RELATED TERMS: Music; Ergodic; Interaction; Avant-garde movements; Interaction Design; Literary theory; Historicism

The term aleatory derives from the Latin word alea, meaning dice or game of chance. In composition, whether literary, poetic or musical, it implies the use of the element of chance and dependence on contingencies.

Marc Saporta’s novel, Composition No. 1, which is entirely loose-leafed, and its 150 pages can be read in any order, is an extreme example of the genre of aleatory literature or interactive literature. Each of these two terms, however, has very different connotations. The first potentially points towards meaninglessness, futility or absurdity, with no connection other than chance. The second potentially points towards co-created meaningfulness, with accumulated choices revealing patterns of interaction as meaning-creating. Both terms, nevertheless, imply contingency and consecution. Other examples of aleatory literature cited by Jonathan Coe (2011, 28 October) are Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted With Tea.

While Coe does not use the term ‘ergodic’, it might be said to occupy a similar territory to aleatory literature and interactive literature. Bringing together two Greek roots, ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path, ergodic is a term borrowed from physics by Espen Aarseth (1997: 2) who uses it to suggest that a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” in the context of cybertextuality and hypertextuality.

Hypertext can be considered an example of ergodic discourse in which, rather than ‘nothing follows’, it might be argued that ‘everything follows’, an abundance of sequences are possible which undermine contingency, and hence, ‘narrative drive’.

In music, John Cage became a strong proponent of aleatoric techniques. Such techniques are an important element of 20th century musical composition. In aleatory music, either an element of the composition is left to chance or a primary element of a composed work’s realisation is left to the performer; or perhaps both.


Coe, J. (2011, 28 October). Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta – review. The Guardian, 28 October 2011. Available at Accessed on 18 April 2013.