Aleatory art

Any path is right, if— as according to Bach– it leads to the divine”— music historian Paul Epstein on J.S. Bach’s fugues, to which Bach never gave a playing order.

Aleatory art is art where the finished result is substantially out of the artist’s hands. It can involve chance or the musicians’ or audience’s choice. Many games are aleatory. Monopoly involves the roll of the dice. Poker involves the shuffling of the cards. Aleatocism in art can create fresh, inventive, unexpected results. If the results defies the conventions of plot, narrative and order, that’s the point.

J.S. Bach’s little fugues are aleatory in that he never communicated which order the short musical pieces should be played. They can be played or listened to in any order, take your pick, randomly program the CD player. In the above quote, Epstein is saying an overall sublime aesthetic result justifies whichever fugue order lead to it. It’s reminiscent of the Hindi saying, “Any path that leads to God is correct.”

Novelist William S. Burroughs used the so called cut-up aleatory technique. Pages of text were physically cut up and randomly pieced back together, sometimes with text by other authors, creating new and often profoundly surreal meaning and narrative. Burroughs believed this type of collage more closely represented the human experience. Despite the conceit of linearity, humans don’t think or experience things linearly, one’s thoughts constantly flipping back and forth between past, current and future. Random little events and objects trigger memories and provoke speculation of the future. When you consider buying a can of beans in the grocery isle, you think about past meals and the future meal where these beans might be used. The human ability to identify flowers, shoe brands and people involves comparing the present to memory. Human intelligence and reasoning involves mentally flipping back and forth through time.

Even with a physically bound paper book, the reader chooses the order in which the book is read. Whether or not they realize it, readers are as responsible for the order as the author, though the author usually gets the blame.

William S. Burroughs said the chapters of his novel Naked Lunch could be read in any order. That a reader read them 1, 2, 3 had nothing to do with him.

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