The Shawn Brothers
Since I actually played a small role in last night's Symphony Space performance, this will not be an objective critical review (as if any of my accounts, in this space or elsewhere, are objective!), but rather an inside report on an arts event.
The event was a modified recreation of John Cage's piece How to Get Started, a 1989 performance in which Cage randomly turned over 10 index cards (pre-inscribed with ideas for topics he had given himself) and spoke for up to three minutes, extemporaneously, on each topic. As he responded to each successive card, loops of his earlier responses played in the background, so that by the end of the piece, the repeatedly looped recording was thick with all the interactions between the ten Cage monologues.
At Symphony Space on Thursday night, Allen Shawn and Wallace Shawn--with the significant collaboration of a borrowed sound engineer, Peter Price, who had mastered this technique through his work with the John Cage Trust and the Slought Foundation--each went through a version of this process in front of a friendly, fascinated audience of about 200 people. I had lured the two Shawn brothers into this event, and I was responsible for interviewing them onstage afterward about the results, but to be honest, I had no idea beforehand what those results would be, since I knew about the Cage piece only through hearsay. I never expected the evening would turn out so beautifully, with two separate but clearly related artworks materializing before our very eyes.
Allen is a composer and pianist, and his looped performance (complete with snippets of music by Schoenberg, Carter, and other favorites that he played on the piano when he wasn't speaking) was essentially a musical artwork, with thoughtful lyricism as its dominant mode. Wallace is a playwright and actor, and his performance had the verbal density and emotional intensity of a play. What astonished me--and rather amazed the two participants as well--was that it was possible to achieve something through this method that at once reflected their individual characters as artists and also presented something of the family life in which these two characters had developed. We cheated a bit on the prescribed Cage method by allowing some of the card-cues to come from the outside: two each were suggested by the brothers to each other, and one for each came from me. This made the exercise even more random and spontaneous, but it also brought it closer to home. When Allen responded to the cues "a woman's laugh" (put forth by Wally) or "automobile" (my idea), we learned something about his relationship to his parents, as a child and as an adult. And when Wally did a wonderful final riff on "puppets" (proposed by Allen), we in the audience found out about the puppet theater on which the two boys had first practiced their separate arts jointly.
Afterwards, I asked each of the Brothers Shawn what had most surprised him about his brother's performance piece. "That it was so serious," Allen said. "That it was so intimate," said Wally.