Randomness/indeterminacy discussion

I thought, rather than bog down the technique thread with the aesthetic/philosophic discussion around indeterminacy, chance, randomness, algorithmic, generative, ettttttc. I'd make a new thread. Other thread here: https://club.tidalcycles.org/t/week-4-lesson-2-random-marathon-rand-irand-mininotation-randomness-scramble-shuffle-choose-more/685/6

So I use a lot of indeterminate procedures, algorithmic procedures, and various other things like it in my musical practice more broadly, and as I said in the thread, I think this is an utterly important thing to do more generally in music, otherwise one just falls back on one's own knowledge, patterns, experiences, etc. and can't get to anything new (to the maker) and thus expand their knowledge, experience, and so on. I suppose I am on the more Cagean end of leaving lots of things up to chance, but scaffolding the chance operations themselves. Even within Cage's music though, the systems used always reigned in the randomness, which I think is what you're getting at, @yaxu? Rather than, say, infinitely generative music that lacks scaffolding?

An example of indeterminacy in my work is a piece I wrote for baroque violin called silver as catalyst in organic reactions, which took the spectral (chemical) analysis of molecular weight of silver bonded with carbon, synthesised that as sound, then spectrally analysed the sound as the raw musical material. This lead to a process where I had to shape the material and turn it into music, but still.

This is closer to the spectral work of say, Grisey and Murail, and the stochastic processes of Xenakis, and in a looser sense the integral serial/formula work of Stockhausen, but anyhoo.

Why I bring this up at all is just because there is no way I could have composed that piece by myself, without the aid of a computer and a range of random/probabilistic/indeterminate processes. So for me, one of the crucial parts about computer music more generally is the human-computer interaction, and the computer being an aid in composition.

Ok, ramble over. Would love this discussion to go on, selfishly, 'cause it's one of my fav things to discuss!


Hi @vin, yep that's all good, I guess my point boils down to one point: random numbers aren't magic, all making takes this approach.

Paul Klee: "already at the beginning of the productive act, shortly after the initial motion to create, occurs the first counter motion, the initial movement of receptivity. This means: the creator controls whether what he has produced so far is good" https://monoskop.org/File:Klee_Paul_Pedagogical_Sketchbook_1953.pdf

I like Tim Ingolds idea of 'textility', the idea that we're suffering from a misunderstanding of creativity that comes from Aristotle, that creators are geniuses that are projecting from a perfect world of ideas into reality. But what really happens with making is that you start making something, but then respond to the material, and end up with something quite different from your original idea.

Shaping the outputs of a random number generator is a great way of getting into new territory, but so is just working with material (whether clay or code) and seeing where it takes you. It's all just a creative feedback loop.

So I use a lot of indeterminate procedures, algorithmic procedures, and various other things like it in my musical practice more broadly, and as I said in the thread, I think this is an utterly important thing to do more generally in music, otherwise one just falls back on one's own knowledge, patterns, experiences, etc. and can't get to anything new (to the maker) and thus expand their knowledge, experience, and so on.

Do you count putting a paintbrush on a piece of paper as an indeterminate procedure? https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/sketch-product/draw-line-and-follow-it


Yeah, I like all that, too. Agreed that random numbers aren't magic (or even particularly interesting in their own right, as you pointed out).

The creative feedback loop is absolutely at the core, but without external "disruption" or whatever (i.e. working with material like clay or code, as you point out) you are limited only to what is already in your knowledge, experience, memory, and recombinations of that. External "disruption" or, for instance, randomness, that is outsourced from the maker, is a way of expanding and making new connections in existing knowledge/experience/etc. The aesthetic decision is whether to accept that input or not i.e. take the Cagean approach of accepting the external regardless of whether one "likes" it (and thus getting away from "like" completely), or working with it as new material. This latter seems more along the lines of what you mean? Have you read Jeff Pressing's writing on cognitive feedback loops in improvisation?

So the paintbrush on a piece of paper. No, I don't consider it an indeterminate procedure because it is not "external" to the person with the brush: it relies in some way upon the on their "control" of the brush, whereas the indeterminacy is a relinquishing of "control" in the creative process, usually to some kind of external factor.

Also, for the record, I love all of these approaches! Just find the whole thing really interesting.

PS. Thanks for engaging in this!

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Yes I've enjoyed Pressing's writing on improvisation, great stuff!

I don't think a painter is in control of their brush in that way, they're continually responding to the marks it makes. The grain in the paper also adds its own flow of force.

Ingold on Klee in the "Textility of making":
"what Klee said of art is true of skilled practice in general, namely that it is a question not of imposing preconceived forms on inert matter but of intervening in the fields of force and currents of material wherein forms are generated."

