Aleatoric music

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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). The term is most often associated with procedures in which the chance element involves a relatively limited number of possibilities.

The term became known to European composers through lectures by acoustician Werner Meyer-Eppler at Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music in the beginning of the 1950s. According to his definition, "a process is said to be aleatoric ... if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail" (Meyer-Eppler 1957, 55).



Early precedents

Compositions that could be considered a precedent for aleatoric composition date back to at least the late 15th century, with the genre of the catholicon, exemplified by the Missa cuiusvis toni of Johannes Ockeghem. A later genre was the Musikalisches Würfelspiel or musical dice game, popular in the late 18th and early 19th century. (One such dice game is attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.) These games consisted of a sequence of musical measures, for which each measure had several possible versions, and a procedure for selecting the precise sequence based on the throwing of a number of dice (Boehmer 1967, 9–47).

American composer John Cage's Music of Changes (1951) is the first piece to be conceived largely through random procedures (Randel 2002, 17), though for just this reason his indeterminacy is of a different order from Meyer-Eppler's concept.

Modern usage

The earliest significant use of aleatory features is found in many of the compositions of American Charles Ives in the early 20th century. Henry Cowell adopted Ives’s ideas during the 1930s, in such works as the Mosaic Quartet (String Quartet No. 3, 1934), which allows the players to arrange the fragments of music in a number of different possible sequences. Cowell also used specially devised notations to introduce variability into the performance of a work, sometimes instructing the performers to improvise a short passage or play ad libitum (Griffiths 2001). Later American composers, such as Alan Hovhaness (beginning with his Lousadzak of 1944) used procedures superficially similar to Cowell's, in which different short patterns with specified pitches and rhythm are assigned to several parts, with instructions that they be performed repeatedly at their own speed without coordination with the rest of the ensemble. Some scholars regard the resultant blur as "hardly aleatory, since exact pitches are carefully controlled and any two performances will be substantially the same" (Rosner and Wolverton 2001) although, according to another writer, this technique is essentially the same as that later used by Witold Lutosławski (Fisher 2010)[unreliable source?]. Depending on the vehemence of the technique, Hovhaness’s published scores label these sections “spirit murmur” and “controlled chaos”[citation needed].

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