Indeterminacy in the New Music (1959)
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Indeterminacy In the New Music Human consciousness and thought in the twentieth century have discovered the essential irrationality of the premises on which they are based. That the old world of illusory certainties has disintegrated in the face of new conditions which govern contemporary existence is acknowledged by all who are seriously concerned with man's destiny, including the physicist, the theologian, and the philosopher. The falling away of values founded on the illusion of rationalistic certainty has left man exposed both to the waywardness of his own nature and to that of the universe around him. Man can predict nothing today except on the basis of statistical probability and this brings him little comfort in his new and painful awareness of his condition. This is the time when, according to Zen Buddhism, "mountains no longer look like mountains , and rivers no longer look like rivers." Afflicted by irrationalism, uncertainty, and indeterminacy, we are suffering collectively what Pascal suffered individually centuries ago. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.! What for Pascal was a painful individual intuition is for us a terrifying collective apprehension based upon the physical discoveries of our time and the Freudian discovery of the unconscious. If man's reason is the true measure of reason, ours is a nonrational world. Still there are those who must have certainty in order to act, any certainty that seems to ensure the possibility of a rational order. In their haste to seize upon rational certainty, the first thing they sacrifice is subjective freedom, because it is this possibility of inner freedom , now deprived of its supporting buttresses, which is so painful to bear. Not only are we surfeited with political examples of this, in both Communist and Fascist states where freedom of the individual is sacrificed to power, bread, and security; we see evidence of an analogous kind in the divorce of subjective freedom from objective rational standards in twentieth-century art. 3 4 THE AESTHETICS OF SURVIVAL Erich Heller, discussing this same problem in his essay on the "Hazards of Modem Poetry," says: The human affections are the only instruments of recognizing and responding to values. By treating the affections as the rascals in the school of reason, and as the peace-breakers in the truth-bound community , reason-the rationalist's reason-has set up a kind of truth which leaves the human affections as idle as do, by general consent, the "objective " methods that lead to its discovery. The workshops in which our truths are manufactured are surrounded by swarms of unemployed affections.2 Heller refers to the "theory of the 'impersonal' character of poetry, of the poet as a neutral agent bringing about the fusion and crystallization of nameless experience." As he says, "These theories merely express, and express significantly , the spiritual depreciation of the real lives that real selves lead in the real world."3 The divorce of the poet from his poetry is a spiritual and moral defection in favor of order, objectivity, technical certainty. And as Heller comments , "Truth is likely to be untidy, the enfant terrible in the systematic household."4 In music, this divorce between the human affections--subjectivity-and the operations of reason is fully revealed in the works which have been recently issued under the slogan of "total organization"-a completely rationalized system of serial composition which, so its practitioners mistakenly believe, leaves nothing to chance. On the other hand, in an attempt to make unpredictability itself a principle of composition, there are those who, like John Cage, compose "chance" music. In the one case, indeterminacy enters by the back door, disturbing the careful microcosmic calculations of the composers and upsetting their "systematic household." In the other, indeterminacy is the root principle; but because it, too, proclaims a personal detachment from what will happen, the doctrine of "chance" music is as incapable of entering into the subjective human world as is the doctrine of "total organization." Here is Cage on...