Imaginary Landscapes: Chance As a Means of Discovering the New
John Cage: Zen Buddhism, chance operations, random generation, and modern artificial intelligence. How John Cage’s embrace of chance in the creative process prefigured our current relation to knowledge via the medium of the search engine.
To begin, I’d like to review Imaginary Landscape No. 4, Cage’s first use of the I Ching and chance operations as compositional tools. From the moment of its composition, this book and chance operations would define his extensive body of work. Composed in 1951, the piece was written for 12 radios, and required 24 performers and a conductor. Performers were split into groups of 2 with each group stationed at a radio.1 One player was supposed to dial the radio stations or frequencies while the other adjusted volume and tone. Cage composed Imaginary Landscape No. 4 in standard music notation. Tempo, dynamics, frequency, and duration were all determined by a process of chance outlined by the I Ching, or Book of Changes, that involved drafting a chart with assigned values, flipping a coin, and reading the book’s hexagrams (6 line figures with corresponding parables.)2 Cage’s Imaginary Landscape compositions were some of the first live performances of electronic music, and No. 4 was unique in its electro-acoustic crossover and experimentation, along with its nod to media interactions. “This experimental media attitude has led [us] to consider IL4 as a pivotal work in relation to music exploitation of radio and (electromagnetic) noise. It has been considered as a forerunner of random content access available from internet streaming.”3
John Cage explained, “when I wrote the Imaginary Landscape for twelve radios, it was not for the purpose of shock or as a joke but rather to increase the unpredictability already inherent in the situation through the tossing of coins. Chance, to be precise, is a leap, provides a leap out of reach of one’s own grasp of oneself. Once done, forgotten.”4 Cage’s use and own perception of chance operations and the I Ching were the first practical application and explanation of indeterminacy in 20th century music composition, and helped fortify the connection between his work and contributions to electronic music specifically, and the related technological advancements that occurred throughout and after his lifetime. The Cambridge Companion to John Cage in relation to this concept of Cage’s, alludes to a set of Taoist beliefs. The specific lines quoted are these; “Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking./The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,/Creating, yet not possessing,/Working, yet not taking credit./Work is done, then forgotten./Therefore it lasts forever.”5
This quote and its evocation of the ten thousand evanescent things recalls the modern internet search engine; the trillions of possible results to any given entry, and how its model emulates that of the I Ching. The first, fourth, and fifth lines of the Taoist quote above are specifically what reminded me of the perpetual research we now engage in daily via search engines. Original and primitive search engines and artificial response were once much more randomized than they are today.6 Many now criticize our ‘smarter’ technology, arguing that it perpetuates deep divisions by generating specific information
to respond to individual prior habits and preferences.7 This process resembles the exact opposite of Cage’s attempted departure from the ego in composition via chance operations. Smart technology and data collection segreates populations, alienating the individual within distinctive silos and making it harder for these groups to communicate with each other, since they no longer share collective beliefs and assumptions.
My familiarly with the nuts and bolts AI programming is limited to my reading of the charming You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, in which Janelle Shane, an optics research scientist, details her journey of training her AI to do a series of tasks whose playful nature requires a degree of creativity and more sophistication than one might immediately realize. The failures of the AI program to effectively duplicate human creativity were telling, and the results of this training, similar for each individual project, have much to teach us about the pleasures of randomness as opposed to a more competently conventional approach to creative problem-solving. In the case of programming AI to tell knock knock jokes, the less experienced the AI was, the more random and absurd the punchline it produced. As the AI learns the conventions of knock-knock joke creation, the punchlines begin to approximate a conventional human-authored riddle response. Paradoxically the totally random primitive punchlines are far funnier—more weirdly successful.
The later AI riddles that better replicate the conventions of the joke are less funny while better achieving the desired goal. Then Shane tries to teach the AI to generate ice cream flavors. First, it produces answers such as; Swirl of Hell, Silence of the Coconut, Inhuman Sand, and Death Cheese, but after a short period of training, it comes up with
more likely flavors such as Cherry Chai, Toasted Basil, Mountain Fig and Strawberry Twist.8 This process as it relates to AI’s invention of practical jokes continues to illuminate the ways in which human creativity depends on finding the right balance of convention and novelty or randomness. The AI suggests the following April fools day practical jokes situations:9
“Arrange the kitchen sink into a chicken head.”
“Put a glow stick in your hand and pretend to sneeze on the roof.”
“Make a toilet seat into pants and then ask your car to pee.”
