Sound in Continual Composition :
Soundscapes, Indeterminacy and Ambient and Generative Music.

In his 1973 pamphlet The Music of The Environment, Canadian composer and theorist R.Murray Schafer states; 'In various parts of the world important research is being undertaken in many areas of sonic studies.These researches are related; each is dealing with aspects of the world soundscape, the vast musical composition which is unfolding around us ceaselessly.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:29)

If an environmental 'world soundscape' is 'unfolding around us ceaselessly', then by its nature this 'vast musical composition', must be indeterminate, and to some degree generative. That is unless we had the ability to structure every last bird song, motor engine or gust of wind through a tree, that fills this 'Music of the Environment'. Though stated by Schafer, this philosophical outlook has it's roots in the earlier pronouncements of his predecessor John Cage. Indeed in this same pamphlet Schafer quotes Cage: ''Music is sounds, sounds heard around us, whether we are in or out of the concert halls.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:30)

I would like to highlight the parallels between an evolving environmental soundscape, indeterminate music, and its contemporary equivalents in generative and ambient music. I would argue that indeterminate music is not just a composed structure of chance operations, but that its roots lie in the supposition of an evolving 'world soundscape'. That is of itself non intentional, and that it is only the way we listen to it, that gives it form. ' Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.' - John Cage, (Cox and Warner, 2004:25)

The Soundscape

'This blurring of the edges between music and environmental sounds may eventually prove to be the most striking feature of all twentieth century music'. (Schafer 1977:111)

Thus spoke R. Murray Schafer in his legendary 1977 book The Tuning Of The World, now entitled The Soundscape (1993) and despite his many detractors, his prediction makes this book one of the most significant canons in the theory of sound culture today. Soundscape as a word has now found its way into the lexicon of the Oxford English Dictionary, and as a concept has found its way into the imaginations of artists and theoreticians alike. As a study of the relationships between people and their sonic environments, it initiated the World Soundscape Project (WSP), created by Schafer and a small team of students and composers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The first sound study created by WSP was entitled 'Vancouver Soundscape', and as interest in the WSP increased, it has now become the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, which now boasts numerous affiliated international groups.

Vancouver Soundmarks - Claude Schryer 1973

Schafer suggests that 'we try to hear the acoustic environment as a musical composition and, further, that we own responsibility for its composition' (Schafer 1977a, 205). This is analogous to Cage's idea of sound or noise as musical source, although whether he would agree that we own responsibility for it's composition is another question. In his later years Cage became influenced by Zen Buddhism and reflecting on the effect this had on his work, Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner state in their introduction to his lecture, Composition as process: Indeterminacy - Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. (Cox and Warner, 2004:29) 'His Zen practice sparked a philosophical commitment to 'non intention,' the affirmation of life as it is rather than the desire to improve upon it. In the wake of this realisation, Cage developed a range of techniques that would allow him to relinquish control over his compositions and to place himself in the role of listener rather than that of creator'. As he states in a lecture on September 8, 1958 in Darmstadt. 'It is high time to let sounds issue in time independent of a beat in order to show a musical recognition of the necessity of time.' (Cox and Warner,2004:176)


Pioneered by Cage, Indeterminacy in music is created by some or all of a composition and/or performance being left to chance operations or the will of the performer. Much has been written on the subject and as such, this short definition will suffice for our purposes. As Cage himself states again: 'Bringing about indeterminacy is bringing about a situation in which things would happen that are not under my control. Chance operations can guide me to a specific result, like the 'Music of Changes'. An example of indeterminacy is any one of the pieces in a series called 'Variations', which resemble cameras that don't tell you what picture to take but enable you to take a picture.' (Campana,1985:109)


One of the main tenets of indeterminate music is process, or the manner in which the elements of a composition or performance is created. This can entail any number of choice or chance operations of behalf of the composer, performer or audience. According to Michael Nyman, they can be 'split up into five areas' (Nyman, 1974:06) and summarized as.

i. Chance Determination Processes

Originally employed by Cage, examples are the consultation of the I Ching (The ancient Chinese Book of Oracles) to answer questions regarding the direction a composition should take (Music of Changes,1951) and identification of imperfections on paper (Music for Piano,1952-6).

ii. Contextual Processes

Created by variable unpredictable conditions from within the composition. Christian Wolff's (Burdocks, 1970) is for an ensemble of up to fifteen players who can choose any one of three sounds, playing as simultaneously as possible with the sound they hear played by the player next to them. The process continues, as they then play another sound, with the next sound of the next nearest player,and so on until they have played with all players in the ensemble.

iii. Electronic Processes

Cages (Cartridge Music,1960) is again an example of this, where the score consists of transparent sheets, which are overlaid with various printed shapes. Readings are then taken from these shapes indicating to the players when to activate 'generally by percussive or fricative means'. (Cage:1960) 'objects, such as tooth picks, matches, pianio wires that have been put into a gramophone cartridge in place of a needle and amplified by means of contact microphones.' (Nyman:1974)

iv. People Processes

This is best described as a process that allows performers to play through a composition at their own speed. As Michael Nyman states: 'Differences in ability account for the possible eventuality of players getting lost in Fredric Rzewski's 'Les Mouton de Panurge' (1969), once your lost you are encouraged to stay lost.' He also picks up on Michael Parsons comment that 'it is an example of making use of 'hidden resources' in the sense of natural individual differences, rather than talents or abilities.'

v. Repetition Processes

Repetition creates a means of progression and movement through a composition. Steve Reich uses this in a very gradual way with his early tape pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) which both traverse a spoken statement into a myriad of different speech combinations. In his 1969 manifesto Reich announces his belief in repetition and audible process in music: 'I do not mean the process of composition, but rather the pieces of music that are literally processes.'

