Category Archives: US

John Cage: the avant-garde composer who won millions in TV gameshows

(A version of this piece was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

Martin Soan trawling the internet for John Cage

Martin Soan trawling the internet for tales of John Cage

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 puts flowers into a bathtub of water

John Cage puts flowers into a bathtub of water on US TV

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.”

John Cage (right) on I've Got a Secret in 1960

John Cage (right) on the I’ve Got a Secret gameshow in 1960

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.”

Part marine

“A cross between a baseball player & a marine”

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.

John Cage (right) on Lascia O Raddoppia in Italy, 1959

John Cage (right) demonstrates his musical talent, 1959

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.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Italy, Music, Television, US

Wall Street actor/singer/dancer starts the first Brooklyn Fringe Festival

Calvin Wynter. No hair, but a man sporting his own Fringe

I think I first met US promoter/publicist Calvin Wynter at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, when he was involved in opening the new Green Room Venue, but he had been going there since 2004.

Yesterday, he told me: “I went to school in Geneva for a year and I had no idea the Edinburgh Fringe existed. My parents were avid theatre-goers and we were travelling to Europe almost every summer, but they had no idea the Edinburgh Fringe existed. When I was made aware that Edinburgh was the place to go then, in 2004, I went over with five shows. All sold out, were critically-acclaimed and one won the Richard Pryor Award. The following year, Richard Pryor’s daughter went over with us with six other shows.

“Now we’ve taken 135 shows to Edinburgh and we’ve done 250 shows worldwide. We’ve been at 50 festivals worldwide and toured 120 cities.”

And now, through his company Inbrook (of which I am an alleged creative consultant) he is staging his very own Fringe Festival – the Brooklyn Fringe, running 12th-21st July next year in New York.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking of for about four years,” he told me yesterday.

“In the East Coast, there is no ‘open’ festival. Everything is either juried or curated. It’s either You spend your money but we’re going to tell you if you can get in or We’ll decide whether you get in and we’ll pay for it. But there is nothing on the East Coast that is You find a place, you register with us and you’re now part of the Festival.

“There is a New York Fringe which has been around for over a decade, but it’s juried and they take 2% of your box office gross for the next seven years. I think that’s absurd. If you participate in the New York Fringe, for the next seven years – simply because they provided a place which you paid for for maybe six performances – they then take 2% of your box office gross whether you play in Boise, Indiana or Brighton, England.”

“What will you do instead?” I asked.

“We won’t take a percentage when they’re not in our facilities under our Festival banner,” he told me.

“What,” I said, “if I have a wonderful success at the Brooklyn Fringe and decide to go with a promoter other than you?”

“I worked for 13 years on Wall Street,” said Calvin. “On Wall Street, we don’t have competitors. We have colleagues. We don’t worry about the size of the pie. We’ll all eat. I come from an entirely different mindset than what I’ve experienced in a lot of emerging entertainment areas, which seem to think  that the world is small and that all of us are fierce competitors… It’s unecessary.

“If you go with another promoter, you are still going to tell someone Go to the Brooklyn Festival – and maybe they’ll go on to work with us afterwards. We’re thinking long term. The more the Brooklyn Fringe succeeds, the more our organisation gets a higher profile.

“At this stage, we’re looking for venues. By putting the word out that we’re looking for venues, we will also receive information about participants.”

“What if you don’t get enough venues to make it viable?” I asked.

A new Festival that is definitinely in Brooklyn not New York…

“There’s more than enough venues to make it viable,” Calvin told me. “Brooklyn is so vibrant. There’s a new stadium. The Nets basketball team have moved from New Jersey. A hockey team The Long Islanders are going to move in less that two years. Jay-Z did an intro concert there. The amount of construction is… Let’s put it this way, if Brooklyn were a free-standing city, it would be the fourth largest city in the United States right now, but it’s trending that, in the next few years, it will be the third largest.

“We have no fixed number of venues. The New York Fringe has stopped at around 200 venues. The more the merrier for us. We already have a number of shows that would like to work with us in Brooklyn under any circumstances.”

“So,” I said, “I can come to you and say I’ve got a venue above a bar in Brooklyn and I want to put on a show and then you would put me in the Festival programme?”

“If someone registers a show from that location, then you are now a Festival venue. As long as you do it within Brooklyn, it’s part of the Brooklyn Fringe.”

“And,” I asked, “it will be ‘open’ like the Edinburgh Fringe? You will co-ordinate but not put on any shows yourself?”

“We will put on shows,” said Calvin. “We are going to be ‘open’, juried, curated and ‘pay-what-you-can’.

