What is ‘Indeterminacy’?

Sami Cotton and Andrea Just in rehearsal for Score for Four


In June 2010 I completed my Masters in Choreography at LCDS. It was a process fraught with the stress of attempting to create a substantial work, to develop a clear and distinct artistic vision for the future, whilst working in practically impossible circumstances. These restrictions and expectations bore down heavily on my process and clouded my approach in a way that overshadowed the potential of the work. After a few months of rest I feel a renewed excitement in the concept of the work and feel the need to engage with it on another level. One of the major disappointments during the process was that I was unable to engineer some kind of peer feedback. This left my thought process incomplete and tangled. I feel that articulating creative practice is an essential aspect of making. It places work in a context and challenges you to develop stronger methods of communicating, and ultimately achieving, your aim for a work.  I set out here to redress this, by offering my thoughts on this process and inviting your own comments on the scope of this work. This is slightly different to asking for feedback on a piece. I’m asking you to engage with this work on a conceptual level. My main aim is to answer the question: what is ‘Indeterminacy’? What does it mean to me? And why I do I feel that it offers a fresh approach to choreographic and performance practice?

Solid Vs Liquid

It’s tempting to throw the term “indeterminacy” around like some catch phrase on a marketing pamphlet. But I argue here that the term has a very specific meaning which, in application, has had a profound impact on my creative practice and my thoughts on the identity of art work.  Firstly, something that is indeterminate is not unspecified; it can have very clearly defined properties. However, unlike something solid, that has a fixed shape and size, an indeterminate object has boundaries within which it operates in a state of flux. It is dynamic, fluid, unpredictable. So too is performance art, dance, live music and live acting. All events that take place in real time are open to indeterminacy. Can any two renditions of a dance piece be exactly the same, even if the choreography is completely set? When visual artists refuted the commodity value of art works they turned to performance practice to develop work that was ephemeral. It seems strange that dance artists attempt to solidify their work by turning it into repertory, attempting to reproduce the same thing on each performance. I acknowledge that there is historical value in reproducing past works and appreciate that repertoire is an essential factor in developing a commercially viable practice. However, I wanted to highlight the instability of performance practice. I wondered if I could do this whilst still making a choreographed work.


How is this different to improvisation? Improvisation is clearly indeterminate. It offers parameters within which an interchange takes place. These parameters maintain the identity of the work, they give it shape. The number of times people wrongly assume that improvisation is totally free displays a widespread misunderstanding of the form. It takes an extremely experienced artist to be able to read the space and contribute effectively without falling into habitual, self-indulgent waffling. My vision for my own work was to retain the immediacy and engagement of improvisation within a choreographed work. I visualised the pre-set, choreographed piece as an intricate weaving line, contained by a set shape. It carves around the space; it is intentional, known, and impermeable. The improvised work looks like an empty square.  It invites, proposes, allows the dancers to bring in their own purpose, it is unknown, a potential. I wondered if I could impose my own squiggles, lines and purpose without fixing the actual shape of a work, like drawing something on a canvas but then allowing the frame to be fixed at random. This was the image that drove my experiments with four scores, resulting in Score for Four (2010).

This work was not, however, the clearest example of the scope of indeterminacy. I complicated my brief by selecting too many scores in the first place and created some confusion as to whether or not I was creating a piece based on scores or an indeterminate work. But before I go into this let me clarify what indeterminacy means in relation to historical avant garde practice.

Composition Indeterminacy

The term indeterminacy is applied to many different applications of “randomness” in the performance or process of making a work. The notion of “randomness” derives from the fact that choices are made that are in some way beyond the control of the maker and result in outcomes that could not have been achieved otherwise. There seem to be two main categories within this field. Firstly, a work may involve indeterminacy in the process of making. This means that rather than making choices about every detail in a work, the artist refers to some other mechanism by which components are structured. John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s experiments with Chance Operations are a clear example of this form of indeterminacy.

The chance procedures used by Cage in the early 1950s, exemplified in his seminal work Music of Changes (1951), displaced his control on some aspects of the composition by referring to the Chinese Book of Changes or the I-Ching. To do this he generated three 64 cell charts which related directly to the 64 Hexagrams of the I-Ching. The three charts related to “sonority, duration and dynamics” (Pritchett, 1993, p 79). Every aspect of the music was determined by throwing three coins. Cage consulted the I-Ching to find the associated hexagram, leading him to the equivalent cell, which determined the sounds to be played. Through these complex procedures Cage removed his subjective inclinations from the process of composition allowing sounds to emerge from beyond his pre-conceived ideas. (Pritchett, 1993, p.83).

(Excerpt from my MA Dissertation, June 2010)

Cunningham / Cage

Merce Cunningham carried out similar strategies to generate his dance works resulting in the decentralisation of space and a movement vocabulary that defied a dancer’s instinctive sense of flow. However, like Cage’s early chance experiments, Cunningham’s choreographies were always set before the performance. The dancers were not involved with making decisions in performance. It is true that the combination of sound, movement and set was left up to chance. Cunningham did not rehearse his work to Cage’s music. The different components shared the same space and time, resulting in chance combinations in performance. Did these combinations change from one performance to the next? Cage’s later works did move away from completely set scores, allowing some room for difference, however Cunningham’s choreographies never ventured into this territory. I argue that the Cunningham / Cage equation did result in some surprising, random combinations of music and movement. However, the significance of this was in the liberation of one from the other, the idea that any visual could accompany any sound. It did not penetrate the dance performance itself. In fact the two remained defiantly separate.