Ryoanji (Tribute to John Cage) - Roger Mills 2004

My own work, Ryoanji (tribute to John Cage) produced for 'Rocks Role, After Ryoanji" exhibition, Art in General, New York 2004, was inspired by John Cages composition Ryoanji, which he created by making tracings of the fifteen stones in the Ryoanji Temple stone garden, Kyoto, Japan. The resulting sketches became the chance notation for double bass, oboe and percussion, and he later added parts for trombone and flute and finally cello in 1992, and was never finished due to his death later that year. As a meditation, the Ryoanji temple monks rake the sand around the garden stones on a daily basis, and inspired by this, I designed and built a 'sonic rake', which had five pins inserted along its base. Attaching contact microphones to the pins from a mini disc recorder on the handle, I was then able to record the texture of any surface the rake could trail through.

Installation - Sand Bay, Western Supermare, United Kingdom.

The installation of the composition on the beachfront at Sand Bay measured an area thirty metres by ten metres (the size of Rioanji Temple garden). As the pins of the rake trailed through the sand, they left an indentation of five lines as an abstract musical stave. As a parallel to the fifteen stones of the stone garden, fifteen rocks of various sizes were sourced from the surrounding area, and passers by were asked to randomly cast the rocks onto the demarcated staved area of sand. Interpretation of the score follows this simple equation:

size of rock = length of note

space between rocks = duration between notes

stone throw ryoanji

ryoanji stones

After the last stone was thrown, I had a selection of rocks scattered on the stave, indicating a tonal and rhythmic composition. 'For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history (not the sounds that happen in it-or their relationships) (not the stones-thinking of a japanese stone garden-or their relationships but the emptiness of the sand which needs the stones anywhere in the space in order to be empty).' (Cage,1961:70)

That Cage influenced Schafer is without question and there was undoubtedly a great mutual respect between the two men, even if there were disagreements at the margins. In stating that we 'own responsibility' for what we hear as an acoustic environment or composition, Schafer was clearly referring to a more general responsibility for the sounds of an industrialised society. In an interview with Petra Kern of 'Music Therapy Today' he describes the works in the original Vancouver Soundscape as 'phenomenological recordings' rather than 'mediated recordings', in that they were recordings of sound over time, to show the evolution of a particular sound environment. This starts to appear similar to Cage's 'musical recognition of the necessity of time' and in elucidating the process Schafer says. (Kern, 2007:294-300)

An afternoon talk with R.Murray Schafer - Petra Kern 2007

'We did twenty four hour recordings and then out of those twenty four hour recordings we would take maybe two minutes out of each, so that in forty eight minutes you get the whole circadian rhythm of a particular soundscape'.

Whether deconstructing a twenty four hour recording into sequenced two minute sections isn't mediated is another question, but I suggest that what you would actually hear, is just an aural snapshot in time. It is only 'the whole circadian rhythm of a particular soundscape' as it was in that twenty four hour period. As with his generalization of us owning responsibility of acoustic environmental composition, again he appears to be making his point in much the same way. Indeterminacy therefore, is much a part of 'acoustic environment as a musical composition' as the throwing of stones to make compositional decisions.

If the 'acoustic environment' is a 'musical composition', is it Ambient Music ?

Ambient Music and the Sonic Environment

On a rainy day in 1975, whilst confined to his bed, convalescing after being immobilized by an accident, musician and music producer Brian Eno had a profound realization which would indelibly influence his own music and how we consider environmental music. A visitor who when leaving, put a vinyl record of seventeenth century harp music on the hi-fi and it wasn't until she had gone that he realized that the music was too quiet. 'I could hardly hear the music above the rain-just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm. I couldn't get up to change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized this is what I wanted my music to be - a place, a feeling, an all round tint to my sonic environment' (Cox and Warner, 2004:94)

What Eno was articulating is a sense, not of environmental sound as music, but music as environment sound. He had identified that low level spacious music could create a subtle yet immersive experience, which could 'accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular: it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.' (Ambient Manifesto - inner sleeve of Music for Airports 1978). Though not entirely new, the concept of music designed to be heard as background environmental sound was first pioneered in the nineteen fifties by the American corporation Muzac Inc. It was designed to be a non intrusive, environment regulating music, used by retailers and companies to produce a psychological 'lift' in people inhabiting their environments. Eno's concept of Ambient Music differs from this, and he makes the distinction, 'Whereas extant canned music companies proceed on the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idio-syncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:97).

