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Indeterminacy - Ninety New Texts

9th of August, 2020



In 1959, John Cage released Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music, an album, on Folkways. This was an unusual move for Cage—even aside from the unusual choice in record label this move represented the conscious choice to privilege the static recording over a live performance. In the piece, Cage reads ninety short texts, each different lengths, but each read at different speeds so that they all last exactly one minute. David Tudor, entirely separately, played electroacoustic music involving a piano and tape recordings of various electronic sounds and sections of Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Neither men knew what the other would produce. Hence, the piece is the chance meeting of two separate streams of sound: one of which being the sort of electronic music Cage had been experimenting with for a decade, and the other, spoken word. Cage's philosophy had always emphasised a rejection of semantic, emotional content, in favour of the recognition of the purity of the sound itself. The spoken word accompaniment, with all the inherent semantic content of language, produces a deeply unusual dialectic that resulted in one of the most incredibly potent artistic documents in music.

Since the 1959 recording, the piece has been performed live only once. Steve Beresford, Tania Chen and Stewart Lee toured the material in the early 2010s. I was frustrated by this new recording—though the music was all new, Lee read out the original texts as written by John Cage, which I think seems not in the spirit of the work. My own opinion is that Indeterminacy the piece is about the specific coupling of a spoken word part, strictly regimented into one minute sections, and a free flowing musical part, both separate.

I wrote these pieces over the course of about five months with the intention of using them to perform the piece myself. I don't know if I will ever get the chance, and in fact if I ever do I might decide to use different texts than these. For now, though, I offer these ninety. I hope they are interesting.

To read the pieces in sequence, arranged to prioritise readability, click here. To read them arranged more artfully, click here.