John Cage: Crafting Randomness


  • Warren A. Burt Box Hill Institute, Melbourne, Australia


John Cage, compositional techniques, randomness, algorithmic processes, Music for Piano, Cartridge Music, Writing Through Finnegans Wake, IC program, I Ching


John Cage’s understanding of randomness, and his use of it, was far more sophisticated than many people think. Whether working with the Music for Piano series in the mid-1950s, or in constructing the electronic music construction kit that is Cartridge Music, or in the design of the IC program (co-written with Andrew Culver) in the 1980s, or in the use of the Mesostic process in the Writings Through Finnegans Wake (and others), there are very clever uses of process at work. In the Music for Piano series, three timbral possibilities are set up, and the 64 possible numbers given by the I Ching are divided up in a very uneven way, such that one of the timbres hardly appears at all. In Cartridge Music, the choice of gestures that the results of the process are applied to creates a unity among different versions of the piece, such that one can clearly talk about Cartridge Music as a unique compositional entity. In the IC program, which became the basis for much of Cage’s composing in his last decade, there are options for generating random numbers with unpredictable, yet skewed probability distributions. These distributions can also change at unpredictable times, if desired. The Mesostic process extracts a new text from pre-existing ones. The restrictive rules of the process guarantee a certain kind of “rhythm of extraction” from the target text. For example, if one uses ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ as the “mesostic spine”, at a certain point, one has to find a word with “V” in it (“Evening”), but that word cannot have an “E” following the “V”. There are very few English words having a V that do not have an “E” following the “V”. (Vary, vagary, vigour would all be possible, for example.) So at this point, in extracting the poem from the target text, one has to search for quite a long time to find the proper word. The use of this particular “spine” guarantees that large portions of the target text will be skipped over in the extraction process, and shortens the length of the potential text. By understanding these processes, and the way they are carefully constructed, one can get a glimpse into the very crafty, and crafts-manly compositional mind of John Cage.


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How to Cite

Burt, W. A. (2014). John Cage: Crafting Randomness. Malaysian Journal of Music, 3(1), 82–92. Retrieved from