The Art of Chance


Koi by Jeff

A college professor introduced me to John Cage in a music appreciation class when he briefly mentioned the composer’s most famous work, 4’33”. Curious to find out more about the radical musician, I read some of his poetry, including mesostic poems of chance, generated by a computer program written specifically for Cage. Think of it as Wordle, with poems instead of word clouds. Here is an inspiring sample of text from the poem, Anarchy, prior to any alterations by the software:

“To find a way of writing which through coming from ideas is not about them; or is not about ideas but produces them.”

Intrigued by the relationship between creativity and chance, I began to experiment with algorithmic walking, also known as “generative psychogeography.” The practice takes travelers away from predetermined destinations and routes, offering experiential opportunities for discovery.

The first time I tried it was on a Sunday afternoon in the historic district of St. Augustine, Florida. On a whim, I decided to make the two-hour trek while visiting family, and since I would return home the next day, it was my only opportunity. Once on the cobblestoned streets, I jotted random directions on a journal page. “Walk two blocks. Turn right. Walk one block. Turn left.” and so on.

It started to drizzle shortly after my journey began, but I heard a violin and a girl singing. I followed her voice around the corner to discover a worn trio of street musicians playing behind an open guitar case sprinkled with loose change. There was no one else around. As I listened to Jeff on guitar, and Kate’s angelic voice over violin, I scribbled some lyrics in my journal. When the song ended, they asked if I was a writer. I said I have to write because I can’t remember.

We introduced ourselves. They played another song, then we found a little bohemian café where we talked about art, music, travel, and books for hours. Jeff wrote a list of recommended readings, some of which have since changed my life. In addition to playing music, he sells paintings as they travel from town to town. Kate mentioned they were leaving St. Augustine the next day, and their goal was to make it to Spain in the next month. I never thought I would see them again.

Over the years, I have found that chance motivates kids. My students’ names are written on sticks that sit like a cup of ancient Chinese oracle bones on my desk. They never know who will be called upon, marveling when recurring sequences of names emerge. Last week, during exhaustingly long division practice, I sat down on the floor with a small group and some dice. Each student took a turn rolling for divisors and dividends as they worked through problems on dry erase boards. Bursts of laughter followed each time someone rolled a divisor of one, when chance was on their side.

In the summer of 2005, I chaperoned a high school French club trip. On our last day in France, a Sunday, we traveled by bus to Montmartre. At the foot of the steps leading up Montmartre hill, I heard a violin. As I walked closer, I saw Jeff holding the same acoustic guitar, and Kate teaching a North African boy to play the violin. Reciprocal stares asking, Do I know you? yielded to a visceral sense of familiarity, despite the fact that we had only ever shared a few hours together.

After recounting a year’s worth of challenges since our last exchange, Jeff gave me a small painting of koi fish he recently admired in a pond, and a pastel of Kate playing the violin in a courtyard. Although I haven’t seen or heard from them since that afternoon in Paris, when I admire Jeff’s gifts on the wall, I’m reassured that submitting every now and then to indeterminacy delivers beautifully novel moments in time.

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