.[iv] Because his compositions often involved chance operations that were largely invisible to the listener, his underlying structure was as hidden as those of his contemporaries. The only difference, however, is that Cage’s use of indeterminacy assured that each composition would sound, in some cases, radically different each time it was performed. A piece like Imaginary Landscape #4 is a good example. Composed for 12 radios with very specific instructions for volume, tuning, and duration this piece has an overall structure that is repeatable, but the material presented by that structure is different with each performance. As a performance medium, the radio is capable, at any given moment in any given location, of producing a wide range of sounds – music, talk, static, silence, and sounds at the very edge of audibility. Although Cage derived the structure of this piece through chance procedures, he created a controlled and determined performance structure built on an indeterminate framework.

While Cage was certainly not the first artist to work with chance as a compositional element[v], Cage’s use of chance operations and indeterminacy would eventually have widespread mainstream applications.  In many ways, Cage can be seen as the progenitor of generative art, which can loosely be defined as artistic processes that incorporate chaotic, chance-infused, mechanical, organic, computer-controlled, and/or other external, random, or semi-random processes and/or apparatuses directly into the creative process. Much like Cage’s notion of indeterminacy the idea of generative art poses a “product” as surprising to the artist as it is to the listener. In discussing his role in listening to an indeterminate piece Cage explains, “I write in such a way as to hear something that I have not yet heard. Therefore, I’m in the position the listener is in, and the critic is in with respect to my music.”[vi] Addressing the idea of generative music Brian Eno, perhaps the closest to Cage in terms of scope and influence in a contemporary sense, points out, “It’s possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you . . . Now the wonderful thing about that is that it starts to create music that you’ve never heard before.”[vii] Utilizing these ideas Eno launched an entire ambient music industry by employing indeterminacy and a fairly simple set of parameters.

One of the main pieces that Eno cites as influential to his work is Steve Reich’s “Its Gonna Rain.” Working in 1965 with tape loops Reich discovered that “ the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of unison with each other”[viii] Like Cage’s compositional process that actively worked to develop non-intention by removing the composer’s taste and judgment, Reich found that the experience of this musical process was “above all else, impersonal; it just goes its way.” He continued, stating, “Once the process has been set up it inevitably works itself out.”[ix] As the two loops began to move out of phase with each other a tremendous amount of complexity in sound developed from of a fairly simple process. Like Cage, Reich was in the position of listener, of hearing something that he had not yet heard.

While Reich does not directly credit Cage with inspiring this process, he does point out that “Cage’s ideas about chance procedures were very much in the air and it seemed necessary to deal with them, one way or another.”[x] But Reich was not content to leave these findings at the level of non-intention. As he states, “John Cage discovered that he could take his intentions out of a piece of music and open up a field for many interesting things to happen, and in that sense I agree with him. But where he was willing to keep his musical sensibility out of his own music, I was not.”[xi] Whereas Cage was content to allow his chance derived compositional process to remain hidden in the performed result, Reich sought to make his compositional process more audible. Subsequent pieces like Four Organs, Drumming, and Music for 18 Musicians would refine these ideas in a more controlled compositional way.

But Eno, following Reich’s experimental lead, was willing to dispense with any attempt to control the outcome. Whereas Reich was able to take his observations on his early tape loop pieces and shape them into a controlled compositional process, Eno used this inspiration to develop ideas on generative art. Despite recording and producing some of the most recognizable music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries Eno continues to refer to himself as a “non-musician.”[xii] Like Cage, Eno’s approach to music is as a kind of sonic inventor who develops processes and procedures rather than compositions.[xiii] Eno’s work, initially with Roxy Music and then on his solo albums and collaborative works with bands like Talking Heads and U2, all rely on following a sonic muse wherever it led. Unlike Reich’s tentative “in the air” Eno is clear about his debt to Cage.

I think without John Cage I wouldn’t have been involved in music at all actually. Because Cage created the atmosphere within which it was possible for a lot of other people to start thinking you could make music using this or that or no instruments or some instruments or people who could play or who can’t play. Suddenly it broke down the boundary between the group of people called composers and the rest of the world.[xiv]

Working with a generative structure, Eno is largely credited with developing the ambient music genre, a form of soundscape more like audible wallpaper than music that demands immediate attention. As Eno put it, music “as ignorable as it is interesting.”[xv]  Building on the type of work that Reich had developed with his tape loops, Eno’s first piece in this genre, Discreet Music, was created much like “Its Gonna Rain” in that it has no compositional structure outside of the recording process. As Eno points out in the album’s liner notes,  “if there is any score for the piece, it must be the operational diagram of the particular apparatus I used for its production,”[xvi] which includes a synthesizer with a digital recall system, a graphic equalizer, an echo unit, two tape recorders – one set on playback and the other on record, as well as two delays – one as the pre-recorded signal is sent out and the other as it is sent back through the recording unit.

