Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Selection and Chance

At the moment, the full assembly of the bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church is meeting to choose a successor to the indisposed Patriarch Pavle. The election has two stages. In the first, each of the participating bishops is to write the names of three favored candidates; to be qualified, one must be a local patriarch who has held office for at least years. In the second stage, the three candidates who received the most votes in the first round have their names placed on single pieces of paper, which are then placed into an envelope, from which the name of the elected new Patriarch is selected, by chance, or in the Church's parlance, by the hand of God.

The interaction between human selection and chance is here carefully managed, and one has no doubt that the politically savvy churchmen will be lobbying heavily in advance to insure that the three names placed into the envelope are equally acceptable. In general, I have a lot of respect for such decision making processes, in which a community first comes to agreement that a certain number of alternatives are all acceptable rather than offering alternatives that are acceptable to only approximate halves of the whole community and letting the actual decision fall to a rather small portion of the electorate, and that portion frequently composed of the most indicisive, while simultaneously leaving nearly half the community unsatisfied with the choice.

(A similar practice was once the case at Cowell College, the oldest of the residential colleges at my own undergraduate school, UC Santa Cruz: to qualify for office in the college's student government, all candidates were to compose and recite a certain number of lines of rhymed verse, and the winners from this select community of scholar-poets were chosen by a drawing from hat.)

It is fairly well-known that many composers in recent generations have taken to the use of chance operations in their work. For many of us, works of John Cage provided an immediate model. Unfortunately, it is often perceived that the introduction of chance operations into the decision-making procedures of a composer are in some one an abdication of composerly choice. This view is facile and has often unfairly prejudiced listeners against the work, a prejudice which has been amply exhibited against the works of Cage in particular. This is unfortunate, as the application of chance operations by Cage was always in the context of a decision-making process like the first step of the election of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, one in which composerly choice, indeed individual composerly taste and imagination, identified a collection or field of acceptable possibilities, from which the final decision would be extracted, and the result of that decision is one which is thus both acceptable and, in detail or particular configuration, combination, or sequence, unforeseen. This is a process which accepts chance but is firmly based upon knowing what one is doing. The hand of God is a nice rhetorical turn, but the hands at work here are entirely human.

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