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Musical Indeterminacy and Its Implications for Music Analysis: The Case of Cage’s Solo for Piano

Lookup NU author(s): Professor David ClarkeORCiD



This is the final published version of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Leuven University Press, 2016.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


Ambiguity, a quality inherent in many artworks, acquired a radical dimension in the indeterminate musical works of the post-1950 avant garde. Such music challenges the ontological status of the work and consequently the activity of musical analysis in relation to it. One model for an epistemological exploration of these issues is the semiological tripartition of Nattiez, influenced by Jean Molino, together with its associated notion of the “total musical fact”. Investigation of a work such as Cage’s Solo for Piano (1957–8) illustrates how indeterminate music fosters a re-drawing of the conventional division of labour between composer, performer and analyst. It also suggests that analysis might need to become more flexible and capacious about its own concept, and open to a further blurring between itself and music aesthetics and theory – just as Cage’s output opened itself up to Zen philosophy. While these altered conditions do not entail a total dislocation from those surrounding more “conventionally” ambiguous musical works (e.g. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune), they arguably do represent, pace Nattiez, a difference in principle as well as in degree. To argue otherwise would be to fail to keep faith with what is radical about indeterminacy.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Clarke D

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Music Theory and Analysis (MTA) International Journal of the Dutch-Flemish Society for Music Theory

Year: 2016

Volume: 3

Issue: 2

Pages: 170-197

Print publication date: 01/10/2016

Acceptance date: 03/04/2016

Date deposited: 05/05/2016

ISSN (print): 2295-5917

ISSN (electronic): 2295-5925

Publisher: Leuven University Press


DOI: 10.11116/MTA.3.2.3

Notes: Published October 2016


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