Like Reich’s work with the tape loops, Eno set this system in motion and then sat back and listened to the results. Working to abandon his own judgment and intention, he comments that, “it is a point of discipline to accept this passive role, and, for once, to ignore the tendency to play the artist by dabbling and interfering.”[xvii] Examined in a certain light it is possible to see that what Eno accomplished was the compositional inverse of Cage’s chance operations. Through chance Cage specified structure, but largely left the sounds that filled that structure indeterminate. Eno, on the other hand, was responsible for the choice of sounds input into the system, how those sounds were combined was left up to the generative process. The result is a composition that doesn’t sound anything like Cage’s collision of sounds or the chaos created by Reich’s loops. In Discreet Music soundsebb and flow in and out of consciousness like waves lapping at the shore.

For Eno, the key to this process of employing “machines” and “systems” was “to make music with materials and processes I specified, but in combinations and interactions that I did not.”[xviii]  Like Cage, he chose the sound fragments, but relinquished control over how these fragments would interact through the generative system he had set up. Ambient pieces like Music for Airports and On Land unfold in a dreamy haze of sound with occasional melodic fragments breaking through the surface. By relying on indeterminate combinations of determined sonic elements Eno managed to aetheticize the compositional process of chance operations and thereby make it “beautiful” to a growing mainstream audience.

Moving from the simple rules set up with a tape delay system Eno saw the potential for emergent computer technology to process simple algorithms and create fantastically complex works. Defined simply as a set of instructions to solve a specific issue in a set number of steps, the use of algorithms would come to define the compositional process in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Using a “formal process to make music with minimal human intervention,”[xix] the work of Cage, Schoenberg, Reich, and Eno can all be considered examples of compositional processes that employ algorithms. Inspired by the algorithmic quality of early screensaver programs Bliss and Stained Glass Eno would eventually move beyond creating generative music to develop a piece called 77 Million Paintings, a CD-ROM released in 2006 that generatively mixes over 300 pictures in a seemingly endless array of layered and overlapped scanned digital images. More recently Eno has extended these generative ideas to the development of Smartphone and iPad and tablet apps like Bloom and Air and Trope that create unique and original sound compositions based on the user’s interaction with the touch screen.

While Eno’s generative work can be seen as a continuation of Cage’s chance procedures and indeterminacy, his pieces are often contained by his simple algorithmic structures and his pallet of sounds rarely finds the range of “noise” that Reich and Cage employed. Following a similar generative line of composition Yasunao Tone employs a much wider sonic range that further develops the Cagian notion of indeterminacy. Coming of age in Japan in the 1960s Tone was influenced by the historical avant-garde, he wrote his graduate thesis on Dada and Surrealism, as well as the work of various Fluxus artists who were inspired by Cage’s compositional ideas.[xx]

Initially making his mark as a live performer, Tone resisted documenting this work with something as fixed as a recording. Commenting on Cage’s indeterminate process in an essay entitled “John Cage and Recording” Tone writes that “most of Cage’s pieces would suffer from the practice of recording if the listener takes for granted that the records are simply repetitive and are always identical to the original. His work, in particular, that written for indeterminacy would be marred by such a way of listening.”[xxi] It is perhaps for this reason that Tone, like Cage, was somewhat skeptical of the recording process and declined to record his work until 1992. Tone felt that none of his pieces developed for performance were suitable for recording and that he had to “create something that only a CD as a medium could produce.”[xxii] Thinking of Jasper John’s comment “the best criticism of a painting is to put another painting next to it,” Tone states, “I perhaps encounter Cage when I am composing and reaching a point at which I am trying to get beyond his music.”[xxiii] Through the use of digital technology, Tone was able to develop a way of creating sounds that moved beyond Cage.

