Alternatives to Serialism:
• Following WW II, modern music took on a variety of styles and compositional methods in addition to serialism.
• One of the most novel was the making of compositional choices by chance (chance music)– an approach associated with the
music of the American composer John Cage (around 1950)
Characteristics of John Cage’s Music
• Cage’s Music of Changes for piano is notated in detail– but the compositional choices are made from a
number of options by chance routines.
• Earlier, Cage had written more traditional types of music, often for “prepared piano” – an instrument converted into a virtual percussion
• In works composed later in the 1950’s, Cage used a style that he termed “indeterminacy of performance”– where he turned decisions about what to play
almost entirely over to performers.
• His involvement with a “composition” dwindled to brief graphic notations and verbal scores.
The Life of John Cage (1912–1992)
• 1912 - born in Los Angeles
• 1928-30 - attends Pomona College in Claremont, CA
• 1942 - moves to New York
• 1951 - introduces chance elements into compositions
• 1958 - lecture and musical performances at Darmstadt
• 1992 - dies in New York
John Cage’s Reasoning Behind Chance Music
• to remove the “glue” between musical sounds and events
• to let sounds be sounds, neither more or less
• to remove the personality of the composer
• to allow the listener to focus on sounds per se
Principal Compositions of John Cage
• Prepared piano: works include Sonatas and Interludes
• Percussion ensemble: works include Imaginary Landscape Nos. 1-3
• Piano: include Music of Changes and 4’33”
• Chance pieces: a large number of pieces of flexible medium
John Cage, Music of Changes, 1951, part 1
Through composed form based on number sequence
• Another postwar alternative to serialism was the composition of electronic music.
• An early version was “musique concrète”– electronic music made from recordings of natural
or man-made sounds.
– are manipulated electronically and reassembled on disc or tape in a musical form.
• Other composers opted for pure electronic music– in which the source of sounds were produced by
• Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique (1958) uses both approaches.
The Life of Edgard Varèse (1883–1965)
• 1883 - born in Paris, grows up in Turin, Italy
• 1903 - enters the Schola Cantorum in Paris
• 1907-13 - lives mainly in Berlin
• 1913-15 - lives in Paris
• 1915 - emigrates to America
• 1921 - founds the International Composers Guild in New York • 1928-33 - returns to France
• 1958 - attracts attention for electronic music at the Brussels Worlds Fair
• 1965 - dies in New York
Principal Compositions by Edgard Varèse
• Orchestra and chamber orchestra: works include– Amériques– Hyperprism– Octandre– Intégrales– Arcana– Ionisation
• Voice with instrumental accompaniment: works include– Offrandes– Ecuatorial– Metal– Nocturnal
• Works with electronic sounds on tape– Poème électronique– Déserts
Edgard Varèse, Poème électronique, 1958
Experimenting with New Musical Textures
• Composers following WW II also experimented with new musical textures– alternatives to the traditional homophony and polyphony.
• Varèse praised the value of “sound masses”– conglomorations of sound in which no single tones or intervals are
• In his piano study “Mode de valueurs et d’intensités,” Messiaen linked together – the choice of register– duration, dynamic level– attack to produce a “pointillistic” texture
– in this approach, individual tones seem to leap out without association into lines or chords.
The Life of Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
• 1908 - born in Avignon, France
• 1919–29 - attends Paris Conservatory (composition with
• 1931 - appointed organist at the Church of the Trinity in Paris
• 1936–39 - with Daniel-Lesur, Yves Baudrier, and André
Jolivet forms “La Jeune France” to seek alternatives to neoclassicism
• 1941 - begins teaching at the Paris Conservatory
• 1950s - ornithological interests expressed by imitating
bird song in music
• 1992 - dies in Paris
Principal Compositions by Olivier Messiaen
• Orchestra: character pieces and larger works including– Turangalîla Symphony– From the Canyons to the Stars
• Songs: numerous collections on his own poetry
• Chamber music: includes the Quartet for the End of Time (violin, clarinet, cello, piano)
• Organ music: character pieces including the Messe de la Pentecôte
• Piano: preludes, etudes, bird song pieces
Olivier Messiaen, “Mode de valeurs et d’intensités,” 1949
Summary of the mode of pitches, durations, attack types, and dynamic levels in this work: