John Cage, composed Improvisation for snare drum (1987)
This work is one of Cage’s many “composed improvisations,” compositions that are simply written instructions for how to create a piece of music using chance procedures. Cage turned to chance procedures in his music making in the early 1950’s as a way of further deepening his union of musical composition and Asian thought, specifically that of Zen Buddhism. Cage wrote in a letter to Pierre Boulez in 1951, “I freed myself from what I had thought to be freedom, and which actually was only the accretion of habits and tastes.” The usage and manifestation of chance in Cage’s compositions, performances, recordings, lectures, and writings developed throughout his career, first appearing behind the scenes in the composition process and later appearing on many levels throughout the composing (by Cage), the preparation (by the performer), and in the performance itself.
His composed improvisations are hardly works by Cage at all, but rather venues for the performer to explore his or her own “divine unconscious.” The score provided by Cage is simply two pages of text – rules with which to design a structure for the improvisation using chance procedures – in this case, “In Memorium Marcel Duchamp,” Cage requests the performer write all possible answers to a question on small pieces of paper and then pick them out of a hat. The elements of structure are careful determined – whether snares are on or off, length and starting point of each section, how many parts are in each section, the beaters used for each part, and the number of articulations (1-64) in each part are all pulled from a hat prior to the performance. From there, aleatory is further realized in the improvisation as the performer may or may not know what he or she will play and in some cases may or may not even know how to make music with the chosen beaters.