All Things Cage: Laura Kuhn on John Cage and Improvisation, Part I (Audio)

Jul 24, 2021
Hosted by Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust.

Laura Kuhn talks about John Cage and Improvisation, a topic of much interest to Cage aficionados. She draws from Cage’s first and only performance of a little-known work entitled How to Get Started, conceived in 1989 for “Sound Design: An Invitational Conference on the Uses of Sound for Radio Drama, Film, Video, Theater and Music,” sponsored by Bay Area Radio Drama and held at Sprocket Systems, Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California.

How to Get Started came together almost as an afterthought – a performance that would substitute for another that had been previously planned. It grew out of an altercation Cage had a week earlier with the composer Anthony Davis during Davis’s presentation at “Composer-to- Composer” in Telluride, Colorado, wherein Cage essentially dismissed the usefulness of improvisation. This didn’t go well, as one might imagine, and Cage was haunted by his remarks throughout the conference and into his travels to California for the “Sound Design” conference at which he was scheduled to speak.

Cage set to work on a new piece to present. In his introduction, he proposes a collaborative framework for his presentation in which sound engineers would capture and subsequently layer his extemporized monologue, which consisted of ten brief commentaries on topics of interest. This was an experiment in improvisation, to be sure, but it was also an experiment in thinking in public, before a live audience. Some 20 years later, in 2010, the John Cage Trust partnered with the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia to create a unique and permanent interactive installation of How to Get Started, which would enable the public to participate in its further life. The project’s website,, has become an evolving digital repository and archive for the recordings effected by invited artists and others.

This is Part I of a two-part program. Part II – airing next Sat., July 31, 7-8 pm – we’ll listen to Cage’s extemporized presentation, which took place on Thursday, August 31, 1989. At the close of this week’s program, we’ll listen to a beautiful performance by Jesse Stiles of Cage’s Improvisation IV, one of several works noted in Kuhn’s opening remarks, which was paired with Merce Cunningham’s Fielding Sixes at its premiere at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on June 30, 1980.