“He is probably the most controversial figure in the musical world today and when you hear his performance, if you will forgive me, you’ll understand why,” says the talk show host in the 1960 clip of I’ve Got a Secret. He’s speaking of John Cage, who by then was highly successful for his difficult music. And Cage was firm on the point of making music — when the host announces that Cage teaches “a course on experimental sound at the New School,” Cage is quick to correct him.
“I consider music the production of sound, and since in the piece which you will hear I produce sound, I will call it music,” Cage says placidly with a subtle smile that never fades throughout his performance of “Water Walk.”
It wasn’t the first time Cage had been on a game show — in 1959, in Milan, he was a guest on Lascia o Raddoppia? where he answered esoteric questions on various species of mushrooms (which was his subject of choice). In I’ve Got a Secret, the ostensible aim is to reveal its contestant’s “secrets,” which for Cage means his instruments: an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, a vase of roses. In a typically Cageian manner, he announces he will make music out of seemingly unmusical objects. The piece, he explains, is called “Water Walk” “because it contains water and because I walk during the performance.”
Before the performance, the host assures the audience that it’s fine to laugh, perhaps even encouraging it. “These are nice people, but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?” he addresses Cage. In his soft voice, Cage answers, “Of course. I consider laughter preferable to tears.”
What ensues reminds me of being at the theater when audience members laugh at awkward or taboo scenes as a way, I think, of coping with an uncomfortable experience that wasn’t intentionally funny. Hysterical laughs follow the clunk of ice cubes in a cup; the gulp of water entering a jug; and the slam of radios falling onto the floor. Cage repeats the same actions in a willful, structured manner, though the order of sounds — which over time echo and sit in the air — is never predictable.
The audience’s flippant reaction is at odds with what we normally think of Cage — there is a certain seriousness attached to his work. Yet watching Cage onstage it’s clear he had a sense of humor or that at least he was unfazed by others. At one point, the host reads a review in the New York Herald Tribune of Cage’s then-recent album: “Certain compositions of his are really a delight to the ear. This is something that cannot be said of quite a few other Cage items.” Cage, in response, gives a wide, lighthearted smile.