Replicable Chance: Time as Structure in Aleatory Composition



When I pronounce the word future,

The first syllable already belongs to the past.


When I pronounce the word Silence,

I destroy it.


When I pronounce the word nothing,

I make something no nonbeing can hold.


Wistawa Szymborska


I would like to thank Laura Kuhn and Emy Martin for all of their guidance and help throughout this learning process. I feel especially honored that Laura asked me to repair John Cage’s watch, and blessed that I was given the ability to restore it to its original working order. I’m excited to currently be working on Merce Cunningham’s watch, a stopwatch made by Heuer.


Eight years ago I began an apprenticeship of sorts with a then 89 year-old clockmaker, Earle Harden.  He died at the age of 95, but through that process I not only began my love affair with watches, but stepped through a doorway into history. Aside from the many hours Earle and I spent talking about the war (WWII), driving racecars, working as a machinist, etc. I also developed a new way of thinking and processing the past. Watches and clocks are simply a window through which I see the reflection of time and history. I discovered Cage while working on a project (ongoing) entitled “Tales of Time” whereby I am investigating people and their timepieces. It is a history book, of sorts, with descriptions of notable figures, their timepieces, and most importantly their history together through the “eyes” of the watch.  I now use watches as my anchor, a guide and a link, from one piece of history to the next. Cage was brought to my attention because of his frequent use of a stopwatch for his compositions and performances.


I was struck by the interests Cage and I share. Cage, like me, was a mycologist. He was a mycophile adventurer who greatly enjoyed both the hunt and the meal. We both refer to ourselves as amateurs, not a trivial description.  He enjoyed chess, as I do. He studied the I Ching, and showed an appreciation for science. He looked to nature and natural patterns for inspiration. He was an artist, drawing and painting. His personal library at the Cage foundation, and his writings, support all of these claims. I am not, respectfully, comparing myself to Cage, but I feel we would have had many adventures together had we known each other.


I am certainly more qualified to write about Cage the “scientist” than I am Cage the “composer”. A well written paper by David Rose1 has done his mycological interests justice. John’s connection to mushrooms was a self-described “balance” to his ideas and use of chance operations. Finding and eating mushrooms, and playing chess, are viewed as “opposite of chance operations.”



I have no background in music or composition, so my musical critique would be mundane and subjective at best. I have no pretense about my insights into art, philosophy, or any other field Cage has contributed. Instead, I will describe an element of Cage that I hope will help fill a tiny gap on his life and works; Cage’s use of time.


The dualism that is often seen between art and science is highly overstated. Cage was capable of easily combining these elements of his life. The foundation of this talk relies on these few elements; Zen, time, and the I Ching as influences reveal that Cage used Zen (his music) as therapy and found a deeper purpose for his music. Cage used his compositions as an act of meditation to quite the mind. His thoughts and ideas are highly associated with Buddhism yet he did not practice an essential element of the philosophy, mediation, in the traditional sense. In addition this “quieting” served as a gateway for a divine influence, his study and use of the I Ching. Time, in this sense, acts as the circadian rhythm within his musical structure. Regardless of how time was used; as a rigid structure to denote the beginning and end of the timed production of sound, as a guide for replicable chance, or as a substitute for conductor, it was a likely element in the creative process. That is to say, time was either the vehicle or the road. 


Time is perhaps the dimension in which we have the most anxiety and the least clarity. Much to our dismay, most of us have a sense of the passing of time. Cage embraced this anxiety through his music in order to accept the very elements we fear the most; change, time, loss of structure, and silence. Time, like Cage’s music, caries potential of its own. It is in the unfolding itself that makes us feel uncomfortable and anxious. Time and sounds are constantly changing.  Nothing could be more Buddhist-like than a piece of music that transports the listener to the moment where he is. This is foundation of the philosophy, Vipasina, or mindfulness. Cages first piece that explores this concept was “Music of Changes” Which, in my translation, is simply music of time.


