Aleatoric Music

Aleatoric music (also aleatory music or chance music; from the Latin word alea, meaning “dice”) is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, and/or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of its performer(s).

My interest in this subject dates back to childhood, when I read about Domenico Scarlatti’s “Cat Fugue” in a book called Strange and Amazing Facts. In 1739, the composer published the piece, based on a motif he got from the sound of his cat walking on the keyboard of his harpsichord. His cat did this a lot, and Scarlatti called these tuneful strolls “improvisation sessions.”

I’m not sure my ideas are really aleatoric music because the random events I follow are not of my own making. My method is to capture natural events on video and figure out ways to transcribe the spatial and time relationships of chosen elements into music. If my ideas are aleatoric, they are of the determinate variety. The music is the same every time you play it. The indeterminate variety would have chance operations for each performance, but the music in my method isn’t “performed,” unless you call the process of converting the ideas into sound by technical means a performance.

Eventually, I became aware of John Cage’s “Music of Changes” from 1951, for which he chose most of the main elements by the I Ching method of throwing coins six times and extracting the music from the results. And even later, I heard his “Apartment House 1776,” which sounded to me like four singers singing whatever they felt like without listening to the other three. Which is exactly what it was. I’m pretty sure this would qualify as indeterminate aleatoric music. Very indeterminate!


CattailigraphyA bent over cattail blade gracefully arcs into the water to a depth of 1/2 inch. As the wind blows, the blade moves around and inscribes patterns on the water surface. These patterns are captured on video from directly above by a camera mounted on the end of an Altec AC35 127′ Telescopic Boom Crane. The resulting footage is played in slow motion and the tracings of the cattail blade are transcribed by hand onto a large sheet of blank paper in the form of one continuous line zigging and spiraling as is required to accurately represent the motion of the blade in the water.

The paper is handed to a qualified violinist, as the violin is an instrument that lends itself readily to glissando playing that glides smoothly up and down without regard to the usual rigid separation of notes prevalent in Western music. In the absence of a qualified violinist, a qualified trombonist could fit the bill just as well. Actually, maybe they could be a duo playing in harmony. The starting point of the piece corresponds to the point where the selected video clip begins, and the musical time line follows the transcription to the end point selected by the artist. The instrumentalist then begins to play, representing at his or her discretion the course of the line on the paper in a continuous, winding, meandering, spiraling musical line until the end point.

NOTE: The mental acuity and concentration of the instrumentalist are crucial to this project and would be improved by large quantities of premium sushi from Miyaki on Fore St. in Portland, Maine. I would be happy to procure the sushi and deliver a portion of it to the instrumentalist, if I could line someone up who was willing to patronize the arts by calling Miyaki in advance of my arrival and giving them a valid credit card number. Interested parties know where to reach me.


FlocktuationsWhen a flock of starlings forms shapes in the air that pulse and undulate, they are exhibiting swarm intelligence, defined as “collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial.” Why it’s so thrilling to a see a flock wheeling and spiraling, collectively forming a kind of ultra high-speed airborne lava lamp, is another question. But I think the relationships of position in swarm behavior have analogies to music. They go higher and lower, move closer and farther apart, seem to change size, density or volume as they change their orientation to the viewer. Sun reflection changes along with position, the way tone colors vary in brightness.

The method for “Flocktuations” is to capture flock behavior on video, lay a grid over it to use as a line graph with the x-axis representing musical pitch and the y-axis representing time, then look for ways to transfer the motion of the birds into sound. The tricky part is selecting an individual bird to represent, say, a single square in the grid, and mark it somehow, and link the motion of its flight to sound. Only a very few birds could be included, or the music would sound like a music store on a Saturday afternoon with 20 high-school kids simultaneously trying out electric guitars. But four or five birds, isolated and linked to sound, might inscribe sounds as elegant as their tracings through the air. And the context of each square—how densely packed the birds are in that area, their orientation in relation to the viewer, whether the density is tightening or loosening—all could be expressed in tone color, brightness, and fluctuations of volume.

I have experimented a little with this method. It’s time-consuming, but very promising in its potential to create music as thrilling as the sight of a flock making magic in the air. I am willing to pursue this project if I could line up financial support to upgrade my equipment and have time to capture video and do the work on it, preferably in Castellina in Chianti, Province of Siena, Italy during the months of April and May. Interested parties know where to reach me.


rainotateMusic staff drawn in chalk on flat rock. As rain begins to fall, drops land randomly on music staff. Method is to capture rainfall on video, and transcribe order and placement of each rain blot to manuscript paper. Increasing rate of rainfall is expressed by speeding up tempo. The indeterminate variable in “Rainotate” lies in the artist’s ability to experimentally drop sharps and flats into the music staff. Adding a D# or Eb would give the music a blues feel. Adding a maj3rd would make it sound like Steely Dan. Leave it blank to make it a Cmaj and you’ll hear what Mozart would have done had he possessed sufficient genius to think of taking dictation from raindrops.

This project is the closest corollary to the “Cat Fugue” mentioned in the introduction to this section. The main musical motif is transcribed directly from a random act of nature, devoid of any animating intelligence, although certain cat owners may disagree. At any rate, the method consists of playing the resulting music and seeing what it sounds like. If possible, make adjustments to make it sound more like music. If not, hose the chalk off the rock and better luck next time.

NOTE: The success of “Rainotate” depends on patience of artist as he awaits the fall of rain after drawing music staff. This essential patience can be cultivated by practice of yoga and meditation. A long weekend at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts would be extremely beneficial in this regard. Funding of such a weekend for the artist and his wife would be a wonderful way for some benefactor of the arts to contribute to the advancement of art and culture in an increasingly impatient and fast-moving world. Interested parties know where to reach me.

© Irish Music Guy
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