07 March 2000

On Chance & Silence

"Apparently, the more discovered the less we know, the greater the mystery."

And so begins Carolyn Brown's essay On Chance: the realization of the correlation between the progress of scientific thought and artistic revelation.

"Is man truly the chance result of a billion or more accidents?"

And I ask, can artists play God? It is inevitable. When art is left to come through an artist rather than left to the artist to create, the resulting art is purer. As John Cage said, "the highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation."

If it is true - that man was the result of chance operations - then what are the benefits of composing with chance, and what does it say about an artist who "chooses chance"?

"...any conscious use of chance by an artist says something quite specific 
about the artist: he admits and welcomes the unknown into his work; 
he is interested in going beyond his own environment 
and cultural heredity and particular set of habits and tastes to 
make possible influences from unknown sources."

From early works within the Dada movement through Cage, Feldman, Brown, Cunningham, and others, people have used varying degrees of chance to realize their works. While some feel the appropriation of such techniques is "copping out", Brown correctly points out, "if the commitment to chance is honest, there is no lack of responsibility on the part of the artist."

John Cage, in Silence, often uses chance to determine the length and content of some of the essays and lectures about his compositional techniques (truly an intermedia man!). By tossing the I-Ching coins, he determined tempos, density (how many sounds at once), amplitudes, and durations for Imaginary Landscape No. IV. He set up a chart of 64 squares in which 32 were sounds, and 32 were silences. Although, as he explains, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SILENCE: 

"One hears - in an anechoic chamber - two sounds: one high and one low. 
The high sound is our nervous system, and the low sound is our blood in circulation."