Chance in Music and the Visual Arts


We have discussed in the last lecture how Duchamp used chance explicitly in the creation of his masterpiece, "The Great Glass". In the 20th century, music as well as the visual arts took chance as an element in the structure of the composition. We find this in the work of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and others. They go under the assumption that because there are too many variables in a given work of art, you cannot control all the qualities of sound. Only in electronic music can sound be controlled. Edgar Varese works in electronic music; he had originally been a composer of the conventional type, but he retired from composing feeling dissatisfied. He came back 15 years after this, for electronic music offered him the realm of control that is so obviously missing in conventional music, control in the aspect of total sound, intensity, duration of the sound, and amount of sound produced. We are dealing with the structure of a medium, the abstract problem that occurs in many different media.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, a composer dealing with chance, will appear in Pasadena, December 11. One of his compositions,"Zyklus" or "Cycle #9" is published in book-type form. It is a beautiful no­tation; however, it does not look like music that we are most familiar with. Nevertheless, there is a scale and definite symbols that stand for different percussion elements. The structure of the score is in several unnumbered pages. He rejects the traditional approach to a musical score, and claims the power to reorganize music and to make the decision as composer to make chance available. He has incorporated it explicitly in this piece, for the performer may start at any page (the book is in spiral form), and he may read in any direction. The only rule is that once started, the page must be played as indicated, and that once a direction is chosen, the piece must be played in its entirety in that same direction.

A musical score by Karlheinz Stockhausen

A musical score by Karlheinz Stockhausen

Another piece by Stockhausen written for the piano, has all the musical notes printed on a stiff paper and are to be read in any order. The rules are that once played, a note cannot be replayed until all the others have been. Also, notes or passages may be left out at will. It becomes an entirely different piece of music each time it is played, but as composer he does exercise some control over it, even if that control is by granting freedom in the limited realm.

Surrealism and Dada are two movements in 20th century visual arts that take chance as part of their structures. This is documented in the pamphlet referred to in the last lecture Chance‑Imagery, by George Brecht. In reference to them, a passage reads as follows:

"All deliberate and conscious efforts, composition, logic are futile. The celebrated French-lucidity is nothing but a cheap lantern. At best the "poet" can prepare traps (as a physician might do in treating a patient), with which to catch the unconscious by surprise and to prevent it from cheating....
          The unconscious is inexhaustible and uncontrollable. Its force surpasses us. It is as mysterious as the last particle of a brain cell. Even if we knew it, we could not reconstruct it."

One of the key documents in this attitude of the unconscious and its acceptance by creative artists and their efforts to incorporate it into the work of art was written by Freud in 1900, The Meaning  of Dreams. This work was a big influence for much of the art that has been produced in the 20th century. In 1924, the Surrealist Man­ifesto made this interest in the subconscious or the unconscious explicit.

"During the course of Surrealist development, outside all forms of idealism, outside the opiates of religion, the marvelous comes to light within reality, it comes to light in dreams, obsessions, preoccupations, in sleep, fear, love, chance; in hallucinations, pretended disorders, follies, ghostly appar­itions, escape mechanisms and evasions; in fancies, idle wanderings; poetry, the supernatural and the unusual; in empiricism, in super-reality."


Marcel Duchamp
          "Great Glass" 1913-1923
          "Nine Malic Moulds" 1914-1915

The first studies for the "Great Glass" or "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor's, Even" were made in 1911, and the masterpiece was finished in 1923 after which he retired from painting to devote his life to chess.

Nine Malic Moulds , a detail from Duchamp's  Great Glass

Nine Malic Moulds, a detail from Duchamp's Great Glass

The detail from this painting, "Nine Malic Moulds," is taken from the bachelor machine on the bottom. The lines across the detail are graphic representations of the three threads that Duchamp dropped, incorporating the chance factor of gravity. The position of the moulds were also determined by chance through the medium of adresse or aim. Where each of the nine matches dipped in paint hit the canvas, a form was placed. The third form of chance used was wind. He used a piece of fine mesh gauze and let the wind blow it. It is located near the bride machine. Duchamp has edited a series of notes that supposedly explain the work of art in detail. They are published in a book entitled, The Green Box.

Paul Gaugin
         "Portrait of Artist With Idol" c. 1893
Paul Klee
          "Idol For House Cats" 1924


Paul Gaugin was essentially a 19th century artist even though he lived into the 20th. This painting was done in Tahiti, and in the background, we see an idol. Gaugin was fascinated by the arts of primitive peoples. He went to the South Seas with a romantic notion of the "noble savage" a not con going back to Goethe in the 1780's. Gaugin realized that primitive art had value and was a true art form. In 1904, Kirchner, a German artist writes about this approach to primitive art, and in 1905, Picasso started collecting African wood sculpture as a work of art to be valued in itself.


Paul Klee was a Swiss, artist who worked around Munich and became part of the German Expressionists. Klee showed humor and wit in his works stemming from the subconscious level of childlike experiences of the world. He conveys this in the image as a cat idol and in the title of the painting which is very witty and poetic. Klee is associated with Freud in that he says that it is our childhood that provides a basis for our approach to the world and for our conduct in adult life. These experiences are conditioned by our en­vironment and our society. This is what Klee is concerned with--childlike humor and terror.