The bizarre situations conjured here are funny in their surreality, but also in that they capture an essential absurdity inherent in the desire to play pranks at all. The AI’s hit-or-miss efforts to create surprise become a kind of comment on that effort. The estrangement produced by the AI’s unconventional set-ups causes us to pay more attention to a form—the practical joke— whose “naturalness” we had long taken for granted. In the same way, Cage’s randomness makes us think about the conventions of music composition. There is also a certain mechanical quality to this random, open form of searching for creative inspiration. In relation to this process, Kay Larson wrote, “Once Cage found some idea he liked, he used it repeatedly, turning it over and over in endless variations. In later years, for instance, he composed texts by ordering his thoughts with chance operations, a random process that gave him a more sophisticated version of his Gertrude Stein’s writing method.”10
We experience a Cage piece as both music and a meta-composition that addresses its own making. And this creative work depends on mastery, uncertainty and even a degree of perceived “wrongness” leading to discomfort in its audience. Cage’s work attempts to create a sense of “beginner’s mind.” Like a grasshopper, Cage flitted among new stimuli rather than maintaining a singular path. Cage hops instead of digging in, a way to remain new, a perpetual beginner.
Like his indeterminate music, his career was discontinuous, skipping about for differing lengths of time among simultaneous interests and overlaid commitments. As he put it to a Wesleyan audience, “Do I not resemble a grasshopper?” In fact in the early 1960s he began once again to focus on electronic music, with fresh invention and more advanced technology–“on the brink,” he believed, “of a vast field of possibility.”11
One of the stories my parents enjoy telling is that during my third birthday party, I was given two gifts; a toy oven and a nice doll. My family noticed that I decided to put the doll in the oven, and they began to laugh at the incongruity of this, which offended my dignity. But in a Cagean sense, my operation with the oven and the doll was as potentially rewarding as whatever other use I could put these two toys to. It is the freedom of the child, of the beginner’s mind, that allows such open experimentation. With this philosophy guiding the composing process, we no longer reject incongruity as inartistic and ugly. If we are open in our seeking, we may be surprised into new perceptions, unlearn old conventions (such as Schoenburg’s 12 tone technique of harmony that Cage so despised) so that we can develop new ones, that we will then proceed to unlearn as a continual process of making and unmaking.12
Cage conveyed an opening up to the “view” of music/sound by his unorthodox approach to sound making by investing his works with not just experimentalism but a sense of irony, humor and freedom from established modes of composition. It’s that freedom, the breaking down, embracing and conflating of visual and audio structures, and the notion of democratizing presentation by also removing the barrier between audience and performer that opened the minds of so many.13
This semester, as the conservatory percussion studio’s way of making chamber music remotely (our players are scattered from Brazil to Singapore), we recorded Cage’s Living Room music. I was on two of the four movements, Story and To Begin. It was actually quite remarkable to play and assemble the pieces remotely. Even the process of generating a click track in Garageband struck me as unique as it seemed antithetical to what I imagine Cage’s Living Room music to be. I felt rather detached while speaking the iterations of Gertrude Stein’s “The World Is Round” into my earbud microphone and watching the sounds appear as jagged lines on the Garageband audioface. There was a stilted quality of playing this music under conditions of such unnatural restriction and distance. But in actuality, this experience could be seen as an example of a truly Cagean ephemerality because it so reflected the conditions of its making. This piece of music that we produced and assembled electronically will forever be incredibly indicative of the pursuit of creating music in 2020 amidst the pandemic, which immediately morphed into an artifact of our distinctive moment. As the brochure from Pamplona Gatherings, an international festival celebrating avant garde art wrote:14
The patriarchal presence of John Cage, who had so influenced anti-art tendencies in the 1960s, symbolized a general preference for events, for the ephemeral and transitory poetics of the here and now. The only difficulty with “ephemeral and transitory poetics” is their transitoriness. Exhibitions of Cage’s work seem to be lacking a central core, a cohesion. That unifying voice, of course, was supplied by
Cage himself, and he has passed on. We celebrate change and yet we also feel its sting. Zen teachers say, though, just look around you. Where has he gone? He’s still speaking to us.15
In 1955, only four years after Cage premiered Imaginary Landscape No. 4, the first artificial intelligence program called the Logic Theorist was created.16 45 years later, right around Cage’s death in 1992, Archie, the first search engine, came into experimental use. 17 Only a few years later, personalized digital ad targeting became commonplace in the United States, and in 2011, Siri was introduced to the iPhone while smart technology was installed in the home.18 Each new technological development both creates and depends on a predictive narrowing of possibilities.
I envision this trajectory outlined above as the hair pin dynamic markings that we see in musical notation (< >). The crescendo hairpin denoting the growth of indeterminacy, ephemerality, and chance in art alongside randomized computer technology protocol development. At the end of the crescendo, the endless possibilities merge into a period of narrowing possibilities due to the emergence of AI and smart technology, and the subsequent formation of technological protocol and convention. This process embodies the decrescendo. I wonder if we are seeing once again a return to the convention, and if Cage now is an artifact of a freer and more experimental time. Modes of creation and aesthetic consumption are recycled and therefore returned. Perhaps we will see the emergence of new artistic and compositional freedom once we exit this current phase of technology driven convention.
