Saturday, 19 March 2016


The Tao of Musical Intentions

Having one clear musical intention is the point at which the blank sheet of paper, which troubles so many composers, gives way to a succession of possibilities. The blog will refer to many famous composers associated with particular intentions as an overlay to the main mind map. The musical intentions have been placed into two fields, one technical and one expressive, following the plan used in previous blogs to identify composing errors and the elements that may form a composition.
This table follows on from the latter in expanding the question "Is there a single musical intention to fulfill"? The list of intentions provided may be expanded but they form a sufficiently broad group to satisfy my requirements.
One of the issues that arise from using the table is that once the main intention has been selected it cannot develop in isolation, other considerations have to be heeded, but the table can be used to generate a hierarchy of choices.  Let us take an example, silence; one intention could be to create a work which balances sound and silence.  Once that decision is made the secondary considerations start flowing. Silence comes as a section of the parameter 'duration' and as Cage has much to say about this feature we can imagine his train of thought working on Imaginary Landscape No 4.
In this work one player selects the radio signal and will as a consequence deal with definite and indefinite pitch content and possibly rhythm and pulse.  The second player deals with amplitude and timbre in the sense of tone colour. Cage decides to use traditional notation to provide durations to events. As in other works chance elements are used to select values and create events, of these 64 events (I Ching has 64 events in the design of its hexagrams) half are of silence, with the further possibility that the radio may also tune into silence. The above considerations cover a large part of the ‘technical’ elements on the chart.
It is not outside the realms of possibility that Cage also considered the opposite side of the chart, the ‘poetic’ or aesthetic intentions. There is clearly the possibility of playfulness and drama arising from the choices. The audience may form relationships of their own between the events heard, it would be difficult not to. The following extract is from “Cage Talk” available to read as a PDF:


I include this reference to Imaginary Landscape 1 as it relates to the audience response in creating “their own script.”

He created a piece that was played by manipulating two turntables.10 The role of the person who played it was to increase or decrease the volume or to shift the speed. He wrote it up as a score. What was intriguing for us was that it had no pulse, and we had never dealt with that before. Since the piece was called Imaginary Landscape, there was no reason we shouldn’t learn to work with it. We had to listen. It was played live, but because of the turntables it had to be piped in from our radio studio, which was attached to the theater, with the musicians in the studio. It had an extraordinary eerie quality. The piece and the sound absolutely intrigued people, and the audience began to build into it their own script.

As Cage wrote and spoke a great deal about his music we are fortunate enough to have a composing intention:
“I had a goal, that of erasing all will and the very idea of success.”

This philosophical outlook is Zen driven and describes the decreasing role of the composer over the outcomes of the performance.  However one could argue that Imaginary Landscape No 4 does not fully meet this intention, though it is a concern that develops throughout his life. As for “success” there are several recordings of the work on You Tube, the first link is set as a concert hall performance:


this unfortunately suffers from distant microphone recording, there is little chance to hear the events and we are given a vague mass of sounds.


Has closer microphone work and sounds remarkable like the Beatles Revolution No. 9. The performance starts about 1.50’ in to the video


No video of performance but clear sound.

It is possible to relate the composing intentions to particular composers as has been done with Cage.  Here is a short list, readers might enjoy expanding it to cover 21st century music, or indeed any period.  Nurtan and I have shared some thoughts on the matter and several of his suggestions are included:

Stravinsky covers many different intentions; dance/drama is high among them so rhythm and pulse is a natural technical pairing.
Berg or Schoenberg for drama / set structure, variation
Ravel for timbre and texture / playfulness, and this is shared by his admirer Gershwin.
Berio meaning of sounds/language (e.g. Sinfonia) while many of the sequenzas concern themselves with particular technical matters.
Harry Parch for tuning and colour.
Minimalist composers for repetition and hypnotic states, but let us take Glass for repetition paired with drama for “Satyagraha”.
Dream music can be represented by George Crumb where timbre and texture is a natural pairing from the technical side, the use of quotation as in Dream Images being a potent force.

One could continue but for the self imposed 1K limit!


You may have asked yourselves why Tao of musical intentions instead of Zen.  The reason is that balance is the key element of the Tao, and it seems that finding the correct balance between the forces that come into play in composing is essential.