Playing the Audience
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.