North American Time Capsule 1967

More to my liking is John Cage.

Where the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, Boolean algebra, and computers to produce his scores, thus pioneering “stochastic music,” Cage composed “aleatoric music.” While stochastic and aleatoric forms of music both rely on chance procedures, aleatoric music eschews mathematics in favor of ancient divinatory devices like the I Ching.

Readied by Cage for further weirding, I tune in and listen to Alvin Lucier’s “North American Time Capsule 1967,” a 10-minute composition that neighbors a track by Cage on Side A of Extended Voices. The Lucier piece uses a vocoder designed by Sylvania Electronics Systems “to encode speech sounds into digital information bits for transmission over narrow band widths via telephone lines or radio channels.” Lucier says of the piece, “The performers are asked to prepare material using any sounds at all that would describe for beings far from our environment, either in space or in time, the physical, spiritual, social, scientific or any other situation in which we currently find ourselves.”

Thinking of 1967 as “situation,” I relate the song to the psychedelic consciousness of that year’s Summer of Love. Lucier worked at Brandeis, directing the University Chamber Chorus there from 1962 to 1970. While dwarfed in scale by hippie meccas like Berkeley, Brandeis was nonetheless an important independent nexus of sorts for 1960s consciousness. Abraham Maslow taught there during the 1950s and 1960s, as did Herbert Marcuse, who served as a faculty member at Brandeis from 1954 to 1965. Future Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman studied there, too, under both Maslow and Marcuse. Through Lucier’s time capsule, one becomes entangled again in that scene.

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.