Working in a purely non-intentional manner in a digital environment Tone converted the characters of an ancient Chinese poetic text to photographs, and then digitized the images, converting them to bits of information to which a computer assigned tones. The purely algorithmically driven result was Musica Iconologos, which, in Eno-ish fashion, was not so much composed as assembled by the computer during the recording process. As Craig Kendall, the recording engineer on the disc points out, “all sound that the listeners hear on the accompanying CD is constructed entirely from these 187 sound sources. There was no external processing applied to these sounds in the traditional sense (ie: reverb and EQ); instead each sound was treated digitally using several Digital Signal Processing (DSP) algorithms.”[xxiv] In a completely generative way Tone set the parameters for the composition and then stepped back to listen to the results. Kendall continues, stating that “Tone always remained true to the poem’s structure regardless of his personal impressions of the music, and in this sense the sounds were a type of ‘chance operation’ in form, as their final organization was established long before the project began”[xxv] While perhaps not functioning as a “composer” in the traditional sense, the indeterminate results placed Tone in the same position as Cage and Eno in that he simply listened to the results. As he points out “ It was never recorded – the sound was in the computer and transferred to CD.”[xxvi] The result is what Tone calls “pure noise” a cacophony beyond anything Cage, Reich or Eno ever dreamed.

While computers can be programmed to make decisions, they do so without the agency or biases associated with human decision-making. Void of any judgment save that programmed into the system, machines are the ideal medium for indeterminate compositions if for no other reason than they simply execute the process encoded into the software. This is precisely the reason Cage utilized the I Ching. As he states, “I use it simply as a kind of computer, as a facility. If I have some question that requires a wise answer, then of course I use it that way. But if I want to know which sound of one hundred sounds I’m to use, then I use it just as a computer.”[xxvii] Relying on the execution of simple algorithms, Tone used the computer the way Eno used his delay system, Reich his tape loops and Cage the I Ching. The end result was a completely indeterminate wall of sound that, like listening to Lou Reed’s feedback opus Metal Machine Music, can be a process of endurance; but one not without rewards. A careful examination of the sounds created by Tone’s process reveals partially formed melodies that emerge from the din only to be swallowed by the noise as one digital bit of information is processed after another. What is striking about this composition is how contemporary it sounds. The buzz-saw fax sounds and electronic squiggles and skronks could only have been produced in the latter part of the 20th century.

Further exploring this indeterminate process, Tone used a Compact Disc of Musica Iconologos to create his next recording, Solo for Wounded CD. Clearly a product of the avant-garde, Tone drew on experimentation, chance, and indeterminacy when he began tinkering with the CD playback system within a year or so of its commercial release.[xxviii]  By 1984 Tone had begun manipulating the surface of CDs to override the error correcting system found in most players. Exploring the indeterminate possibilities of digital information, Tone followed the suggestion of a friend of a friend and placed small bits of Scotch Tape with pinholes on the underside of the CD. “I was pleased with the result because the CD player behaved frantically and out of control. That was the perfect device for performance.”[xxix] Effectively launching the “glitch” revolution,[xxx] Tone used these prepared discs in performance primarily because he could not control the outcome.

A form of sound reproduction designed to limit the unintended “noise,” the crackles, pops, hiss and wear of records and audiotape, digital audio was introduced in the early 1980s as a form of clean, pure sound. Translated from analogue to the ones and zeros of the digital era, compact disc technology boasted a completely deterministic replication of the original sound. As a print advertisement from 1983 states, “out of the silence comes full dynamic stereo so clean and clear, it’s virtually uncompromised by background noise.”[xxxi] But, in order to produce this clarity of sound digital information encoded on the surface of the disc had to be decoded and translated into back into sound. Ironically, it was the design of this “uncompromised” system that allowed Tone to manipulate the playback and distort this digital information.

Created with an error correction system, any deviation from the intended recording was deemed an error in the playback system. The sound of skittering, jumping, or stuttering was the sound of the system in “failure” in the same sense that a record needle magnifying the imperfections on the vinyl surface skips to repeat the same fragment over and over. But digital sound doesn’t “skip” in the same way that sound recorded on vinyl does. As Tone points out, unlike the aberrations in vinyl playback, “Its not really skipping. Its distorting information. A CD consists of a series of samples. You know bytes and bits, right? One byte contains sixteen bits of information. So, if I block one or two bits, information still exists – one byte of information – but the numbers are altered so it becomes totally different information. That’s the idea. Its not skipping sound.”[xxxii]