Working with Obscure Records in 1975, he began producing not only his own releases but others from artists such as Gavin Bryars, Christopher Hobbs as well as a rare collaboration between John Cage and Jan Steele, on Voices and Instruments, 1976 - Obscure No. 6. But it wasn't until 1978 while standing in Cologne airport, that he had the idea of an environmental music that would enhance the experience of being in a building like that. 'It had to be interruptible (because there'll be announcements), it has to work outside the frequencies at which people speak and at different speeds and speech patterns (so as not to confuse communication) and it has to be able to accommodate all the noises that airports produce.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:96) Inspired by this he recorded the legendary Music for Airports, and the first Ambient Music record was produced and released on his own label Ambient Records. In Music for Airports, he was envisioning music that could incorporate an environmental soundscape, not only in frequencies and pattern, but to underscore their indeterminacy as well. 'They're theoretically endless, generating new stuff as they go, new combinations. I always wanted that kind of music - Music for Airports to be endless pieces.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:97)

Brian Eno produced further Ambient records with artists such as Harold Budd and Laraaji, and in 1982 he would produce another ground breaking record On Land, where he integrated environmental field recordings into his compositions. In the sleeve notes of On Land, he explains the nature of some of the albums sound sources from Ghana : 'What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with a microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to tthe results on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame: they became music'. (Cox and Warner, 2004:96)

Shadow (On land) - Brian Eno 1982

It is here that clear conceptual links emerge between Eno's ethos of Ambient Music as a 'place, a feeling, an all round tint', R.Murray Schafer's 'acoustic environment' as a musical composition' and John Cage's 'Music is sounds, sounds heard around us'. Brandon LaBelle distills this further when referring to how 'source underscores sound' as 'The direct correlation of music as a culture of listening, and sound as an indicator of everyday life'. (LaBelle, 2006:25)

Generative Music

Generative music is often discussed in different ways and as different things by theorists, mathematicians and composers. What is common to most interpretations is process. This is illustrated by four examples given by Wooler, R and A.R. Brown, et al. (2005).

1. Linguistic/Structural: Music created using analytic theoretical constructs that are explicit enough to generate music (Loy and Abbott 1985; Cope 1991); inspired by generative grammars in language and music, where generative instead refers to mathematical recursion (Chomsky 1956; Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983).

2. Interactive/Behavioral: Music resulting from a process with no discernable musical inputs, i.e., not transformational (Rowe 1991; Lippe 1997, p 34; Winkler 1998).

3. Creative/Procedural: Music resulting from processes set in motion by the composer, such as “In C” by Terry Riley and Its gonna rain by Steve Reich (Eno 1996).

4. Biological/Emergent: Non-repeatable music (Biles 2002a) or non-deterministic music, such as or wind chimes (Dorin 2001), as a sub-set of 'Generative Art'.

As highlighted above, a primitive example of generative music is the wind chime. We can control how many tones it has, but not the order, velocity or how frequently they are played. Is music generated from the wind chime then indeterminate ? I argue that the answer to this lies in what we have previously discussed as Process. An interesting analogy here is Christian Wolff's indeterminate composition Burdocks (1970), where the piece was performed through the process fifteen instrumentalists choosing any one of three notes and randomly playing them as synchronously as possible with the nearest player. In an interview with David Toop, Brian Eno says 'What I think is interesting about generative music is that instead of giving a set of detailed instructions about how to make something, what you do instead is give a set of conditions by which something will come into existence.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:241-242)

In contrast John Cage sates, 'An example of indeterminacy is any one of the pieces in a series called 'Variations', which resemble cameras that don't tell you what picture to take but enable you to take a picture.' (Campana,1985:109). To which Eno adds, 'All of my ambient music I should say, really was based on that kind of principle, on the idea that it's possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you.' (Eno, 1996)


As we seek to understand sound and it's place in the world around us, it is clear that it is a multi faceted phenomena with many paradigms of meaning. What emerges in the composition or organisation of sound, is that it is, its own entity, and tied into the very fabric of life. Serving our creative instincts we give give it form, tonality and structure, but it will continue to fill our environment regardless of our artistry, for it is continually renewing and regenerating indeterminately.


Cox, C, Warner, D, (2004) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Continuum.

Schafer,R, Murray, (1977) The Tuning of the World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Schafer,R, Murray, (1993) The Soundscape. Vermont:Destiny Books.

D. Campana, (1985) "Interview with Cage," Form and Structure in the Music of John Cage, Ph.D. Northwestern University, Evanston. U.S.A.

Nyman, M, (1974) Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond.Cambridge.

Cage, J, (1961) Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT.Wesleyan University Press.

Kern, P, (2007) Surrounded by Soundscapes: An Afternoon Talk with R. Murray Schafer. Music Therapy Today. Vol.VIII (2) 294-300. <available at >

Wooler, R, A.R. Brown, et al. (2005) A Framework for Comparison of Processes in algorithmic music systems. Generative Arts Practice, Sydney, Creative and Cognition Studios Press.

Eno,B, (1996) Generative Music: Evolving metaphors, in my opinion, is what artists do. - Motion Magazine, July 7. <available at >

LaBelle, B, (2006) Background Noise: Perspectives in Sound Art, New York, Continuum.