How to Get Started: John Cage’s Approach to Starting the Difficult Creative Process

john cage 65 hours

Image by WikiArt, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

You know what they say: eighty per­cent of the work you do on a project, you do get­ting the last twen­ty per­cent of that project right. But most of that oth­er twen­ty per­cent of the work must go toward get­ting start­ed in the first place; you’ve got to get over a pret­ty big hill just to get to the point of writ­ing the first sen­tence, paint­ing the first stroke, shoot­ing the first shot, or play­ing the first chords. Avant-garde com­pos­er John Cage knew well the chal­lenges of just get­ting start­ed, and his thoughts on the sub­ject moti­vat­ed him, toward the end of his career, to do the writ­ten, per­formed, and record­ed project we fea­ture today, How to Get Start­ed.

Cage him­self only put on How to Get Start­ed once, at an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence on sound design at George Lucas’ Sky­walk­er Ranch on August 31, 1989. It worked like this: he brought with him ten note cards, each of which con­tained notes for a par­tic­u­lar “idea” he want­ed to talk about. On went a tape recorder, and he began speak­ing impro­vi­sa­tion­al­ly about the first idea. Then he flipped to the next card, and as he talked about its idea, the record­ing of the first one played in the back­ground. He con­tin­ued with this pro­ce­dure until, by the tenth idea on the tenth card, he had his impromp­tu speech­es on all nine pre­vi­ous ideas play­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly behind him. You can get an idea of what his read­ings sound­ed like in the three clips (from embed­ded here [first, sec­ond, third].

The ten ideas Cage jot­ted down on his note­cards come inspired by, and inspired him to dis­cuss fur­ther, his own cre­ative expe­ri­ences. In the first, he describes a new com­po­si­tion­al process that came to him in a dream, which involves crum­pling a score into a ball and unfold­ing it again. In the third, he thinks back to his work Roara­to­rio, an Irish cir­cus on Finnegans Wake, which con­vert­ed Joyce’s nov­el into music, and imag­ines a way for­ward that would involve turn­ing into music not one book at a time but sev­er­al. In the fifth, he ref­er­ences Mar­cel Ducham­p’s “The Cre­ative Act,” which brought home for him the notion of how audi­ences “fin­ish the work by lis­ten­ing,” which led to his cre­at­ing works of “musi­cal sculp­ture,” includ­ing one par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable exam­ple involv­ing “between 150 and 200” Yugosla­vian high school stu­dents, all play­ing their instru­ments in dif­fer­ent places.

Cage’s oth­er sto­ries of cre­ative epiphany in How to Get Start­ed involve a trip to an ane­choic cham­ber; find­ing out what made one dance per­for­mance at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na School of the Arts so “tawdry, shab­by, mis­er­able”; dis­cov­er­ing the artist’s “inner clock” in Leningrad; and how he works around what no less a musi­cal mind than Arnold Schoen­berg diag­nosed as his absent sense of har­mo­ny. You can read a tran­script of all of them in a PDF of How to Get Start­ed’s com­pan­ion book­let. And depend­ing upon how inspired you find your­self (or how close you live to Philadel­phia), you might con­sid­er mak­ing the trip to the Slought Foun­da­tion, who have built a room spe­cial­ly designed for the piece. You might not come out of it feel­ing like you’ve absorbed all the cre­ativ­i­ty of John Cage, but he him­self points us toward the impor­tant thing: not the amor­phous qual­i­ty of cre­ativ­i­ty, but the action of get­ting start­ed.

via Mono­skop

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Uni­ver­sal Mind of Bill Evans: Advice on Learn­ing to Play Jazz & The Cre­ative Process

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Isaac Asi­mov Explains the Ori­gins of Good Ideas & Cre­ativ­i­ty in Nev­er-Before-Pub­lished Essay

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

Jump Start Your Cre­ative Process with Bri­an Eno’s “Oblique Strate­gies” Deck of Cards (1975)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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