Unlike vinyl, in which the process of creating sound is visible, that is one can see, feel, and to a certain extent control the grooves of sound pressed into the record, CD technology is largely invisible. While the chance procedures employed by artists like Milan Knížák and Christian Marclay certainly push on the determinism of working with vinyl, both artists have routinely worked with cracked, scratched broken and “prepared” records, the development of turntablism, specifically the art of “scratching” suggests a control of the medium rather than giving that control up to chance. For Tone, this was the appeal of working with digital technology. “I think digital is basically unpredictable. There are so many bits and bytes of information condensed in one tiny space, and you can’t locate which part of the disc produces this sound.”[xxxiii] Utilizing this process in a live performance is for Tone “essentially a Fluxus event,” in which the idea of performance “is sort of de-controlled”[xxxiv]

Cage, Reich, and Eno, were able to create sounds by utilizing phonographs, records, and audiotapes that took advantage of the initial design of these systems. While it can be argued that a piece like Cage’s Cartridge Music, designed to amplify a variety of objects used in place of the standard record needle, tinkers with the intended use, Cage does not go beyond a simple substitution of one object for another. Reich’s work with tape loops takes advantage of the fact that even two identical machines will run at different speeds. In a similar way, Tone’s manipulation of CD technology developed out of the fundamental design of the machine. By overriding the error correcting system designed to eliminate deviations from the intended sound and augmenting the surface of the disc Tone was able to amplify “errors” in the system. By setting up a situation in which the machine read information encoded on the disk as “sound” the subsequent translation from ones and zeros allowed the machine to translate digital information not into “music” but “noise.”

Much like Cage’s admonishment that “the field of awareness that’s now open to us is so big that if we are not careful we’ll just go to certain point in it, points with which we’re already familiar,”[xxxv] Tone’s valuation of digital tools arises out of the fact that the sound producing process remained hidden from him. By augmenting the discs he was able to discover sounds with which he was unfamiliar. Further developing the notion of indeterminate sounds in the 21st century Tone’s latest experiments have left the analogue world of objects for the completely digital realm. Interested in “indeterminacy not randomness,”[xxxvi] Tone has recently worked with the New Aesthetics in Computer Music research group based in the Music Research Center at the University of York to “discover a method by which the mechanisms of MP3 encoding and decoding algorithms might be made audible.”[xxxvii] Working with corrupt files, the result was a series of recordings called MP3 Deviations.

Tone, like Cage before him, explores the potential for emergent technology to produce indeterminate sounds. It is this process that has been embraced by the current generation of composers who employ desktop and laptop computers to create music. As digital audio tools have become more assessable and affordable contemporary composers have explored a wide range of sonic possibilities. In his landmark essay “The Aesthetics of Failure ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music” Kim Cascone points out, “Today’s digital technology enables artists to explore new territories for content by capturing and examining the area beyond the boundary of ‘normal’ functions and uses of software.”[xxxviii] In many ways, this outcome of investigating new territories of sound can be seen as integral to the design of this technology.

The contemporary computer is, among other things, a cut and paste and collage tool built on the foundation of juxtaposition of digital elements. Building on the legacy of the Dadaists and Surrealists, Lev Manovich explains that, “one general effect of the digital revolution is that avant-garde aesthetic strategies came to be embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of computer software. In short, the avant-garde became materialized in the computer.”[xxxix] Stored simply as “information” digital elements like sound, video, image, text can now be combined in ways unheard of in previous eras. As Cascone points out, “any selection of algorithms can be interfaced to pass data back and forth, mapping effortlessly from one dimension to another. In this way all data can become fodder for sonic experimentation.”[xl] Whereas in creating a piece like Williams Mix in 1953 Cage had to spend the better part of a year assembling tape fragments, contemporary composers can arrive at the same level of sampled indeterminateness in minutes. As Tone’s Musica Iconologos indicates, digital information, unlike some of the limits of its analogue predecessor, can be used in innumerable ways to produce art works independent of traditional aesthetic values.

