"What Must Be Said" at The Cell
The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir Present All-Beethoven Program

John Cage's "How to Get Started" at Symphony Space

by Craig Brinker

Cage negative

Of the many strange works John Cage composed during his long and varied career, “How to Get Started” is not the most experimental, but perhaps one of the most fun to watch another human endure—a largely unrehearsed, impromptu spectacle.  In fact, during the talkback after the performance, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn even described it as a “sadistic party game.”

The gist of the piece is that the performer chooses ten topics to extemporize upon in a random order. After each topic has been exhausted (this takes about three minutes), the recording of that topic is played back over the discussion of the next, building into a chaotic texture of recorded voices.

The speakers for this performance were composer Allen Shawn and his brother, Wallace. Allen began with poignant monologue about his mother's voice before discussing a wide range of topics: horses, being cast as a ten-year-old boy in Shakespeare's The Tempest, and his piano teacher's cat. Choosing to mix in musical selections (something Cage did not do in the original), he played selections from Schoenberg's Six Piano Pieces, the opening of Webern's Variations for Piano, and a snippet of Elliott Carter. Each of the selections was relevant to the anecdotes that he told, and they created a unique layer in the texture. 

One of the unexpected points of the performance (as well as an overall highlight) was the audience's role in guessing the word or phrase placed on an index card as either performer spoke, one that set the topic or tone for that segment's discussion. Some of the cards were revealed during the post show discussion, revealing that  Wallace's first speech was about two mice having a disagreement about a lawn game (yes, it was exactly as side-splittingly funny as you think it would be), was driven by the phrase “mice at play” on his card.

Wally's version, it was remarked, was more theatrical, and his brother's rendition more musical. Wally used that monologue about the mice—a diatribe about lying—to speak about professionalism, retaliation, and unconditional love. Because he did not play any music, his performance became more chaotic towards the end, but did not make it any less serious or moving.

As a whole the piece is a fascinating experiment revealing the mind's ability to create under pressure. Each speaker said that the process was very diffucult at the start, but that they quickly found a place of calm before completely losing themselves in task of creation.

Allen ended his performance with an anecdote about an enthusiastic pastor playing Bernstein's Mass.  When Allen asked the pastor what he liked about it, the man's response ultimately reflected both this work and the act of artistic creation in general: “It was worldly, but moves to transcend.”