United States John Cage, How to Get Started: Ralph Lemon (voice), Arturo O’Farrill (voice and piano), Peter Price (audio engineer), Symphony Space, Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater, New York City. 2.4.2013 (BH)
John Cage: How to Get Started (1989)
Near the end of his life John Cage (1912-1992) devised How to Get Started as a last-minute addition to a California conference on sound design, never intending the piece to be replicated by anyone else. Now with the help of the John Cage Trust and the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, anyone can perform it (see addendum below). Last year Symphony Space engaged three pairs of artists to carry out Cage’s instructions, starting with actor Wallace Shawn and his composer-brother Allan. I caught the second performance, with U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky and guitarist John Wesley Harding. Hurricane Sandy interrupted the third night by jazz great Arturo O’Farrill, who rescheduled for this evening with choreographer Ralph Lemon.
On the surface, the idea seems simple. Each artist writes down ten different topics on index cards—ideas on which to expound—and then a computer chooses them at random. The speaker then has three minutes to talk about the chosen subject, while an engineer records the monologue for playback. When the second subject is selected—totally at random—the artist speaks about it while the engineer plays back the initial three minutes, so that the two word streams overlap and intertwine, the recorded portion subtly influencing the outcome of the live one. This process is repeated ten times, so that by the end, the speaker is talking while simultaneously, nine previous monologues engulf the room in torrents of words, often with surprising collisions of thought and unexpected revelations. Plus, very quickly it begins to sound like poetry.
By the flip of a coin, Lemon went first, musing on everything from pleasure to his obsession with singer Beyoncé to punk poet Kathy Acker (1947-1997), of moving to New York City in 1979 and having Cage appear at his barbershop. As his comments progressed, I became intensely aware of the qualities of his speaking voice, his cadence, his pauses, his vocabulary. Cage’s exercise explores the art of improvisation, and how a live performer interacts with himself. One imagines the point at which the artist is aware of his own voice, or when he begins to tailor his words, based on triple feeds: the taped words from the past, his own mind in the present, and anticipation about the remaining topics coming up. When O’Farrill’s turn came he sat at the piano, and occasionally added in music with his talk, including thoughts on being Mexican, comments on the process itself (“like a cosmic therapy session”), Miles Davis, and a hilarious riff on “Hugo, the snotty cat” who gets shaken 440 times a second to create the note “A.” Each sequence of ten topics took about a half-hour; both sped by quickly.
A huge amount of credit goes to the evening’s third—and silent—performer, sound engineer Peter Price (who was at the laptop controls last fall). Price not only recorded each topic with pristine clarity, but discreetly shaped the playback results, adding gentle contours or occasionally bringing out words or phrases.
In an audience discussion afterward, many comments—about talking, silence, pauses between words, and the mental process of actually doing this—only added to the evening’s stimulating atmosphere. One person wondered what the results would be like with say, a thousand index cards. Another said the performances felt like Bach fugues. Similar to the experience last fall, I left the theater energized, mind racing, keenly aware of the power of words, of the mind, and of the creative process. While codifying How to Get Started may defy Cage’s wishes for ephemerality, after seeing the piece realized by two different pairs of artists, I’m convinced this is a piece that could—and perhaps should—be seen now and then, perhaps every year. It might be one of the composer’s most profound creations.
To learn more about How to Get Started, upcoming performances, or to visit the permanent installation at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, visit www.howtogetstarted.org. To schedule a recording session at the Slought Foundation, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.