Oddly, however, the glitches, pops, cuts, clicks, and skips produced by “malfunctioning” CDs, although born of avant-garde leanings, have not been banished to the “experimental music” ghetto. Surprisingly, these sounds have been absorbed by the more traditional aesthetic framework of pop music. What may have sounded like an aberration when Tone first started manipulating digital information is, as one critic observes, “now simply another part of the sound pallet of the digital producer.”[xli] One of the key elements in this “evolution” of sound from the noise compositions of Tone to the absorption as “part of the sound pallet” was the German band Oval. Working without knowledge of Tone’s experiments Oval (originally Frank Metzger, Sebastian Oschatz, and Markus Popp, but now only Popp) began sampling sounds created by damaged CDs in the early 1990s. Unlike Tone’s deliberate “misuse” of digital technology, the skipping CD sound employed by Oval was discovered by accident. “Metzger had borrowed a jazz CD from a public library that was in terrible condition. The CD stuttered and ‘created interesting “glitches,” mostly because it wasn’t simply hanging as it would usually do, the “stutter” was moving, so the pattern was constantly changing randomly. Later we tried to reproduce the effect.’”[xlii] From this point onward Oval sampled the sounds of deliberately altered or damaged CDs.

The emergent technology at the dawn of the glitch era would make this sampling and manipulation of sound much more accessible. One of the main shifting points was the development of graphic interfaces to edit sound. Like a sonic equivalent of Cantor dust, Cascone explains that, “most audio tools can zoom in on the errors, allowing composers to make them the focus of their work.”[xliii] As Cascone points out, this new genre was created out of “glitches, bugs, application errors, system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, quantization noise, and even the noise floor of computer sound cards are the raw material composers seeks to incorporate into their music.”[xliv] Distinct from the sounds created by samplers or synthesizers, Oval was drawn to this distorted and fragmented “noise.” As Popp explains, “exploring the sonic and rhythmical scope of those irregular CD fragments was the main building block.” He continues, describing the appeal of the indeterminate quality of these sounds by pointing out that “this ‘random access’ approach to arbitrary other musics added an element of overall unpredictability to the musical outcome.”[xlv]

Although drawn to the same level of indeterminacy as Tone, what separates Oval’s work from Tone’s is that these fragments are then consciously shaped into more recognizable “musical” compositions. At the intersection of generative music and glitch, the washes of blurry skipping sounds shaped by Oval owe more to the pulsing slowly developing music of Reich and the ambient drifting sounds of Eno than Cage’s chance pieces or Tone’s jarring compositions. Much like Eno’s popularization of ambient sound, “Oval aestheticized the sound, making it listenable.”[xlvi] Recordings like Systemisch and 94 Diskont from 1994 and 1995 are lush and beautiful, presenting sampled digital bits of information that have been filtered, processed, looped, squashed, expanded, slowed down and sped up.

Like Eno, Popp initially entered the world of music as a “non-musician,” he explains that in the early 1990s “I could not play any ‘real instruments.”[xlvii]  But, given the development of contemporary computer technology this was no longer an obstacle as the creation of the Oval sound was not built on any specialized audio tools, but “has always relied on completely standard software.”[xlviii] The laptop, complete with inexpensive and even free audio software, functioned like Eno’s comment on Cage breaking the boundary between composers and the rest of the world to promote an explosion of new recording techniques and new sounds. By aestheticizing the sound of digital errors, Oval would help usher in the era of glitch and all of its many off-shoots (microsound, microhouse, dubstep, etc).

Thanks in large part to the work of people like Cage, and Tone, and Oval, all manner of noise, feedback, static, white noise, pink noise, the sound of crackling, skipping, and popping vinyl, tape hiss, computer hum, and glitches are now part of the landscape of contemporary experimental and pop music. And so it appears that the indeterminate process developed by Cage has been wholly absorbed into modern digital culture. But here is where the story gets interesting. While Cage was certainly no stranger to the use of computer programs[xlix] he died in 1992, right as contemporary Internet culture and the development of contemporary audio tools began to explode.[l] Although right on the edge of these developments, Cage was aware of the potential of this medium. Tone relates an anecdote about Cage seeing him perform in 1986 with two CD players complete with skipping discs, “Cage sat in the front row, and several minutes after the beginning of the performance he laughed loudly, over and over, until the end. I had no sooner finished the performance than he rushed up to me and shook my hand. I think he approved of my way of using the CD.”[li]