Can we agree that time and moments do unfold and can leave long-lasting traces… as Carl Jung described,


 whoever invented the I Ching was convinced that the hexagram worked out in a certain moment coincided with the latter in quality no less than in time. To him the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast -- even more so than the hours of the clock or the divisions of the calendar could be -- inasmuch as the hexagram was understood to be an indicator of the essential situation prevailing in the moment of its origin.”


The last liberty I will take before I move onto the watches themselves is in regards to harmony. There is much talk about Cage’s view of harmony. His definition, as well as the debate, has everything to do with time and domain in which I have come to believe Cage worked, in the frequency domain.2 The frequency domain is used to describe the analysis of mathematical functions or signals with respect to frequency, rather than time. A time-domain graph shows how a signal changes over time, whereas a frequency-domain graph shows how much of the signal lies within each given frequency over a range of frequencies. Frequency domain graphs do not show us anything about the phase relationships among the harmonics, which are obvious in the time-domain graph. This puts particular focus on the timing of each event rather than how they relate to each other in a traditional harmonic sense. For example, Cage recalls separating harmonizing voices, soprano, alto, tenor, and base. He began by leaving one or two of the voices out. This was not very interesting to Cage. Instead, he separated the voices and found active points through chance, using the I ching, to get a series of sounds, the frequencies of which were plotted over time, so that he had four voices, distinct notes, which created something interesting to him. The results of these two experiments, he felt, were only as good as the question he asked.2




Onto the Watches:


John Cage used at least two watches in his daily life. One, a World War I army issued stopwatch made by the prestigious Meylan family of watchmakers. The other a casual wear wristwatch, a Spaceview Accutron made by the Bulova Company. The stopwatch was used extensively for composition and performance. The Accutron was used as a functioning everyday timepiece. Their descriptions are as follows;


First, the stopwatch.


Brass, Glass and Steel; Military issue open face stopwatch with single sweep second-hand on a subdial at the 6’oclock position. A small, secondary sub-dial at the 12 o’clock position with provision for 30 minutes. The dial is porcelain with a small fracture running from the “10” position to the middle of the sweep second hand arbor hole. There are two second hands, each of which can be operated independently or together with a fly-back reset function. The dial chapter is marked in 5 second increments, further divided by second and 1/5 second chapter marks. This provides an accuracy of 1/5 of  second in duration. The case is nickel-plated brass. The reverse is engraved “Property, U.S. Ord. Dept., Class A No. 1873.” The internal mechanism is marked “A.R. & J.E. Meylan Swiss. Unadjusted. Nine 9 Jewels. 3003.” The speed adjusting mechanism on balance cock is marked both “R” and “A” and “S” and “F” . The inside of the case back is engraved “126201”, the dust cover is also marked “126201” A repair or servicing is indicated on the inside of the dust cover by “P226525”. This repair or servicing notation is of no consequence to me, but likely represents a military designation. The stopwatch is now in working condition.


The stopwatch is operated by pressing the crown button located at the 12 O’clock position. There is a second button located to the left of the crown at the “55” second position. This button adjusts the relationship of the two seconds hand. There are two modes for the secondary button, which I will call together and separate. When the secondary button is in the “together” position and the crown button is pressed, both hands will start at the same time. When the crown button is pressed again, both hands stop at the same time. When the crown button is pressed a third time, both hands “zero” at the same time. When the secondary button is pressed so that the watch is in “separate” mode, only the top hand will function by pressing the crown button, start, stop, zero. While the watch is in “separate” mode and the top hand is started, the secondary button can be pressed so that the bottom hand catches up to the top hand without losing time. The secondary button can be pressed again to stop the bottom hand while the top hand continues. This function allows for the timing of two separate events. It is analogous to having two stopwatches running at the same time. Meanwhile, the sub-dial second continues to operate as you perform the start and stop functions. The subdial minute hand tracks the top second hand and moves one minute forward for each full hand rotation on the dial.


