Take a Chance on Me: Chance Operations in Art and Music


Note: This essay was originally a collaboration between Desiree Quintero, Jessica Valdez, and myself. It has since been extensively edited and revised.

Dada: Chance & Randomness

Dada was an anti-art movement that started at the close of the First World War and continued through the mid-1930s. Dada used nonsensical absurdity to comment and oppose the “rational” thinking that led to the Great War and the brutality of the Modern world. Dada visual artists utilized many unconventional methods to facilitate the absurd. The most well-known of these works are Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades”. To create his Readymades, Duchamp pieced together and recontextualized mass-manufactured everyday objects. The method of Dadaism most relevant to composition is the use and facilitation of chance. The later Surrealist artists are known for utilizing chance through automatism to tap the unconscious. In contrast, Dada artists were more concerned with utilizing chance as fitting into their playful, iconoclastic spirit. The use of chance was also an anti-art stance, as it was considered to be a lesser form of composition.

Hans (later Jean) Arp is well-known for having utilized chance operations in his work. In the years 1916-1917, Arp began creating geometric collages with his wife Sophie Taeuber. These collages rejected of the idea that a piece of art expressed any particular obsession or torment. Perhaps to further distance himself and his alleged obsession and torment from his work, he began to introduce chance operations into the creation of his compositions.

Throughout the early twentieth century, Arp continued to experiment with abstract collages “made according to the laws of chance”. In some of these, pieces of paper were scattered onto a surface and glued where they fell, reflecting a reverence for “forces outside rationalism”. “It is as if nature herself,” Arp said of his use of chance in his work, “…had formulated [her] own language of expression in the profound depths of consciousness”. Accounts of other Dada artists testify Arp created these collages “by tearing paper into pieces, dropping them onto a larger sheet, and pasting each scrap wherever it happened to fall”.

Jean Arp,
Jean Arp, “Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance)”. 1917.

Work such as 1917’s Untitled (Collage  with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) demonstrates the fine line between chance and composition walked by artists like Arp. The piece, muted in its grey, blue, and white color palette, balances the geometry of the torn paper squares with a semi-organic composition. The squares are arranged slightly off-grid, yet still recognizably in four distinct columns, while the five white squares form an arabesque in the center of the composition.

What “Law of Chance” could have produced this? One could argue that Arp’s hand in the design is obvious. While “He and other Dada artists embraced the notion of chance as a way of relinquishing control—a kind of depersonalization of the creative process that would influence many subsequent generations of artists… The relatively ordered appearance of Arp’s collages suggests, however, that the artist did not fully relinquish artistic control”.

John Milton Cage was an experimental music composer and writer working the mid-20th century. He is best known for his piece 4′ 33″, often described as “four and a half minutes of silence.” He was an early writer of metaphorical music, where some of the elements of his pieces are left to chance. He experimented and used instruments in non-standard ways and came to be known as an electronic music pioneer. Cage focused on the conceptualities of music and not the sound alone. Cage commented on the importance of the existence and nonexistence of sounds: “A sound does not view itself as thought, ought, as needing another sound for it elucidation, as etc.; it has not time for any consideration- it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself”.

In an experiment to have no control over the order of the music itself, Cage  introduced the element of chance into his music compositions. “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” (1951) is written for twelve radio receivers. Each radio had two players, one, which was to control the frequency the radio is tuned to, and one to control the volume level. In the production of this new score, he produced ever precise instructions concerning how the performers were to set their radios and how they would be changed over time. He wouldn’t be able to control the actual sound coming from the radios. The sound would be dependent on whichever radio stations were being played during the performance scheduled.

Imaginary Landscape No. 4
John Cage. Imaginary Landscape No. 4

Further insight into the debate of whether Arp or Cage could ever create their compositions completely randomly, without the influence of circumstance of creating a composition, comes from Carl Jung. Jung notes the play between two principles of chance, causation and synchronistic relationships, in the preface to the I Ching. “[Casuality] is merely a statistical truth and not absolute,” says Jung, “whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in time and space as meaning something more than mere chance…”. The entire chance composition is still a record of the artist’s hand or intention, and thus not entirely synchronistic or random. Though the artists insisted they were merely facilitating chance operations, the operation itself, and the implementation and record of the chance composition is itself the mark of the artist.

The pre-WWII art of Dada and the post-war musical works of John Cage are different in their historical context, the media used (music/art), and the influences that lead the artists to incorporate chance. Yet, Cage and the Dada movement both received criticism and doubt as to whether the works they constructed were even art/music at all. This being said, these works have been influential and have become a piece of art history. The problem many had with treating Cage as a composer is clearly a problem with his work after 1951. His compositions for percussion and prepared piano written in the 1940s have never been difficult for critics to understand. But once Cage began to use chance operations in the course of his composition, things went askew. His adoption of chance techniques is almost always seen as a rejection. It is an abandonment of everything traditionally musical. External forces of irrationality (such as Zen Buddhism) are invoked as the cause of this break. Under such influences, it is believed, “Cage decided to substitute the throw of dice for his own tastes, so that he could remove any trace of his personality from the composed work.” The crux of the problem has been a failure to find some way of reconciling with Cage-the-composer, his musical compositions, and his chance operations.

When faced with music composed using chance, critics have drawn a blank. How can one understand a randomly made composition? What can one say about such a thing? To criticize it would be to criticize a random act; how does one judge the toss of a coin? In the past, the way out of this dilemma has been to ignore the music and dwell upon “the ideas behind it.” If Cage has left his music to chance, if he has thus extinguished his authority as a composer, then all that remains is the idea of inviting randomness into his work.

Alexa Gotthard , “A Head Full Of Fears Leaves No Space For Dreams”. 2015.

The Dadaists embraced Chance as their avenue to expression in their works of art.  Like Cage, the merit of Dada artists as artists was questioned when they let chance lead their creativity.  The attractive character of a random design enthralls some and gives others cause for scorn. People question the artistic qualities of such nonrepresentational works. We must go beyond this question, perhaps saying, “Yes, these abstractions, randomized as they may be, constitute Art,” if we wish to derive any meaning from them.

The pre-WWII art of Dada and the works of John Cage, however vastly different, both incorporated chance into their art. Because of their usage of chance the art of these movements have been questioned by critics. Yet their place in art history and music is undeniable.

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Megan Udell

Megan Udell lives in San Francisco, spending the majority of her time writing, sharing her love of art with anyone who will listen, and drinking entirely too much coffee.

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