Setting aside the ego..."How To Get Started."
By Peter Price, February 20, 2013
John Cage was famously suspicious of improvisation.
His resistance was for at least two reasons: the tendency of the improvisor to rely on the already known and the related tendency of being bound to likes and dislikes. Cage, who consistently tried to remove his own ego from his art-making, quite understandably took issue with practices that can become very ego driven.
This resistance extended to speaking in public. Cage’s talks and lectures were often meticulously scored out and structured by some of the same aleatoric procedures as his musical compositions.
In contemporary dance, the conception of improvisation and the Cageian conception of a score have become interestingly intertwined as the ubiquity of the phrase “improv score” suggests. Coming from a classical music background, a score, as Cage received the notion, was an extraordinarily precise and complex concept reflecting 1000 years of musical evolution. Cage completely reoriented the concept of the score into much more open ended territory. This move has had limited impact within Cage’s own field of classical music, but through historical accident profoundly impacted the concept within contemporary dance.
In 1989, towards the very end of his life, Cage attended a conference at the unlikely venue of George Lucas’ Skywalker ranch in Nicasio, California. Throwing out what he had intended to present, Cage collaborated with Skywalker’s sound engineers in a kind of structured improvisation. First he ordered ten topics randomly. Then he extemporized on the first topic while the engineers recorded his voice. Turning to the second topic, the recording of the first was played back and this mix of two voices was recorded, to be played back with Cage’s third extemporization and so forth resulting by the final topic in a polyphony of ten voices on ten topics.
This was a one-off performance for Cage and nothing more was done with the concept in Cage’s life. In 2010 the John Cage Trust collaborated with Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation and Arizona State University performance theorist Arthur Sabatini to curate a permanent sound installation based on Cage’s original performance. In its current iteration the project is called How To Get Started.
The idea was to have a physical location in which visitors to Slought could perform Cage’s structure with their own topics. The resultant recordings would become part of a growing archive available online.
I was engaged to translate the structure of Cage’s original 1989 performance into a piece of software to facilitate the ongoing re-performance. I created the software using Max/MSP to automate a number of the decisions that were being made by Skywalker’s sound engineers in Cage’s original performance. The software also provides a visual interface to guide the performer through the process of performing the score. How to Get Started, easier understood by experiencing it than by reading about it, is available online here.
In 2011 HTGS returned to its performative origins with a series of public engagements at Symphony Space in New York. Actor Wallace Shawn, poet Sonia Sanchez, musician David Harrington (of Kronos Quartet) and others went through the process of extemporizing on their own ten topics while I looped, panned and layered their voices into dense textures. What was a one-time experiment by Cage has become an ongoing experiment by many into the possibilities and limits of public thinking.
My experience engineering engagements of HTGS both at the permanent installation at Slought and live at Symphony Space suggests that it remains very challenging for performers to come to grips with what Cage’s score is really asking of them, but this challenge remains productive of moments of surprising intimacy and beauty. For me, the more the performer is able to give themselves over to an open experience of the performative situation the more compelling the result. As Cage showed so often in his work, giving oneself over to open experience is dependent on setting aside the ego. Perhaps it remains an open question: can we set aside the ego while improvising?
On February 23rd as part of Bryn Mawr College’s Day of Dance, the experiment continues with performer/participants Elizabeth Streb, Douglas Dunn, Anne Waldman, and Claudia LaRocco.