How to Get Started
One thing that made John Cage’s spoken pieces (such as, most famously, Indeterminacy) so great was his instrument. He was a tireless constructer of environments and constraints for the production of music and sound, but times his soft, mellifluous voice, often with a tickle in the back of it, is what made his structures for spoken word so eminently listenable. He could emote delight and seriousness at the same soft-spoken moment like nobody.
In 1989, at the age of 76 and three years before his death, Cage was booked to present his radio play James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet at a conference on sound design held at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California. Just before the morning presentation, Cage changed his mind and decided instead to create a new work with the title How to Get Started. He made notes on ten subjects — touching on silence, harmony, time, composition — and then spoke extemporaneously on each for three minutes and, typical for him, weaving in stories about friends and other artists. Each section was recorded and then played back as he began the next so that, by the end, there were ten layers of Cage speech.
The piece works on two levels. First it is, of course, the (somewhat) candid thoughts of one of the 20th Century’s most significant composers. To that regard, little of what he offers will be new to anyone who’s spent much time learning his philosophy, although anyone who has spent the time learning it likely will also delight in hearing him say it again. And it’s in that respect that the recoding is of such interest. Cage’s voice is weakened here. He drops to a whisper at times, seemingly not within his control. But the familiar cadence and timing is still present. Cage didn’t feel the need, in his lectures or his compositions, to fill all of the space available. (This point is made evident to the point of celebrity in his 4’33”, but is true even beyond the infamous silent composition.) As a result, the successive generations of How to Get Started grow rich without dissolving into cacophony. It’s not a crowd scene, it’s just ten John Cages standing in different spots of what feels like a very large room.
Microcinema International has given this unusual piece of Cageology a handsome release, in an oversized digipack with a booklet including a helpful essay by Laura Kuhn and a transcript of Cage’s performance. The piece was restored for use as an audio installation at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, and is also the genesis for a website (howtogetstarted.org) which will host commissioned spoken performances.
How to Get Started is far from Cage’s most important work. It’s not even, strictly speaking, his best recorded lecture. But it’s a fascinating look into an aesthetician with complex ideas on composition and spontaneity.
- Kurt Gottschalk