Wassily Kandinsky
          "Improvisation 427" 1912
          "Yellow-Red-Blue" 1925


A contemporary of Klee's working in Munich, was Kandinsky who was largely responsible for the German Expressionist movement. This painting was done in 1912; however, it is very similar to the first deliberate abstract painting by this artist in 1911. He sets up a mystical frame of reference that can be related to the Tarot or to astrology, for he was actually involved with spiritualism, and mystics. He saw magic and the symbolism of color in much the same way that Ficino had during the Renaissance. This shows that some ideas con­tinued to live, to be used, and to be important in the creation of a work of art.

One day, as he was working on the painting, he turned it on its side. When he came back to it several days later, he failed to rec­ognize it as the same work. It had no reference to subject matter--a purely non-objective painting. This had a tremendous emotional impact and the revolution was incredible; however, Kandinsky had actually been working up to this for years. After this, he set about to paint a work totally from the subconscious with no reference at all to laws of the perceived world outside of himself. This is the significance of abstract art, a significance that will continue to operate. The attitude can actually be traced back to cave paintings, and they contain the basic problem of what is art. Representation or likeness to reality is only a superficial aspect of what makes art alive and meaningful for us.


"Yellow-Red, Blue" (above) is another example of his work from a some ­what later period (1925), one when he was associated with Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. This painting shows a reversal back to more geometric forms, an attitude that was evident in his earlier paintings. Thus, improvisations become the basis for the later compositions. It is significant that Kandinsky uses musical terms to describe his vis­ual art. He wrote a treatise, "The Yellow Sound" in which he established a mystical basis for a correspondence between sound and music on one hand and color on the other. The forms in the paintings may appear arbitrary; however, they are really carefully thought out and studied.

Piet Mondrian
          "Farm Near Duivendrecht" 1905
          "Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow" 1925

Another point of reference in the varied terms of 20th century art is found in the work of Piet Mondrian, the great Dutch artist.  The first painting was done in 1905 and relates to the "real" world whereas the second was done in a typical style of his later work in hard lines. How are these two works related?


We can see in studying the farmhouse that Mondrian was already interested in horizontals and verticals, black and white, or light and dark. We can see this by comparing the strong horizontal line of the horizon and the strict verticals of the farmhouse. This atti­tude towards neatness and order and of surface in straight lines develops in a different direction than in Kandinsky.


Rather than an automatic, subconscious attitude, Mondrian went into works related to a universe of order or strict structure. The art itself is very-intellectualized. Mondrian also wrote philosophically about his work, and in these writings, he considered himself a neo-Platonist in that he related the parts directly to the universe. He is concerned with elementals--horizontals, verticals, and primary colors. With severely restricted means, he built up a work of art that was self-contained and one that established its own rules that 'created a "world' a world that was severe and consistent. This relates to mystical and Oriental philosophies. Oriental philosophy had long been aware of different forces or structures that had been operating in a world that was not totally available to our mentality but was very real.

Kasimir Malevich
          "Football Match" 1915
Mies van de Rohe
          Chapel, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago 1939-1956


Malevich, a Russian, was part of the Suprematist or the Con­structivist movements. He takes the same approach as Mondrian, but develops it in a different way. The title of the work derives from something in the real world; however, the actual painting has no ob­vious relationship. He was very concerned with developing a consis­tent visual world within the frame, operational with its own laws that do not necessarily relate to the laws of the perceived world outside of the frame. The exact position of the forms and their relationships to each other are in a very delicate balance as in the work of Mondrian.


In a different medium, that of architecture, we find a close correspondence to the work of Mondrian and the entire De Stijl move­ment in Holland- the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. He alone is largely responsible for the development of the campus of ITT. This building is on that campus. What kind of building is it? That is its function? These questions would be difficult to answer by just looking at this slide. The building is a shape: an Episcopalian chapel. Is there any content expressed by the architecture?  We can interpret it as a physical repesentation of the architect's cosmological ideas concerning the structure of the universe as ex­pressed in a work of art. The entire campus is built on a module, a site with certain measurements and every building is a multiple of these measurements. There is a very careful sense of proportion and a sequence in the sizes of the buildings. The use of the glass across the front of the building has a definite function in relating exterior to interior space. It is ordered in horizontals and verti­cals that can be related to Mondrian and to a mystical or neo-Platonic philosophical disposition.

Pablo Picasso
          "Wine Glass & Music" 1912-13


Picasso combined music and art on a literal basis, for he in­corporates musical instruments in his works. He also deals with reality and unreality. The scraps of paper on the canvas are not imitations of wood and are not actual wood, but are made from paper which is a form of wood on a removed level. Hence, we come in con­tact with intellectual problems about the levels of reality and the removal of reality.

Kurt Schwitters
          "Des Undbild" 1919, assemblage, collage
          "Por Kate" 1947, collage


This artist used bits and pieces of paper that he found in the streets to make his collages. This attitude challenges the previous clear-cut distinctions between painting and sculpture as well as those of fine arts and popular arts. He used junk, and the whole idea of the work of art in marble or bronze is deliberately and brutally assaulted through the use of materials and media.

"For Kate" (top of page) was dedicated to Kate Steinitz who is part of the art department here at UCLA. This is one of his last works, and in it, he uses comic strips as part of the materials. This is perhaps one of the first works of Pop Art, for his use of the comics was long before Lichtenstein's. We will continue in the next lecture with the artist's use of materials.

Kurt von Meier