(A version of this piece was also published by the Indian news site WSN)
I blogged yesterday about a chat I had with comedian Martin Soan.
When we were chatting, he mentioned he had read somewhere that avant-garde American composer John Cage had once won five million lire on a TV quiz show by answering questions on mushrooms.
Surely not, I thought. It sounds like an urban legend. But it turns out to be true.
John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US was when he appeared on I’ve Got a Secret, a show in which the panel had to guess what contestants’ secrets were.
John Cage’s secret was that he was going to perform his own musical composition involving a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, two cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a Seltzer siphon, five radios, a bathtub and a grand piano.
This planned musical performance caused a “juristictional dispute” between two of the trade unions who were involved in the show. There was a dispute over which union should have the responsibility of plugging the five radios into the power supply.
This was resolved by John Cage, who said: “Instead of turning the radios on, as I had written to do, I will hit them every time I was supposed to turn them on. Then, when I turn them off, I will knock them off the table.”
His composition was entitled Water Walk, explained Cage, “because it contains water (in the bathtub) and because I walk during its performance.”
The show’s presenter said: “Inevitably, Mr Cage, these are nice people (in the audience) but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?”
“Of course,” John Cage replied, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.”
That was John Cage’s first appearance on national TV in the US.
But the year before – 1959 – he had appeared on the Italian TV quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing).
Cage was in Italy to see the composer Luciano Berio who, at that time, worked at Studio di Fonologia, the Italian state broadcaster RAI’s experimental studio for audio research.
As a result, John Cage ended up making five appearances on the Lascia o Raddoppia gameshow, in which he answered questions on his specialist subject ‘poisonous and edible mushrooms’. He also provided musical interludes with his own compositions.
Reviewing his first appearance on the show, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported: “John Cage, an American very fond of mushrooms, left a very good impression. The lanky player revealed that he had begun getting into mushrooms while walking in the Stony Point woods near his house. He is now in Italy to perform experimental music concerts and play an extremely weird composition of his made of shrill squeaks and dreary rumbles via a specially-modified piano. Mr Cage sat by a special piano tweaked with nails, screws, and elastic bands, drawing unusual chords from it. The piece was entitled Amores and it sounded like a funeral march.”
On his second appearance, La Stampa reported that Cage looked like “a crossbreed between a baseball player and a marine” and “was a sort of institution within New York University circles a while ago. Everywhere he went, students with a Jerry Lewis hairdo and their female mates in blue jeans forsook their books and gathered around a jukebox… That’s where Cage showed his incredible capabilities: he goggled his eyes with a disappointed face, he spread his long arms and uttered weird guttural sounds from his mouth. The students happily danced to the rock ‘n’ roll music around him… He once dragged a student marching band through the streets of New York, attempting a bizarre imitation of what jazz used to be at the beginning: only the police managed to stop Cage’s tumultuous enthusiasts.”
On his third appearance, according to La Stampa: “Before facing the 640.000 Lire question – which he answered brilliantly – John Cage performed an experimental music concert specially composed for the Italian TV audience. The piece, if we could call it such, was entitled Water Walk.” The result, said La Stampa was “a carnival bustle. The audience enjoyed the joke and applauded… It seems that John Cage is about to repeat the piece in all the Italian cities where he will perform his concerts. After which – he jokingly claimed backstage – I can commence my truck farming business.”
By the time he got to the five million lire question, La Stampa was even more enthusiastic, saying: “John Cage, the great American mushroom expert, looked a lot more determined. During the first question he had to complete the analytic key of the ‘poliporacee’ (a mushroom species) from which four names were deleted. He did it without hesitation, as well as adding the name, colour, shape, width and length of a particular mushroom whose picture was shown to him. The very last question, the 5 million one, shook his nerves and turned his blood cold. John Cage had to spell all 24 names of the white-spored ‘agarici’. Twenty-four questions in one! A very tough question, even for a real mushroom expert. However, John Cage – a little bit sweaty this time – quickly pronounced all of them in alphabetical order. A triumph! While he was receiving audience applause, he thanked the mushrooms and all the people of Italy.”
At the time, five million lire was worth around $8,000 and Cage used the money to buy a piano for his home in New York and a Volkswagon bus for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
John Cage died in 1992.
So it goes.