Back in 2011, we featured John Cage’s 1960 television performance of his piece Water Walk. Its video quality may have left something to be desired, but now, thanks to the YouTube channel of Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, you can watch the entire ten-minute segment in much crisper quality than most surviving programs from that era. This unlikely happening occurred on I’ve Got a Secret, the long-running occupation-guessing game show whose guest roster also included chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, “fifth Beatle” Pete Best, and fried-chicken icon Colonel Harland Sanders. For this particular episode, we wrote in our earlier post, “the TV show offered Cage something of a teachable moment, a chance to introduce the broader public to his brand of avant-garde music.”
For Water Walk, Cage rounded up a variety of “instruments” all to do with that liquid — a bathtub, a pitcher, ice cubes in a mixer — and the unconventional symphony they produce culminates in the Rube Goldbergian mixing of a drink, the sipping of which the composition dictates about two and a half minutes in. Naturally, Cage being Cage, the piece incorporates audience reaction noises; when host Gary Moore warns him that certain members of the studio audience will laugh, Cage responds, “I consider laughter better than tears.”
You can learn more about this intersection of far forward-thinking artistry and the midcentury televisual mainstream in Laura Paolini’s piece “John Cage’s Secret,” available at johncage.org. “At that moment in 1960, a rupture was being deepened,” Paolini writes. “High art and low were becoming more and more comfortable with one another over the airwaves. At this moment, as the screens glow their blue auras into the homes of North America, everyone sees something they haven’t seen before. And everyone has an opinion about it.” And those opinions, I like to think Cage would have said, only extend the art further.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.