Symphony Space Presents John Cage's HOW TO GET STARTED in Series of Three Performances


To mark John Cage’s centennial year, Symphony Space is proud to present the composer’s rarely-heard 1989 conceptual work "How to Get Started" in a series of three performances by pairs of noted musicians and writers who know each other well. Author Oscar Hijuelos and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill take the stage on Thursday, November 1; playwright Wallace Shawn and his composer sibling AlLen Shawn perform on Thursday, November 15; and poet Robert Pinsky joins singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding on Thursday, December 13. All performances take place at 7:30 pm in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia; tickets are available through

Each evening, the two artists will perform the piece in sequence, and then engage in a discussion about the experience. Symphony Space’s Artistic Director, Laura Kaminsky will moderate the conversation between Hijuelos and O’Farrill; writer/cultural critic Wendy Lesser will moderate the following evenings.

Like many other Cage works, How to Get Started transcends genre, encompassing sound art, performance, spoken word, and conceptual art. It is simple yet daunting: on each of ten index cards, a performer writes down a different topic of interest. A notecard is chosen in random order, and the performer extemporizes on the topic, speaking for no more than three minutes, as his or her words are recorded. As the speaker moves on to the next notecard and topic, all of the previous recordings are played back simultaneously, i.e.:

1. First topic spoken + recorded
2. Second topic spoken + recorded as the first topic is played back
3. Third topic spoken + recorded as the first and second topics are played back, etc.

The usual challenge of speaking contemporaneously is multiplied by having an increasingly dense thicket of one’s own words in the ear while choosing new ones. The speaker must also decide how to interact with the playback – whether to treat it confrontationally or contrapuntally. The resulting “thought performance” is fascinating and transformative, an unguarded look into the creative mind. Recorded performances by Cage, film director Peter Greenaway, composer and producer Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), and writer Aleksandr Hemon can be heard at

In a recent interview for, Kaminsky described How to Get Started as “a scary project – Cage conceived of it as a way to address his own responses to the concept of creativity and improvisation and the flow of ideas, and he only performed it once. My idea was to pair two artistic friends/colleagues so that they could share an evening and enter into each other's thinking process."

Each performer is sure to bring a highly individual sensibility to the piece. Among the musicians, Grammy-winning pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill is a leading figure in Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz; AlLen Shawn is a noted creator of orchestral, operatic, and chamber works; and John Wesley Harding (the nom de guitare of singer-songwriter Wesley Stace) has released fifteen albums to widespread praise.

Oscar Hijuelos’s novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" received the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; it was adapted for film in 1992 and as a Broadway musical in 2005. Playwright/actor Walace Shawn’s plays include "The Designated Mourner" and "Aunt Dan and Lemon"; he also co-wrote the screenplay for "My Dinner with Andre" with Andre Gregory, and scripted "Vanya on 42nd Street," a film adaptation of Anton Chekov's play Uncle Vanya. Robert Pinsky, a former Poet Laureate of the US, has won numerous awards for his original poems and translations, including a best-selling translation of "The Inferno of Dante."

The series is presented by Symphony Space in collaboration with The Threepenny Review, the Slought Foundation, and the John Cage Trust. Sponsored by American Express.

Photo Credit: John Abbott