“Alan Emtage Creator of ARCHIE, the World’s First Search Engine.” Alan Emtage Creator of ARCHIE, the World’s First Search Engine | Capitol Technology University, www.captechu.edu/blog/alan-emtage-creator-of-archie-worlds-first-search-engine.
“Apple’s Siri Is as Revolutionary as the Mac.” Harvard Business Review, 12 Aug. 2014, hbr.org/2011/10/apples-siri-is-as-revolutionar.
Blau, Max. “33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates.” NPR, NPR, 5 Sept. 2012, www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates.
John Cage Complete Works, johncage.org/pp/John-Cage-Work-Detail.cfm?work_ID=104.
Larson, Kay. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. Penguin Books, 2013.
Legislative Primer. Online Behavioral Tracking and Targeting Concerns and Solutions from the Perspective Of. Center for Digital Democracy, Sept. 2009,
The Logic Theorist, www.cs.swarthmore.edu/~eroberts/cs91/projects/ethics-of-ai/sec1_2.html.
Nicholls, David. The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
“The Pamplona Encounters 1972: The End of the Party for Experimental Art: Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofía.” Exposición – The Pamplona Encounters 1972: The End of the Party for Experimental Art – Equipo Crónica (Manuel Valdés [Valencia, 1942]; Rafael Solbes [Valencia, 1940-1981]), et al,
SHANE, JANELLE. YOU LOOK LIKE A THING AND I LOVE YOU: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s… Making the World a Weirder Place. VORACIOUS, 2021.
Silverman, Kenneth. Begin Again: a Biography of John Cage. Northwestern University Press, 2012.
Valle, Andrea, and Amedeo Casella. “IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE No. 4: STUDY AND ANNOTATION OF THE SCORE.” CIRMA-Universita di Torino, Proceedings of the XXI CIM-Colloquio Di Informatica Musicale, 2026.
Wilhelm, Richard, et al. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton University Press, 1990.
1 John Cage Complete Works, johncage.org/pp/John-Cage-Work-Detail.cfm?work_ID=104. 2 Wilhelm, Richard, et al. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton University Press, 1990. 3 Valle, Andrea, and Amedeo Casella. “IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE No. 4: STUDY AND ANNOTATION OF THE SCORE.” CIRMA-Universita di Torino, Proceedings of the XXI CIM-Colloquio Di Informatica Musicale, 2026.
4 David Nicholls, The Cambridge Companion to John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 5 Nicholls, The Cambridge.
6 “Alan Emtage Creator of ARCHIE, the World’s First Search Engine.” Alan Emtage Creator of ARCHIE, the World’s First Search Engine | Capitol Technology University,
7 Legislative Primer. Online Behavioral Tracking and Targeting Concerns and Solutions from the Perspective Of. Center for Digital Democracy, Sept. 2009, www.eff.org/files/onlineprivacylegprimersept09.pdf.
8 SHANE, JANELLE. YOU LOOK LIKE A THING AND I LOVE YOU: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s… Making the World a Weirder Place. VORACIOUS, 2021.
9 Shane, You Look.
10 Larson, Kay. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. Penguin Books, 2013.
11 Silverman, Kenneth. Begin Again: a Biography of John Cage. Northwestern University Press, 2012. 12 Hicks, Michael. “John Cage’s Studies with Schoenberg.” American Music, vol. 8, no. 2, 1990, pp. 125–140. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3051946. Accessed 19 Dec. 2020.
13 Blau, Max. “33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates.” NPR, NPR, 5 Sept. 2012, www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates.
14 “The Pamplona Encounters 1972: The End of the Party for Experimental Art: Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofía.” Exposición – The Pamplona Encounters 1972: The End of the Party for Experimental Art – Equipo Crónica (Manuel Valdés [Valencia, 1942]; Rafael Solbes [Valencia, 1940-1981]), et al,
15 Larson, Where the Heart.
16 The Logic Theorist, www.cs.swarthmore.edu/~eroberts/cs91/projects/ethics-of-ai/sec1_2.html. 17 “Alan Emtage Creator of ARCHIE, the World’s First Search Engine.” Alan Emtage Creator of ARCHIE, the World’s First Search Engine | Capitol Technology University,
18 “Apple’s Siri Is as Revolutionary as the Mac.” Harvard Business Review, 12 Aug. 2014, hbr.org/2011/10/apples-siri-is-as-revolutionar.