Chance and Form

Oct 21, 2019

An old friend and colleague from my time in the Suzuki Company Of Toga, Toshihisa Nishikibe said to me once that the true goal of any good artistic practice is freedom. How do we free our voices? Free our bodies? Free our minds? It is by presenting to an audience a human in a state of freedom that we truly offer our world something nourishing and useful.

Mr. Nishikibe was very familiar with the fact that one of the most important lessons to learn from working on art is that restrictions and constraints are not antithetical to freedom. On the contrary, there is a strong argument that the deepest sense of freedom is only achievable within constraints. In many fields we are seeing evidence of the paradox of choice; where having too many options causes paralysis rather than freedom.

Part of what is at work here is that when we have a lot of choices we experience an illusion of freedom. We think we can do anything. But the fact is we cannot. We can never truly be absolutely free of all constraints. We exist in a universe of limitations and boundaries. The expression of freedom we find in art is inspiring because we see how a particular artist has created freedom within their particular circumstances.

For many years I have said, in the context of SITI’s training, “Freedom is not the absence of constraint. Freedom is the choosing of constraint. Although I perhaps learned this principal most palpably while struggling with the constraining forms of the Suzuki training, I have found that it is equally applicable in the Viewpoints work. The most freeing thing to find in an “open” improvisation is a sense of a shared vocabulary; recognition of what the group has chosen as in and out of bounds. Like the forms in Suzuki, once you know where the walls are, you can perform the hell out of something in the ecstasy of freedom.

In contrast to this positive sort of constraint is the kind of constraint which I would readily condemn; This is constraint imposed without consent. This is the domain of abuse and colonialism. The power of constraint to facilitate art is such that even this negative form of constraint can result in the expression of freedom and good art. This does not justify it at all. History and the current world are rife with examples of people abusing the “Constraint creates freedom” principal. We must condemn this behavior in the strongest terms.

A huge issue in any discussion of artistic constraints is the issue of the artists’ own taste. Taste can be a great guide for an artist but there is a fine line between following one’s taste and being a slave to habit. Often our habits and tastes are the most invisible constraints. They feel natural and we are so comfortable with them that they can lull us into a deep sleep.

So, if we are going to choose our constraints, where do we get them? Often in the theater, the play itself gives us a lot of constraints; it tells us which words to use, in which order for example. I think we often think that the play tells us more than it does.

In 2006 I was working with a group of Graduate students at Arizona State University on a Samual Beckett Centenary event in which we staged 9 of Beckett’s short plays. The students were very frustrated by my insistence that we “stick to the script.” I was not interested in overtly changing anything that the published texts had prescribed. The students were hungry for artistic freedom and saw this constraint as unnecessary and chafing. So I divided them into three groups and asked them to spend the weekend, creating simple versions of the play “Come and Go.” I asked them, just for the sake of argument, to “stay within the bounds” and just do what Beckett wrote. I also asked the three groups to work separately and not communicate about what they were doing. On Monday they presented the three versions of the play and the result was clear. The three productions were profoundly distinct from each other, but yet no one could point to where any of them had not done what Beckett asked.

There is nothing stopping a theater artist from setting Hamlet on Mars or putting Linda Lowman in a traditional Ainu ceremonial robe. In the 21st Century, we are profoundly free to do whatever we want. Or so it seems. More often we find ourselves slamming into the wall of the paradox of choice.

Music hit this wall in a very palpable way in the 20th Century. The invention of electronic recording and production of sound created a situation in which literally any sound possible was available to musicians. Whereas Bach had the exquisite constraint of his pipe organ, Billie Eillish, sitting in her bedroom, has the entire universe of sound at her fingertips.

I have always been very interested in how music artists like John Cage and Brian Eno sought to create structures and processes that would constrain their choices in their music-making, and a key for both Cage and Eno was the use of chance. By using chance operations in the making of artistic choice the artist allows an element over which they have no control to determine the actual material. At first glance, this seems nuts. It seems like an abdicating of the artists’ role, and in some ways it is. But the truth is much deeper than that.

We hesitate to use chance, because it seems arbitrary and easy. It seems random and devoid of meaning. But this hesitation is based on our assumption that our own cherished ideas are not arbitrary. That our choices are deeply meaningful and not random. I think this is usually hubris.

The fact is that we are better at finding meaning in a circumstance that has been forced on us than we are at choosing something from some kind of preconceived idea of meaning. We are much better at enjoying the jam that we are given with no other option than we are at deciding which of all the jams possible we would enjoy the most.

It is within this context that I think chance becomes this extremely powerful way of generating choices. You flip a coin, or roll some dice or use a random number generator to make a choice, and then you commit to it. You are free to feel that the outcome of a chance operation is determined by some sort of underlying force or not, but a choice is a choice. John Cage said that once it is chosen there is no difference between a note chosen through traditional composition techniques and one chosen through chance. A note is a note.

I feel that in the theater we don’t have very sophisticated ways of looking at this. Part of the problem is that particularly in the so-called “Western Tradition” we do not like working with form in a rigorous way. And without some kind of form, it is very difficult to create processes that can bring chance to bear with any kind of resolution. What I mean by this is that if staging is imprecise, to begin with, determining staging with chance operations doesn’t really change very much.

Rigor is essential to chance. We think that working with chance is just letting it all go and allowing randomness to take over. It is not that at all. It is a deeply rigorous process to choose which elements we are going to open to chance and then to follow through on the results. It is only when we are rigorous that we can begin to see what chance has chosen and not just what we wish chance had chosen.

I am deeply interested in experimenting with these ideas and practices and so next month I’m going to hold a master class in our studio to work with how we might find better, more practical ways to open up our work to chance, and how form can literally inform that process. I’ve never approached a workshop with quite as much experimental giddiness as I do this with this one. I’m very excited to see what we end up working with.

It is an experiment, and an experiment is a process in which we do not pre-determine the outcome. The hypothesis we will test is Does Chance + Form = Freedom.