This reminds me of the video posted in Lounge recently in the "What are you listening to" thread. In the video Herbie Hancock tells a story about himself playing a "wrong note" and Miles Davis responding to it to make it "right": What are you listening to?. Herbie's wrong note was no different than a random number. It was an element of chance, and new music was made in response to it.


Very interesting. I looked out the Ingold paper on textility. What should I ready by Pressing?

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Pressing Stuff

It's a bit of a shame that this version of the text lacks the nice diagrams from the original, but hey.

This whole book:
Sloboda, J.A., 1988. Generative processes in music: The psychology of performance, improvisation, and composition. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.
Is really good.


Reading through the textility article, thanks @yaxu. Really lovely ideas. I think they resonate very much with how I frame my practice, as well, though the terminology is a bit different. Either way it seems concerned largely with emergent works rather than realising a pre-conceived notion, regardless of what the material might want.

I particularly like this statement: The work invites the viewer to join the artist as a fellow traveller, to look with it as it unfolds in the world, rather than behind it to an originating intention of which it is the final product.

It speaks very much against the artist-as-dictator, which is very much part of how art is 'taught' more generally. And even how it seems to be talked about in general. The artist should have "something to say" and "express their intention". I actually would have really liked to find this work while I was doing my PhD. Ah well.


Here is a nice video (would recommend downloading rather than streaming by YouTube talker Cuck Philosophy that examines Studio Ghibli writer and animator Hayao Miyazaki and some of the ideas that Heidegger has, and that are somewhat referred to in the textility article.

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I enjoyed this from Tim Ingold too: "...at the same time that narratives of use are converted by technology into algorithmic structures, these structures are themselves put to use within the ongoing activities of inhabitants, and through the stories of this use they are reincorporated into the field of effective action, within which all life is lived."

This really spoke to me, and based on this I thought he'd be really interested in Live Coding, and was lucky to spend a day with him once.. Among other things I showed him Tidal and did a mini-performance.. He absolutely hated it! He couldn't understand what I was doing as being music at all.


I think this might be my new favourite anecdote about someone’s life in music. Thank you for sharing! That text is wonderful.

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Yes I do love his writing, even though he doesn't love my live coding :slight_smile:

For a very nice take on this in the context of computer programming in particular, Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete by Turkle and Papert is a great read. It's a nice take on how the way computer programming is taught - as problem and abstract, efficient solution, is limiting and exclusionary from a feminist perspective. Their "bricolage programming" is synonymous with live coding, for me.

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Oh, this discussion is pure gold! I would like to share some little rant as well if I may.

I had been exposed to lots of stochastic procedures during my bachelor in computer music. One of my professor was really fond of Cage, particularly of Music of Changes and encouraged us in making use of randomness and creating indeterminate music.
On the contrary, another professor of mine despised the use of indeterminacy as main medium of the composition. However, he was (and still is) a fan of the use of randomness for micro-modulation: his main idea is that oftentimes computer music might be quite dry because of the lack of that kind of variation that nature exhibits - and its contrary, that is complete noise. Therefore, a good way to let the musical environment more lively is to modulate the main compositional parameters by adding micro-variations. And I have to say, random generators suit quite well to this extent.

Later on, my studies took me to the realm of probability and machine learning and I started having fun with generative approaches and all that. Honestly, I haven't found a nice way to apply them to the process of composing yet. Every time I listen to some excerpt created by these systems - GANs, RNNs, you name it, the result is way inferior than your expectations, let alone that such systems put you in a sort of all-or-nothing position. One might argue that you can use use the output of these systems as starting point to further modify the musical result, but then this is no different than digging into the rabbit hole yourself - with one less advantage: there isn't a proactive approach because you delegate the search to the intelligent systems.

Nowadays, I think I sort of fell out of love with machine learning applied to music - at least the one being hyped. What I find way more interesting is to look into processes where states and transitions among them are well defined, for instance finite-state machines.
Furthermore, I have a lot of fun with the set theory and I find it easy to apply to the concept of patterns, both melodic and rhythmical.
Finally, I still keep using randomness for micro-variations and I enjoy a lot getting my hands and my ears dirty while being receptive to unexpected reactions produced. It feels so nice to be surprised!

And I think that's all for now :slight_smile:


Very interesting to see the two approaches contrasted like this, and I think the concept of micro-modulation is valuable to reflect the idea of a controlled or gated randomness - hadn't really thought of it that way before.


Really appreciating this discussion. I'm reminded of Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, the 1914 poem by French poet Stéphane Mallermé, declared by Broodthaers as the source of all contemporary art.