Karlheinz Essl

The Chances of Chance

Some Remarks on Artistic Practices based on Chance and Collaboration

Keynote for the 7th Conference of the European Research Network Sociology of the Arts:

Sep 6th, 2012
University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna


In this keynote, I will analyse my own creative process as a composer. Instead of postulating a theory I take the freedom to look back on my artistic development. Starting as a classically trained composer in the 1980ies, a radical change occurred as I got involved with computer technology. This altered my approach to musical composition and brought me in contact to scientific theories such as chaos research, networks and algorithms. This also influenced my working method as a composer: Before, I was mainly writing instrumental scores in splendid isolation, trapped in a self-imposed ivory tower. But then I realised the necessity for exchanging my ideas and artistic research with others in order to learn and to broaden my horizon.

The rise of the Internet in the early 1990ies enabled me to get in contact with a world-wide community of composers who use computers for artistic purposes. At this time, the Net was not yet commercialised, but rather mainly populated by individuals who were eager to share their knowledge and personal achievements. While working on my realtime composition Lexikon-Sonate for computer-controlled piano I started to develop an open source software library for algorithmic composition called RTC-lib. Instead of a score, the infinite Lexikon-Sonate was distributed as a computer program on the Internet, and is currently running on thousands of computers all over the world, generating music that never ever repeats itself.

This all has changed my life as a composer from a lonely hermit to a person who is embedded in a constantly changing global network. This also brought me into contact with improvisation which has in turn required the development of my own electronic instruments for live performances. Furthermore, I have learned about the advantage of chance which acts as a splendid source for innovations and new artistic expressions.

Within my presentation, I will also play two performances of works that are based on self-developed computer programs utilising random operations and user interaction. This dialectic of order and chaos results in a paradoxical situation which enables me to improvise with myself, bridging the gap between composition and improvisation.


Handbook Of Research On Creativity, ed. by Kerry Thomas and Janet Chan, Edward Elgar Publishing (Cheltenham 2013), p. 297-307. - ISBN: 978 0 85793 980 7


Collaboration changes the behavior of the artist to no longer assume the function of a godlike creator who controls everything solely by himself. Particularly in improvisation, the idea of shared authorship has become a powerful substitute for the outmoded concept of a genius who determines every detail of the work, alone and in splendid isolation.

Including the element of chance in the artistic process leaves traces on the artwork itself. It is no longer viewed as an autonomous and untouchable opus magnum et perfectum but as an open process which can manifest itself in a variety of appearances. This, however, changes the way art is perceived. Instead of being forced to decipher a specific message that the composer has put into his work, the listeners are invited to re-construct the artwork by their individual acts of perception (Essl 1992a). Thereby, a highly personal version of the work is invented by each listener who in turn becomes an active participant in the whole creation process.


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