Composition Study #7

Posted by PH on May 01, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students

The first week of term after Easter things were slightly disrupted because of a trip to Dublin, but in the Thursday session we got around to looking at John Cage’s work in some detail.

Of course no review of 20th Century music could claim to be complete without at least some consideration of Cage. In our case we only looked at a limited number of his compositions, specifically those that used electronic means as an important element of the composition or realisation. Having said that, it could reasonably be claimed that, in any case, it is Cage’s ideas that are the crucial aspect here. Briefly, his key ideas are:

  1. All sounds are equal. The naturally occurring sounds around us are as important as those we deliberately make with musical instruments.
  2. Silence is never really silent. There is always some sound. In his most famous book (Silence) he repeatedly uses the example of where he went into an anechoic chamber but could still hear two sounds, one low pitched (his blood circulating) and the other high (the whine of his central nervous system).
  3. Indeterminacy: using random numbers or the I Ching to remove the “intentionality” of the composer from the work.
  4. Composer = “organizer of sound”.

The perfect realisation of all these is his infamous 4′ 33″, almost certainly one of the key conceptual works of art from the last century. Labelling it as such should not deter us, because at the end of the day it’s very, very, simple: all he’s really doing is asking us to actively listen without prejudice to the world around us. These are some of the works we listened to:

Fascinating. Finally, though, I wonder whether this non-intentional approach isn’t basically flawed: because everything is random the pieces lack formal development and therefore the emotional and intellectual satisfaction that we seem to crave. Surely the whole point of art is that it isn’t random in the way that nature is; it is the very shaping and manipulation of the materials that determine its special quality.

Taking all this into consideration the specification for this week’s composition looked like this:

Use a random process as the core generative element of your composition, but organize it in such a way that it has development, an emergent musical structure. In other words use a Cageian algorithm but without the piece being a shapeless mess.


  1. Finished piece.
  2. One or more spreadsheets (or similar).

Pseudo-Random Composition

For the “vocals” there were two basic sources of inspiration. Firstly, I had just read Steve Reich’s Writings on Music and became interested in his ideas on speech melody. Secondly, I had just been watching The Wire on DVD and thought this would be a good source of speech: some of the dialogue is fabulously colourful.

I used seasons 1-3, each of which had either 12 or 13 episodes each. A random number generator was used to choose in turn the season, episode, and instant (in minutes) where I would sample. I decided to take five samples: not too many, but enough to give me a bit of leeway…


As we can see, one of the samples didn’t record: very professional. Of course I took this as a Cagean random event and moved on…

For the music itself I used a random website generator (after briefly considering using YouTube). I simply kept clicking until something suitable came up. The first usable site was, which had 208 podcasts of House mixes done by a couple of guys called Apollo Lee and Jay Def. Each of the podcasts was a continuous mix around 80 minutes long, giving me over two weeks worth of music to choose from. Using the random number generator again I ended up with podcast 103, and from this I generated four random instances where I took samples (4, 32, 47, and 74 minutes).

Putting it all together: I had four speech samples but only used one. I also had four music samples: I took a two-bar loop from one, a kick drum from another, and discarded the other two. The whole track was made from these three elements.

I improvised a single EQ “performance” on the synth loop but edited quite heavily afterwards. I then improvised a dub-like echo track from a part of the vocal sample using a software delay line and an external tube EQ unit. I made three passes, discarded one, and edited the other two together into a single track.

Finally, I just edited more stuff out (e.g. an intro, drum fills, FX): it’s pared down to an absolute minimum. It seemed right to me but judge for yourself:

Can I just say I loved making this track? I love its simplicity, I love its funkiness, I love the way different elements of the loop emerge as the EQ sweeps across it, and I love the way it appeared magically out of thin air. I’m sure John Cage would approve…


It also brings up some interesting questions. Is this track something I’ve “composed”? All the sonic materials were derived using random selection, and I didn’t play or compose a single note of the music. However, there are clearly crucial points where I have made artistic decisions that have shaped the outcome decisively: I chose to use vocals, I chose to use The Wire, and I chose which samples to use and which to discard. I am the epitome of Cage’s “organizer of sound”, but whether that makes me a “composer” or not is another matter. Perhaps what it means is that our definition of “composer” needs to be reviewed (as perhaps it has done since the “Electronic Tonalities by Louis and Bebe Barron” credit on Forbidden Planet)?

Taking this one stage further: is my track “original” or is it a “remix”? The main loop I’ve used is from DJ Moguai‘s 1998 track Beatbox. But it isn’t the original version I’ve used, it’s the Inpetto remix and the synth loop is from this latter version: it’s not on the original at all. So, in theory, the track should go down as a remix of the DJ Moguai track, but he hasn’t actually contributed to it in any way!

Finally: assuming we credit Inpetto with writing the loop, at what point does “organizing sound” take us from making a “remix” into the creation of an “original” work.

My point being: the technology takes us into very strange places where our archaic copyright laws just don’t go. And it just isn’t as cut and dried as the music business lawyers would have us believe…


And this is why we should all spend some time listening to and thinking about John Cage’s work: he calls into question some very basic conceptions we have about music, composition, and listening.


Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *