CHANCE MUSIC

When I was a student at Juilliard, the composition department held a weekly symposium, at which a new work by a student was performed before all the teachers and students of the department, followed by a discussion of the work. Out of curiosity, I wanted to attend one of these sessions. I asked permission of Vincent Persichetti, himself a composer, who taught composition and also the theory course in which I was a student. He said I was welcome to observe, but not to participate in the discussions.

At the session I attended, the work performed was aleatory (that is, chance music). At that time, chance music was the latest fad. It was for three or four instruments, I forget exactly which, but it was some improbable combination. The score did not contain specific notes, but frameworks within the limits of which the performers were free to play whatever came into their heads.

When it was over, Persichetti said he would like to ask a few questions, not of the composer, but of the performers. Everyone present knew how deceptive were Persichetti's cherubic smile and air of sweet reasonableness, and so we held our collective breath. He began by eliciting from them an admission that what they actually were doing was improvising, within the limits prescribed by the composer. Then he asked them, in view of the fact that nothing they did could actually be called a "mistake," how they rehearsed. The players, pleased to be the center of attention, held forth with enthusiasm about how they tried things over and over until whatever "happened" between them seemed to "make the most sense" and best satisfied them.

Persichetti then asked them: when they next played the work, didn't they remember these successful things, and repeat them? They admitted that they did. And then, in the same voice of sweet reasonableness, he pointed out that, if that was the case, the music was not aleatory at all. The only thing that had happened, was that the performers had finished composing the work that the composer had left unfinished.

At that point, everyone began shouting at once. Persichetti stood there, smiling at the pandemonium he had produced with just a few words of common sense. And I, like Walt Whitman,

          Rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
          In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
          L
ook'd up in perfect silence at the stars.