Here is John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4, performed by the Maelström Percussion Ensemble:[audio:http://radioartnet.net/audio/2550.mp3]
Written in 1951, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is scored for twelve radios. Two performers “play” each radio, one dialing the frequency, the other changing the volume and tone. The work is notated conventionally, i.e. with notes expressing duration placed on a five-line staff, and was composed using chance operations (in this case coin tosses), as was Cage’s Music of Changes, written at the same time. Though their compositional methods were identical, the two works differ in one fundamental respect: given the nature of the instruments they employ – the piano in the former case and the radio in the latter – Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is indeterminate whereas Music of Changes is not.
The indeterminacy stems from the fact that radios produce sounds that vary according to frequency, time of day, and geographic location. It follows that those sounds cannot be determined in advance, and thus that each performance of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 will be different in ways that cannot be predicted. According to Cage himself, the experience of indeterminacy was the motivation for the piece:
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. (quoted in CCJC, 57)
The “leap out of reach of one’s own grasp of oneself” that Cage refers to here was to become one of his guiding principles, the goal being to eliminate individual will, preference, and desires, in a word, to give up control. The Western musical tradition, with its emphasis on originality and individuality, not to mention the regimented, hierarchical nature of the orchestra, indeed of diatonic harmony itself, had become suspect to Cage. Throughout his career he sought ways around these impediments, as he saw them, and at the time he clearly hoped that composing for the radio via chance operations would allow him to bypass them, as he explained in the concluding lines to an article detailing the compositional procedure of Imaginary Landscape No. 4:
It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions” of the art. The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration. (CDPC, 59)
In the mid- to late-1950s Cage would write three more works for radio, namely Speech (1955), Radio Music (1956), and Music Walk (1958), before abandoning the instrument, though he did later compose for television, audio tape, records, and other electronic sound sources.
CDPC: Cage, John. “Composition to Describe the Process of Composition Used In Music of Changes and Imaginary Landscape No. 4.” in Silence Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. 57–59.
CCJC: The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. Ed. David Nicholls. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.