But Cage’s ideas on chance operations and indeterminacy would take a strange turn, as “post-digital” tools would develop to shape and filter sound. In “The Future of Music: Credo” Cage prophesized that “the special function of electrical instruments will be to provide complete control of the overtone structure of tones (as opposed to noises) and make these tones available in frequency, amplitude and duration.”[lii] The digital revolution would take this level of control much much farther. Once the sound of “glitch” had been embraced it did not take programmers long to move beyond the sampling of actual glitches to producing programs capable of creating “glitch-alikes.”[liii] While Tone’s initial attraction to the stuttering CD was that the sounds were created by technology he could not control, today, due to the development of highly sophisticated graphic software interfaces a composer working with a laptop can see and control just about every aspect of sound production. With the development of programs like MAX/MSP, Audiomulch, Audacity, Logic, GarageBand, and plug-ins like “Glitch,” “LiveCut,” “Supatrigga,” and many many more, today’s laptop artists[liv]can control the frequency, speed, range, repeatability, reversibility, and just about any other sonic aspect of sampled sound to precisely imitate the sound of digital failure.[lv]  Out of the impulse to promote system failure and produce unpredictable sounds, we now have software designed to not only predict these sounds, but to completely control them.

It is this gentrification of indeterminacy that one critic bemoans as “the single greatest threat to Glitch’s aesthetic of failure.”[lvi] But beyond this, the level of prediction and control can be applied to the entire compositional process. The generative approach that Eno created with a relatively complex system of loops and delays can easily be replicated today with even the most simplistic of digital audio tools, albeit without the indeterminate vagaries of analogue sound. It is no longer a question of accepting the passive role of the listener, but of defining how much of the compositional process is left up to the design of the software and how much dabbling and interfering the artist is willing to do. Despite the development of these tools, Oval’s process has always remained “hands on” (or whatever the digital equivalent of this is). As Popp explains,

By now there could be MAX patches to do this for me, but I’ve always taken this very analogue manual approach to music. Oval has always been a statement about being lo-tech or low-key. I always wanted to retain this assumption or impression that this music was made with a bunch of tape recorders and broken CD players set up in a small space and recorded onto DAT.[lvii]

Although working with an array of samples, systems and software Popp continues to structure his sounds the old fashioned way, one sonic piece at a time.

The rather paradoxical point to be made with all of this is that today’s composers have even more control over the end result than those working before Cage’s innovations. By following Cage’s chance-driven, non-intentional, non-deterministic approach, technological developments have brought us full circle to an era of total control. If part of Cage’s project was wresting control from the hands of the composer, in the post-digital age of deterministic indeterminacy it is now a matter of wresting control from the “hands” of the composer’s tools. Tracing the legacy of John Cage though generative art, post-digital art and glitch ends at a point in aesthetic development where we may need another innovative voice to challenge our assumptions about control and open our ears to sounds we have not yet heard.


[i] Michael Hicks, “John Cage’s Studies with Schoenberg,” American Music (Summer 1990) 135.

[ii] Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988) 17.

[iii] Hicks, 132.

[iv] Richard Kostelanetz,  John Cage (London: The Penguin Press, 1971) 10.

[v] Mozart’s Musikalishches Würfelspiel (“Dice Music”) outstripped him by a few hundred years and the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists clearly established a solid 20th century foundation for chance as an artistic technique. For an excellent overview on the artistic use of chance see: George Brecht, Chance Imagery (ubuclassics, 2004 – – accessed 3/10/12).

[vi] William Duckworth, Talking Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999) 27.

[vii] Brian Eno, “Generative Music,” In Motion Magazine, June 1996, ( – accessed 3/7/12)

[viii] Steve Reich, Writings on Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 20.

[ix] Ibid., 20. Italics in original.

[x] Ibid.,165.

[xi] Ibid., 33.

[xii] Eric Tamm, Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Color of Sound (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995) 48.

[xiii] Developing a systematic approach to composition that could easily be called “Cagian,” Eno, along with Peter Schmidt, developed a set of “inspirational” cards in 1975 called Oblique Strategies. This set of “oracle cards” modeled on the I Ching contains phrases like “ask your body,” and “what is the simplest solution,” and “a line has two sides” and chosen at random can be used to offer a fresh perspective to propel work in a new direction when inspiration has run dry.

[xiv] John Diliberto, “Avant to Pop: Contemplating a Musical Lineage” (Echoes, Public Radio International – – accessed 3/10/11).

[xv] Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports Liner Notes: PVC Records, 1978.

[xvi] Brian Eno, Discreet Music Liner Notes: Virgin Records, 2004.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) 330.

[xix] Adam Alpern, “Techniques for Algorithmic Composition of Music,” Hampshire College, 1995, 1.

