How to get started is a very nice project, extending a late work of John Cage, a lecture/performance which, among other things, is an example of Cage's attempt to work through a productive relationship between composition and improvisation. (The audio excerpt online includes mention of Walter Zimmermann's beautiful piano piece Abgeschiedenheit, the title of which roughly, very roughly, translates as "seclusion".)
Is it necessary to try to explain, once again, how important Cage was? The continuing controversies and misunderstandings about his work suggest that it is still necessary. I often have the impression that his reputation as a composer suffers because of a focus on his reputation for almost any other one of his activities — writing, collecting mushrooms, studying zen, Buckminister Fuller, etc. et al — rather than on the actual music that he made. Well, kids, it's the music that's important. Not all of it (he was as uneven as the best of them and much of it was written for rather specific use, with questions of lasting importance rather beside the point), but there's plenty to pay attention to, and so much above and beyond the oxygen-stealing 4'33": the best of the percussion and prepared piano music, the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, The Seasons, Sixteen Dances, all of the string quartet music, the music for magnetic tape (Williams Mix, Rozart Mix, Message to Erik Satie and Roaratorio, in particular), Winter Music, Cheap Imitation, Etcetera, Lecture on the Weather, Inlets, the virtuosic sets of Etudes for piano and violin, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and much of the Song Books, some configurations of Music for ___, a very large number of the "number pieces", and the five Europeras. (There is also a small group of pieces — Music of Changes, the various pieces for Carillon, Atlas Eclipticalis, the orchestral version of Cheap Imitation among them— for which I reserve opinion, simply because I haven't yet heard an honest live performance.)
(Not a bad track record for an experimentalist, steadily courting failure.)
There has always been a great deal of dancing about the question of Cage's influence, with some preferring to talk instead about Cage providing an example through his work that became a form of "permission" to do one's own work. I don't dance well enough, and I've never liked the idea of having to get permission, even if done — as Cage did — from example rather than from a position of music-political power; instead, I admit readily to being under the influence.
Cage taught me how to organize my desk as a composer: into materials, methods, structure and form. He asked: "Composing's one thing, performing's another, listening is a third. What can they have to do with one another." which I have taken as a productive rather than rhetorical question. And more than for his use of any particular materials (percussion, the prepared piano, gamuts, tape splicing...) or methods (chance, indeterminacy, contingency, cheap imitations, erasures...), it is in the area of structure, the musical use of time in a work's division of the whole into parts, that Cage seems to me to be most inventive, radical, and — for us — most potentially influential.
Indeed, Cage's development as a composer is best traced through his treatment of musical time, from the early works — in which a time structure is used instead of a tonal structure, with pieces carrying their proportions as a form of temporality equivalent to the key signature a work of tonal music carried — to the late works in which metre and measure are replaced by space on a page, clock time and/or time brackets with individual notes freed of their proportional and/or durational values. If some music can be identified with an "atonality", then this is a species of "ametricality" or even "atemporality." That said, as rich a model for structuring time as Cage's is, it is also an example which opens up productive doubts. For one, just as atonal music made it possible to hear tonal music in a fundamentally different way, the experience of music without fixed measure practically forces one to appreciate and reconsider the particular qualities of measured musical time, which include — paradoxically, perhaps — the possibility of its own deformations and abnegation in the forms of syncopation, cross-rhythms, rubato and dynamic changes of tempo, none of which are possible in a music without a pulse or metre for reference. (There is also a question to be asked about whether the use of clock time was self-defeating, in that it didn't actually erase a pulse or metre — with their fluid, flexible relationships to "real", mundane, clocktime — but simply substituted the inflexible units of the second and minute and hour.) Here, the utility of Cage's example is found as much in continuing the particular path he chose as in exploring the apparent cul de sacs he left alone.
And this, too:
I miss Cage's voice,
the fundamental of which
— as he grew older —
would waver in and out of audibility
and often just disappear.