Stochastic Music

The university library here in town dumps a collection of LPs from its listening room. Out with the old, in with the new. I encounter them in the bins at Goodwill. To them by chance led. The ones I come away with are remarkable: compositions by the likes of John Cage, George Crumb, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Krzysztof Penderecki. One pursues one’s education here or not at all, thinks the Narrator.

“To Xenakis—as, indeed, to most philosophers—” writes Bernard Jacobson in his liner notes to one of the Xenakis LPs, “chance itself is a scientific concept.”  The reference to “chance” catches my eye, given that “hap” (a Middle English word meaning chance) has been a preoccupation of mine of late.

“Central among the scientific laws [Xenakis] has applied to music,” continues Jacobson, “is Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers, which provides that as the number of repetitions of a given ‘chance’ trial (such as flipping a coin) increases, so the probability that the results will tend to a determinate end approaches certainty. Hence Xenakis’s use of the term ‘stochastic’ music, which means probabilistic in the sense of tending toward a certain goal.”

Xenakis’s approach intrigues me. Yet what interests me most about “stochastic music” and stochastic processes more generally is that, despite their probabilistic nature, their behavior and outcome is intrinsically non-deterministic.