Performance Indeterminacy

This brings me to the second category of indeterminacy: performance indeterminacy. Cage himself describes this in his 1958 essay. This second category requires aspects of the work to be left open to the performer’s choices in performance. It results in works that differ from one rendition to the next, although the extent of this difference depends on the amount of control retained by the artist or renounced to the performer. The European composers Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example developed ‘Aleatoric’ scores where set motifs are given to the performer who navigates the score at will in performance. This leads to recognisable material occurring in a number of different combinations, a format also used by Trisha Brown in Locus (1975). More radical examples of performance indeterminacy occurred in the ‘Open Form’ work of the composer Earle Brown and the later works of John Cage.

In summary, performance indeterminacy results from the creation of possibilities within a score, in order to facilitate variations between the different performances of the work. To dissect this further, if the elements comprising a composition can be separated into content and structure then it follows that there are three possible combinations that could result in indeterminacy: structure can be open whilst the content is set (as in Stockhausen’s Klavierstrück XI and Brown’s Locus); structure can be set, whilst the content is mobile (as in Morton Feldman’s Intersection 3); both structure and content are open (as in Earle Brown’s Four Systems).

(Excerpt from my MA Dissertation, June 2010)


Note the relevance of scores in this context, an aspect that greatly complicated my own investigations. In musical composition the score embeds the composer’s purpose for the work. Using ambiguous visual scores was one means of bringing about difference in performance. (As in Earle Brown’s December 1952).  I was greatly influenced by the work and writings of Fluxus artists, especially that of Ken Friedman, who offers his scores freely for reproduction. He calls the difference in each reproduction of the work its “musicality”.   Another influence on my study was my exposure to Matteo Fargion’s work with scores. Fargion’s ethos is to ground choreography in more objective compositional choices, rather than simply playing around with material in space and seeing what happens. During a workshop with the composer, he asked us to write out a score by which two people walk across a space and back. Even within this limitation a number of possibilities become available. The difficulty is to introduce each change at the right moment, preventing the audience from losing interest in the work as it develops. I wondered whether it was possible to achieve this same rate of change without actually setting it. This involved displacing my control through the use of rules.  In this way a dancer’s decision to move from one vocabulary into the next was determined by the activity of their corresponding partner. By introducing conditions by which a dancer could chose to make a change, I retained some sense of cohesion throughout the work, whilst allowing for some mobility from one performance to the next.


This shift from the word ‘Score’ to ‘Rules’ is an important one. A rule is bound to the material by which it can be realised. The rules to a game of monopoly will make little sense to the chess player. Musical scores abide by a set of rules by which they can be interpreted. So the score itself is not necessarily the rule book. This is highlighted by the fact that many Fluxus scores are accompanied by several composers’ notes to aid the performer in their interpretation (the rules of play). Had I noticed this earlier in my process I might have abandoned my talk on the use of available scores, and sought to illustrate instead the ways in which what I was actually attempting to do was change the rules by which those scores had been developed.

The Identity of Indeterminate Works

This notion of rules brings me to my final question. When a piece is performance indeterminate, where does its identity lie? Does the actual work exist in the form of its multiple possible realisations, or in the rules that bring them about? This question could be applied to Deborah Hay’s Solo Commissioning Project, during which dance artists commission Hay to develop a solo using the blueprint of one of her own works. The differences between the solos result from the artists’ individual choices within the given structure bringing about solos that are specific to the individual choreographer / dancer. These different solos are given a character, flavour and title by each artist. They result from the same rules. Are they the same, or are they different?


I’d like to leave that question open, partly because I know I am under-qualified to address Hay’s work and partly because I know that this solo format differs slightly from my own interests.  I know that my aim is to create works that are complete, finite and identifiable as themselves, but which allow for some mobility from one performance to the next. My reasons for this are not simply to challenge the question of choreographic authority or ownership, though this certainly seems to hang around the notion of indeterminacy. I feel confident that my voice is clearly evident in the rules that I prescribe. But in expecting the performer to work with those rules within the performance, I hope to draw out a more realistic and engaged performance presence and to develop works that are, to some extent, unknown to me, liquid, permeable. My last work touched on ways of achieving difference. I set material and opened up the structure. I set the structure and opened up the material. I also applied the possibility of difference through the errors of memory. My research concluded as follows:

The point of this research is to demonstrate that indeterminacy can be integrated in the process of composition and in the performance of choreographed works. This can lead to unpredictable outcomes and a more engaged performance presence, which were my main interests in this work. In its more radical interpretation, indeterminacy presents questions of identity and authorship due to the contribution of the performers. The re-instatement of my control at various points in the process removed this concern in Score for Four. There is, however, a further conceptual aspect of indeterminacy which makes this approach significant to me, relating to its ability to present more than one outcome. This challenges the assertion that an artwork must present a single, completed and pre-selected perspective. Instead it presents multiple possibilities by which the work can be explored, highlighting the notion that a work’s identity lies somewhere between the artist’s intention, the performer’s contribution and the viewer’s perspective.

(Excerpt from my MA dissertation, June 2010)

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