I’ve always had a tendency to include a high degree of chance in my performances (as many unwitting punters down Fitzies will confirm), but more often than not this fascination also runs into the composition process.
‘Coin Toss Jazz’ from my first album was the result of using chance operations from the very outset and was the beginning of a long mental journey into the study of musical chancers throughout history, which I’m sure I’ll bore you with at some point, especially if you’re daft enough to wait till I’ve had a few, then ask something as stupid as, “…so what do you do then?”.
Here’s a brief description of what I gone and done with this here tune.
My initial aim was to eliminate the ego entirely from the creative process, however, as you might have predicted, the deeper I explored this concept, the more philosophical things became, until every tangible piece of knowledge I thought I knew was but a fleeting groan and only one truth remained; there is only ego.
Nonetheless, I’ve started so I’ll finish.
The Geeky Bit
In keeping with the aleatoric tradition popularised through John Cage’s use of the I Ching, I decided to use as the starting point of this piece, the throw of a coin.
In order to produce some transferrable data from the coin toss I produced a series of colour coded tokens to represent different aspects of the compositional process (image 1).
First, there were twelve pink tokens, each one displaying one of the notes of the western octave. Second, seven orange tokens to represent the seven available chords of a given (diatonic) key. Third, three green tokens, each featuring either a sharp, flat or natural symbol. Finally, a separate token had on one side the words, Heads – Major – Beats, and on the other, Tails – Minor – Bars.
To the right of the tokens is a short list of instructions and rules for the coin toss jazz system which reads as follows;
1: Throw coin and all tokens.
2: Nearest pink to coin = key.
3: Heads = Major key, Tails = Minor key.
4: Nearest orange (to coin) = First chord.
5: Nearest yellow (to coin) = Throws allowed to determine time signature.
6: Throw yellow tokens 1, 2, or 3 times depending on first throw and add up value = Beats per bar.
7: Throw orange, green, yellow (tokens) and coin to determine next chord.
8: Yellow = Throws allowed to determine chord length – heads = no. of beats, tails = no. of bars.
As a late addition, I added three white tokens, one with the words time change, one with key change, and one with end tune written on it. These tokens were to be thrown with the others but only when one of them landed nearer to the coin than any other token would they affect the process.
Through following these instructions and repeating the throws until the end tune token brings the process to a close, and keeping a note of the results of each throw, the data can then be easily transferred into a lead-sheet to be performed as a piece of music (image 2).
Since the aleatoric aspect of the piece was musically represented through the chord changes I decided to perform the chords as a rigid sequence of triads in root position accompanied by a simple drum loop. Finally, I made the decision to play an improvised bass part in order to present a more human element in contrast to what was otherwise quite a mechanically sounding piece (I also couldn’t pass up the challenge of improvising over such random changes).
This process serves as a display of one simplistic example of chance operations in musical composition and I’ve since experimented with much more elaborate systems as well as exploring graphic and dynamic scores and other such methods which become more and more relevant in the digital age, I’m told computers are going to be quite a big deal in the future.