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Playing the Audience

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In 1960 John Cage performed his piece Water Walk live on the game show I’ve Got a Secret (thanks to Jenny Diski for pointing it out). Back then it must have seemed like an elaborate joke at Cage’s expense. The presenter who introduces him is fatuous and sceptical, rolling his eyes when Cage tells him he is going to knock radios onto the floor (a union dispute over who should plug them in meant he couldn’t switch them on – a chance intervention he was no doubt delighted with). ‘I’m with you boy,’ the presenter says patronisingly.

Cage stands in front of a piano, and behind a trestle table laden with radios, a pressure cooker, a food processor, a vase – things a game show in the early 1960s might have given away as prizes. He walks round his set-up, stopwatch in hand, methodically slapping, tickling, blowing, spilling his instruments as dictated by his score, to whoops of mocking laughter from the crowd.

Now it’s clear that the crowd were unknowing performers: not just spectators laughing at the piece, but instruments laughing inside it. Water Music is a distillation of the sound of the contemporary American household: there’s the kitchen, with its bubbling pans and the hum of appliances; the bathroom – Cage puts the vase of flowers in a bath and waters it – and the living room, centred on the TV, blaring the chortles and howls of a peak-time game show audience.

Comments on “Playing the Audience”

  1. zbs says:

    This is only tangentially related, but may also be of interest: John Cale on the same program.

  2. Locus says:

    Watch it again, maybe. Is the presenter really “fatuous and sceptical”? And are those “mocking whoops”? The presenter seemed a little sceptical – what’s wrong with that? – but generally generous and game, and the audience – though this is harder to tell – were hardly hostile or “mocking”. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves on some level, but perhaps without regarding Cage or his work with the kind of frowning reverence exhibited by some art historians, and it seems, LRB commentators.

  3. Geoff Roberts says:

    John Cage looks like a 21st century banker, although the tie is a bit thin. perhaps it was a satire on contemporary culture. The audience was well-behaved though, no jeering or whistling. Or whooping.

  4. Dear Locus and Geoff, I did not mean to imply that the audience or the presenter were hostile or aggressive. Just that they were mocking. Perhaps I should have said ‘gently mocking’ or something like that. My point was simply that the presenter and the crowd don’t seem to take Cage seriously, that they regard him as ridiculous – meanwhile Cage is using them as instruments, actively encouraging the sound of laughter from them (hence the rubber duck) in order to work the sound of TV into his piece.

    • Locus says:

      Fair enough, point taken re. the instigation/incorporation of the audience laughter.

      It just seemed like you were a bit too keen to frame the event as Boorish Mainstream vs. Isolated, Misunderstood Avantgardist (who – ha! – nonetheless has the Last Laugh on the philistines…)

  5. Oliver Rivers says:

    This reminds me of a story which I’m 95% certain is told about Stefan Wolpe in David Schiff’s book on Elliott Carter (I don’t have my copy any more, so can’t check). In composition lessons Wolpe would fling open the window of his New York apartment, filling the room with the clamour of traffic, and say to his students “Now compose that!” Wolpe wanted them to produce music reflecting that tumult and chaos.

    Wolpe’s own response to that challenge was to produce dense, intricately-wrought music of considerable notational complexity–the opposite of Cage’s approach, where vastly more latitude is offered to the performer. But the source of their inspiration was the same.

    I found this on the Wolpe Society website, a reminiscence by John Cage:

    “And I went several times to 110th Street, out where Stefan had an apartment with Irma Rademacher. And it was always filled with students who were absolutely devoted to him, so that one had the feeling being there that one was at the true center of New York. And it was almost an unknown center of New York. And that was what gave a very special strength to one’s feeling about Stefan, that it was in a sense a privilege to be aware of him, since it was like being privy to an important secret.”

    • Great anecdote; thanks Oliver. Wolpe’s windows remind me (!), in turn, of an interview I once saw with Ju Suk Reet Meate from Smegma (of the LA Free Music Society). After one of the group’s performances he was approached by a music student who couldn’t work out whether Smegma were schooled virtuosos playing highly complex compositions, or anarchic improvisors. Ju Suk says he was surprised to find out that one strand of post-modernist conservatory composition, and his own strand of DIY punk Improv, had both reached a point where their respective musical products couldn’t be distinguished from each other by a well-informed listener.

    • semitone says:

      That’s a great story. Milhaud used to compose with his window open: his second viola sonata has two beautiful, lyrical movements but the last is marked “Rude” and, while it’s more a musical representation of the bustle of the Paris streets, it also does sound a bit like traffic.

  6. jaspreetsinghboparai says:

    An extraordinary performance. How did all this come about anyway? I wonder how many audience members thought they were getting a variation on “Spike Jones And His City Slickers”…. Also: would the original broadcast have been afflicted with that continuous low buzz in the background, or is that merely a feature of this recording? Early live TV could apparently be preserved by something called a ‘kinoscope’ (no idea what that is, I’ve only seen the word somewhere before). Perhaps this doesn’t matter though.

    Many, many thanks for sharing this.


  7. cigar says:

    This whole thread has barely a single note of cticism for this composer, except for the post by Locus, who takes back his words after some hairsplitting from the author.

    Here we see the whole problem with this kind of self-referential music: it is not that it is meant for the ivory tower, for a small clique of composers and rather snobbish connoisseurs, but that it depends on the particular ivory tower of university music faculties and conservatories. This means that anyone who doesn’t choose to follow one or another accepted party line is ostracized and is lucky to find a way to do his or her own thing by say, composing for the movies.

    I was at a talk Philip Glass gave in Quito a month ago, and though he also had only good words to say about Cage’s influence on him, this was not the case when it came to the academy: he chose the harsher and longer path of slowly building a business out of his music just so he could do what *he* wanted, instead of obeying the dogma set down by some professor or self appointed guru.

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