[xx] Tone points out that when Toshi Ichiyanagi returned to Japan in 1961 after studying with Cage in New York that “Toshi had one agenda, which was to disseminate Cage through schools of music in Japan.” Yasunao Tone, Noise, Media Language (New York: Errant Bodies Press, 2007) 66.

[xxi] Yasunao Tone, “John Cage and Recording,” Leonardo Music Journal (Vol. 13, 2003) 13.

[xxii] Ibid., 12.

[xxiii] Ibid., 11.

[xxiv] Craig Kendall, Musica Iconologos Liner Notes: Lovely Music, 1993.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Chris Buck and Alan Licht, “Yasunao Tone: Random Tone Bursts,” The Wire (Issue #223, September 2002 – – accessed 3/7/12).

[xxvii] Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 219.

[xxviii] This is a remarkably early period of an emergent technology. The closest approximation to this would be someone developing the art of turntablism and scratching on a 78 rpm record around 1889.

[xxix] BBC Home, “Cut and Splice 2005 – Yasunao Tone’s Paramedia-Centripetal,”   ( – accessed 3/7/12).

[xxx] Taking the form of glitch music, video, and images, this is an aesthetic style that can be viewed as both intentional, as in the case of Tone, or non-intentional, like the now ubiquitous broken and fragmented images created by an  HD digital television signal as it moves from one image to the next. In his introduction to Glitch: Designing Imperfection (New York: Mark Batty Publisher, 2009) Iman Moradi points out, “glitches usually arise from mistranslations that are facilitated by a loss or breakdown in our communication signals. They are the imperfect and unexpected results of such malfunctions, which have no apparent purpose to their existence in the setting of perfect processes” 8.

[xxxii] Marclay and Tone, “Record, CD, Analogue, Digital,” 341-2.

[xxxiii] Christian Marclay and Yasunao Tone, “Record, CD, Analogue, Digital” in Audio Culture, Edited by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum Books, 2006) 346.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors (New York: The Viking Press, 1965) 134.

[xxxvi] Thom Blake, Mark Fell, Tony Myatt, Peter Worth, “Yasunao Tone and MP3 Deviation,” (Music Research Center, University of York, UK), Paper delivered at 2010 International Computer Music Conference Stony Brook University New York, 236.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 235.

[xxxviii] Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music,” Computer Music Journal (Winter, 2000) 13-14.

[xxxix] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001) xxxi.

[xl] Cascone, 17.

[xli] Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009) 10.

[xlii] Ibid., 256.

[xliii] Cascone, 13.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Brendan Fowler, “Oval,” ANPQuarterly/RVCA(Volume 2, Number 6, November 2011), 72.

[xlvi] Caleb Stuart, “Damaged Sound: Glitching and Skipping Compact Discs in the Audio of Yasunao Tone, Nicolas Collins, and Oval,” Leonardo Music Journal (Vol. 13, 2003) 50.

[xlvii] Fowler, “Oval,” 71.

[xlviii] Sam Inglis, “Markus Popp: Music as Software,” Sound on Sound (October 2002 – – accessed 3/7/12). Popp points out in the Fowler interview that by 2000 “SoundMaker became my go-to app,” 73.

[xlix] For a list of these see: Andrew Culver’s “John Cage’s Computer Programs,”  ( – accessed 3/7/12).

[l] DAT is introduced in 1987, Cubase for Atari in 1989, the MiniDisc in 1992, an early incarnation of MAX/MSP in 1996, the MP3 format in 1997, AAC in 2001, Ableton Live in 2001, Logic Pro and GarageBand in 2004.

[li] Tone, “John Cage and Recording” 12.

[lii] John Cage, Silence (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1966) 5.

[liii] Moradi, Glitch: Designing Imperfection, 9. For interested readers, you can find samples of my “glitch-alike” compositions here:

[liv] Here I am thinking of Cascone, Tim Hecker, Fennesz, James Blake, and current dubstep poster-boy Skrillex.

[lv] While a discussion of glitch images lies outside of this current essay, those interested in replicating the glitchiness of visual imagery should seek out tools like iglitch, an iPhone app that allows the user to adjust the level of color replication, feedback, and overlay to create a glitch image.

[lvi] Jeevan C. Rai, “Glitch: An Endangered Credo” ( – accessed 3/7/12) 5.

[lvii] David Toop, Ovaldna Liner Notes (Shitkatapult: 2012).