5 questions to Laura Kaminsky (composer, Artistic Director of Symphony Space) about “How To Get Started”

On April 2, Symphony Space will celebrate John Cage’s centenary with this rare performance of Cage’s 1989 How To Get Started, a collaborative experiment exploring improvisation and the origin of ideas. We asked 5 questions to Laura Kaminsky, composer and Artistic Director of Symphony Space.

How did you choose the three pairs of performers?

We wanted, initially, people who knew each other well, or admired each other greatly. I wanted people who had a close personal and/or professional relationship with each other, and who harkened from different disciplines, as I thought it would enliven the evenings by adding a level of intimate interactivity to the post-performance conversation. Wendy Lesser of The Threepenny Review, who was to moderate, suggested Wallace and Allen Shawn because who could know each other better than two brothers? This evening was incredible in that Wallace, the writer and actor, filled his ten thought layers with lots of words and really began to tell a story. Allen, who chose to answer some of his ten questions by performing musical fragments of his own and other composers’ music at the piano, actually seemed to be composing in real time. It seemed that he was truly listening to the layers and inserting either his spoken or musical answers very much in dialogue with the prior layers as they were re-played. And because they had a shared family history, they were able to parse each other’s answers in quite insightful and intimate ways…it was profoundly interesting to watch them be the audience for each other and then to see what themes each picked up from his brother’s performance.

Robert Pinsky and John Wesley Harding are good friends and share a love of words and music, so they, too, made a good pairing. Wendy Lesser knows both of them, so was able to draw them out in the post-performance conversation. Harding brought his guitar yet only used it once, if I recall, making for a less musical performance than Allen’s.

Laura Kaminsky

Laura Kaminsky

With Ralph Lemon and Arturo O’Farrill, as I was the moderator, I wanted to invite a pair from different disciplines who didn’t know each other, but who both know me (I consider both Ralph and Arturo good friends, and have shared many a meal with them, talking about life—mostly about politics and art and love… is there anything else to talk about?) I chose them specifically because they both have deep connections to Harlem: Ralph was recently in residence at The Studio Museum and Arturo is currently in-residence at the Harlem School of the Arts — as this last performance of How to Get Started was scheduled as the first event in Symphony Space’s spring festival, Harlem Resonance, that commences on April 2 and concludes, after a chock-full 6 weeks of over 50 events, with a free all-day multi-disciplinary marathon event from 11 am to 11 pm on May 11, Wall to Wall Harlem Resonance.

Was pairing a literary figure with a musical one a way to reconcile this performance piece with music?

Partly, but it was also to see if creative artists in different disciplines would approach the challenge differenty. I am personally very interested in the ways in which artists understand the world and then express what they understand. I think artists process differently than dancers, and dancers differently than writers, and writers differently than composers. So mixing up the disciplines would, I thought, bring yet another dimension to this already multi-textured performance project.

These experiments in “public speaking” only feature male performers. Is there a reason for that?

Total coincidence, and something that we noted sadly, but none of the women we initially approached were either available or interested in participating. I can’t say who these women were, but had any one of them said yes, I know they would have given fascinating performances and engaged in rich discussion afterwards. Maybe in the future!

John Cage, Paris 1981 / Marion Kalter

John Cage, Paris 1981 – Photograph by Marion Kalter

The process resembles some kind of reverse meditation where the performer layers ten different monologues about ten different topics and it is—for the audience—not unlike listening to a 10-part fugue. If you could give a piece of advice to a potential audience member to better enjoy this experience, what would it be?

Just to sit back and listen as it comes because each listener will attach him/herself to different layers of each performance – possibly by interest to the topic, possibly because of its actual sound/rhythm/cadence. It’s very personal.

What did emerge from the discussions from the two previous nights?

I think every participant was surprised by how intense the experience was. It was clear that some prepared their approach ahead of time and others not. Also, in the first two nights, they decided at the last minute, to change Cage’s guidelines and to each submit a topic for the other performer to respond to, mixed in with that person’s 9 other topics. So it brought an additional layer of surprise to the performance.

How to Get Started: Ralph Lemon + Arturo O’Farrill
Tue, Apr 2 at 7:30 pm
Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space
$30; Members $25; 30 and under (with valid ID) $15
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