The Meylan family began its watchmaking in the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland, establishing themselves at the beginning of the 18th century. They were iron workers - cutlers, armourers- Samuel-Olivier Meylan, son of Jean-Baptiste, living at Chez-le-Maître, was the first to manufacture watches in the Vallée de Joux. By 1776 there were eight Meylans watchmaking in the Vallée.3


It is important to note here that the Vallee de Joux, Switzerland, is still the epicenter of watchmaking. In addition, another landmark trend began at this time. The abolishment of the warrant system, doing away with the obligation of the watchmaker to be able to fabricate complete watches, this opened the door to the division of labor, radically changing life in the Vallée. Small companies, initially family based, emerged, specializing in just one aspect of watchmaking. This was the beginning of we hat we now call the “cottage industry”. Completed watches were no longer manufactured in one location, which made it much easier to gain access to the profession. This opened the door to watchsmithing for people like me who have no intentions of manufacturing a watch.  While the division of labor might have deskilled watchmaking, possibly making it less interesting to the workers, it did strengthen the industry, increasing output, decreasing costs, and ushering in the era of mass production. The Vallée was so effective at this that by the end of the 19th century there were over 50 watchmaking enterprises in the Vallée, of which only a minority produced completed watches. The difficult years were over and wacthmaking, introduced by Samuel-Olivier, enabled the future district of the Vallée to great prosperity.3



Cage’s watch, was made in Switzerland and sent to NY to be sold at A.R. and J.E., 268 West 40th St, NY, NY. It was purchased by the U.S. Army, engraved on the back by the Ordinance Department, and given to John’s father. Cage used the watch to create scores and to guide his performances. The fact that he used this particular watch might shed light on his process. He could have used any modern timing device but chose this one, his father’s, a military timepiece, a glimmer of total and complete structure in a seemingly chaotic or pure chance operation. This watch has taught me many lessons; lessons on repair, the military, the Meylans’, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and forced me to think more deeply about the philosophy of time. I thank it, and John, for that.





John’s personal watch; The Accutron Spaceview, made by the Bulova Watch Company. Manufactured around 1960, caliber 214 with a 360hz tuning fork frequency.


The see-through Accutron Spaceview is no doubt the most well-known and sought-after model of Accutron. Model 214's are easily distinguishable from other Accutrons by the fact that they have no setting crown. The time is set by a small semi-circular ring which swings out from the back of the watch. There were a few upgrades made to the 214 model; The most significant were the addition of a slipping clutch on the center wheel instead of relying on an accurately-fitted cannon pinion (1960), the addition of stress limiters to the index and pawl fingers (1964), and the addition of a hack spring to some models (not sure when).The 214 calibre Accutron is a watch that has the potential accuracy of better than 2 seconds per day, remarkable in its day and still better than most mechanical watches.4


The Spaceview is a 1960s icon. It is dramatically different both in technology and design than anything available to that point. Quartz technology was just emerging. People, if they had one, owned mechanical timepieces. This electronic revolution was projected to bankrupt and destroy the mechanical timepiece business. It was speculated that by 1980 there would be no, or very few, mechanical timepieces made. The speculators were completed wrong and the mechanical timepiece business has enjoyed a great recovery.


What this Spaceview has taught me; Those that purchased the Spaceview were not the stuck-in-a-rut type of people. It was a daring design and a new bit of technology. Many rely, and still do, on their old mechanical timepieces. The old mechanical timepiece might offer a bit of familiarity, a bit of sentimentality, a bit of control. Certainly, the technology involved is no less amazing or interesting. It is no surprise to me that John Cage is said to have purchased a few Spaceviews and greatly enjoyed their works and designs. The Spaceview represents the beginning of change. It was a new idea, a step away from the traditional definition of what a timepiece looked like and how it operated. Those that purchased the Spaceview were embracing the unknown. I see a direct parallel between Cage’s music and his watch preference. Lastly, John had a real passion for the Accutron but, as his MO would dictate, quickly and unselfishly removed it from his wrist and gave it to a friend. This is yet another representation of his willingness to let go of a traditional view of music as well as his sacred Accutron.














1)      Rose, David. Journal of Wild Mushroom Mushrooming, Issue 38, Vol 11, No. 1. Winter 1992-1993.

2)      Conversations with William Clarke, IBM Systems Z RAS Engineer

3) Interview,“John Cage about Silence” can be found at