They might roll a die, choose words out of a hat, or cut up preexisting text to create their story. The term was first applied and is still most commonly related to musical composition. It was popularized by Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutosławski and Franco Evangelisti. Today, composers like John Williams are known for their use of aleatoric techniques.
Definition of Aleatory
An aleatoric text has elements of randomness to it. Not only may it feel random, but it may also have been created through random acts. Authors who are looking to experiment with their writing process might engage with aleatoric techniques.
The French Surrealists are often cited as a primary example of aleatoricism due to their use of automated art and automated writing. They sought to tap into their subconscious and lose control over what they were writing or creating. One word led to the next without (ideally) a conscious choice being made. Writers such as Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton practiced a version of this technique.
The word “aleatory” comes from “alea,” the Latin word for dice. This is a clear reference to the fact that chance plays a huge role in aleatoric literature.
Examples of Aleatory
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart is a 1970s novel that tells the story of a man who makes decisions based on the roll of a die. The author was inspired to craft this story based on aleatory techniques and his own “quirks” when going out for a night. As a result, the book sits somewhere between biography and autobiography. Today, it’s considered to be a cult classic.
The Work of William S. Burroughs
Today, Burroughs’ name is commonly connected to the ‘cut-up technique.’ This is a method of experimentation in writing that has aleatoric properties. The writer sits down with a written text. It could be one they composed or a piece of writing that was created by someone else. They then proceed to physically cut the work apart, separating out individual words and sentences. This technique was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s and famously used by musicians, such as David Bowie and Radiohead’s Thorn Yorke. Burroughs suggests that works like ‘The Waste Land’ were influenced by his work due to the fact that Eliot included newspaper clippings in his writing.
Another method of writing that Burroughs used was known as the ‘fold-in technique.’ This technique required taking two sheets of text and folding the sheets vertically so that a new page was created. Half would come from one source and a half from the other. This technique was used in The Third Mind, a novel written by Burroughs and Brion Bysin, a poet and artist.
The book was published in 1977 in French and then in English the next year. There are a wide variety of fiction pieces within this collection in addition to an interview with Burroughs.
The Work of Tristan Tzara
How to Make a Dadaist Poem
This poem is an interesting example of how writers take techniques like the cut-up technique and are inspired by experiment with them themselves. The poem’s last lines read as follows:
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will be like you.
And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
This short text is an interesting one. It describes the author’s process in his other works by also alludes to the meaning behind the process in the final lines. His poetry was, as described by art historian Roger Cardinal, marked by “extreme semantic and syntactic incoherence.” This is due to his dependence on the aleatory technique of cut-ups. Below is another example of his work:
The Great Lament Of My Obscurity Three
Here are a few lines from this image-rich poem:
where we live the flowers of the clocks catch fire and the plumes encircle the brightness in the distant sulphur morning the cows lick the salt lilies
let us always shuffle through the colour of the world
The poem makes progressively less sense as the lines go on. The last few read: “astral/ memory / towards the north through its double fruit / like raw flesh / hunger fire blood.” Like nonsense verse, this kind of poetry depends on the reader’s interest in experience and feeling. One cannot approach this kind of poem and expect to uncover a deeper meaning. It is all about the combination of words on the page and how they make one feel at the moment.
Aleatoricism or Oulipo?
When one thinks about aleatoric writing they might also consider the work of the French literary group Oulipo, known for their experimental style of writing. But, the latter group firmly stood against aleatoric methods, seeing no merit in this kind of work. They eliminated chance from their writing.
They used constructions and constraints in their writing, as well as lipograms and palindromes. The former refers to a word game in which a letter or group of letters is eliminated from a text.
For example, trying to write a novel without using any words including the letter “h,” etc. A good example is Rebeccah Giltrow’s Twenty-Six Degrees. In this novel, each chapter drops one letter of the alphabet and is narrated by a different character.
Aleatoricism and Oulipo are similar in their interest in trying new things and experimenting but are quite different in the way they went about it.
The word aleatory can be used in the following way: “We had to use an aleatory game in order to determine who went first” or “He showed me the aleatory way of enjoying my day off.”
Chance music refers to music that uses aleatory techniques, or those fueled by random chance, in its composition. A composer might roll a die in order to figure out where their composition goes next.
They are: Fixed score, mobile form, and indeterminate notation. The last two include graphs and texts and fixed score is concerned with the use of random procedures.
Yes, some writers still use aleatory techniques today—for example, The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart and The Virtual Muse by Charles O. Hartman. The latter discusses the writer’s development of poetic computer programs dependent on aleatoricism.
An example is Music of Changes by John Cage. In this piece, the writer or the performers may have been told to rearrange their parts as they saw fit or randomly choose one at a time to engage with.
Related Literary Terms
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused on Europe and North America.
- Magical Realism: a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the modern realistic world with magical, fantastical elements.
- Surrealism: a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.
- Exaggeration: a statement that pushes the limits of a situation, feeling, idea, or experience.
- Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
- Hyperbaton: a figure of speech in which the order of words in a sentence or line are rearranged.
- Watch: The Life of William Burroughs
- Listen: Surrealism in Literature
- Listen: Modernism and English Literature