Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"If you are amused, you may laugh..."

Dearest reader:

Our comrades at WFMU have posted an incredibly entertaining — and touching — video of John Cage on an episode of the game show I've Got a Secret back in 1960.

He performs "Water Walk," a composition scored for "solo television performer," and played on a variety of instruments, listed in a whisper into the ear of the show's host, and displayed on screen for the at-home audience:

a Water Pitcher
an Iron Pipe
a Goose Call
a Bottle of Wine
an Electric Mixer
a Whistle
a Sprinkling Can
Ice Cubes
2 Cymbals
a Mechanical Fish
a Quail Call
a Rubber Duck
a Tape Recorder
a Vase of Roses
a Seltzer Siphon
5 Radios
a Bathtub


According to the John Cage Database, the piece's score consists of diagrams showing a floorplan for the layout of the above objects, a partial sequence of actions to be performed with said objects, and the instruction: "start watch and then time actions as closely as possible to their appearance in the score."

I assume that it is obvious why I consider this interesting — but why did I describe it as "touching"? Two moments in particular strike me so:

• When the host, after stressing that Cage is "take[n] ... seriously as a composer," says to the composer: "inevitably — these are nice people, but — some of 'em are gonna laugh. Is that all right?" To which Cage replies: "I consider laughter preferable to tears."

• Cage's adorably goofy grin at the conclusion of his performance.

Cage's statement about his preference for laughter over tears — which I take to be representative of a significant facet of his work — gets almost as big a laugh as some of the most delightful and surprising moments of the performance itself, and allows the composer to graciously and gracefully demonstrate that experimentation and humor are not incommensurate. As Joan Retallack explains in "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2": "According to Cage the proper response to art is 'merely' to delight in it with heightened awareness, to experience the reflexive humor of the figure/ground shift."

What's at stake in Cage's performance is recontextualization: the sounds we ignore and treat as background are shifted to the foreground when re-presented as music. It allows us, along with the live studio audience, to recognize our world as melodic rather than noisy. We laugh because we are delighted; we are delighted — and I'm paraphrasing Retallack here, if loosely — not only because what we see and hear are unexpected, but because our expecations and our understanding of a false music/noice dichotomy are troubled.

Cage's performance of "Water Walk" — and it is important to remember that it was specifically created for a televisual context — complicates the matter, adding another shift between figure and ground. As I watch it for a third time, I'm struck by the ways the performance works within its medium. The layout of instruments/objects resembles an absurdly cramped apartment in which bathroom, kitchen, and living room overlap, and Cage's movements between the various objects recall those of C. C. Baxter in The Apartment. Add the laughter of the live studio audience, and the avant garde — framed by the show's host as serious, as "controversial" and as recipient of reviews "not entirely favorable" — finds common ground with slapstick sit-comedy.

[ADDENDUM: if WFMU's format doesn't work with your internet-watching contraption, here's a YouTube link. Now you can no longer say I never gave you anything.

Joan Retallack's "Fig. 1, Ground Zero, Fig. 2" is available in her
The Poethical Wager, published by U. of California Press in 2003.]


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