“If you go see a show that is ‘free’, the reality is that the performer, producer or someone stands there with a bucket or a hat at the end., asking for money. What is that really? It’s pay-what-you-can.

“So we are going to be up-front and say that some shows are pay-what-you-can.”

“So,” I said, “I can come to you either with my own fixed-price show or pay-what-you-can show and venue or I can come to you and you’ll provide the venue and hire it out to me?”

“Yes,” said Calvin. “Or some other entrepreneur will set up a venue and put on a show. It’s every variable. On some shows, if it’s necessary for us to put our own money up and bring our own expertise to it, we’re gonna do that, bringing in the creatives, the crew, the marketing effort.”

“Are you getting any money from the local council?” I asked.

“This is the American Dream,” said Calvin. “You go out. You focus on being the best. And you are able to create something that serves the public need. It’s a team of performers and creatives that also – almost all of us – have backgrounds in the financial industry. We do it in such a way that it’s self-sufficient. We can’t depend on government. Arts funding has been cut throughout the United States. We are not dependent on public funding or donations or grants. As we see government and foundation funding evaporate… we just create a business model that works for all.”

“So your background is Wall Street?” I asked.

“I retired 12 years ago, when I was 40 years old. I don’t need the money. I want to be creative. I want to help artists to grow.

Calvin Wynter Jnr as a child with his father

“I was a performer as a child. Even when I was a baby, I was in a commercial for milk. But, when it came time for career selection, I ended up going to Wall Street and, just before I left Wall Street, I found out that I had – without my knowledge – been hiring actors, dancers, comedians. Every member of my staff was in not only one but the three major unions in the United States. Even in the case of members of staff from Britain, they were in British Equity.

“I had been unconsciously surrounding myself  with performers. So it was natural when one said You should pursue this that I went, in less than 90 days, from taking three acting classes to being in one off-Broadway show, in rehearsals for another, doing indie films at the weekend and setting up a production company that would go on to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award in less than 18 months. I leased a theatre – the Gene Frankel Theatre – renovated it, started putting on productions.”

“You were an actor?” I asked.

“I was an actor, a singer and dancer. I’ve just got back from producing a show in Amsterdam, scouting theatres in Berlin for touring and being taken to Prague to consult on a musical that was in a 1,000 seat theatre.”

“So you are an actor, singer and dancer who turned producer, promoter and publicist?”

“In one instance,” said Calvin, “we were even involved in producing a show in a car. Two actors in the fronts seats, two audience members in the back. Whether it’s an elevator, a boiler room, a toilet or a 1,000 seat theater we want to see Art.”

“And a businessman,” I added.

“Brooklyn Fringe venue registration applications are due by Monday, 28 January 2013,” Calvin told me.

“And a salesman,” I added.

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American comedian explains the US healthcare system at Edinburgh Fringe

Andrew J Lederer alive and reasonably well in Edinburgh

“I mentioned to the audience that I was hot and that I wanted to take my sweatshirt off, but that I didn’t have a shirt underneath it – I was just wearing the sweatshirt – and they yelled Take it off!” American comedian and storyteller Andrew J. Lederer told me this week.

We were at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“I can’t resist a dare,” Andrew told me, “so I took off the sweatshirt and then went Oops! I just gave the show away! Obviously, they had seen the photo, but they didn’t know if it was real. They even asked: Is it real?

“Well, I told them, there are many ways of answering that question. No matter what it is, it’s real. A real WHAT – that’s the question.”

“What was the problem?” I asked him.

“I needed heart re-adjustment,” Andrew told me. “I don’t want you to give away too many details in your blog, because the fun of the show – the rollercoaster joy of the show – is coming along with me as these things revealed themselves – always surprisingly and always unsettlingly.”

“But you had a heart operation?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he told me. “It was thirteen weeks ago this week.”

“And why does your Edinburgh Fringe show have the title Cold?” I asked.

Andrew’s 2 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe

“Well, I’m doing two shows on the PBH Free Fringe,” he explained. “Cold is just an overall umbrella name for the two shows because last year’s was called Cold Chicken and this year’s is called Cold Comfort and I’m performing them both at this year’s Fringe.

Cold Chicken was about when I was having my London breakdown and about me trying to figure out what was wrong with me: was it physical or emotional? And that sent me back to America – which resulted in Cold Comfort. I may be the only guy ever to go from England to America to get medical treatment!

“I set out to find out was I really having a physical problem or an emotional problem or both. And I found out that I needed open heart surgery. And then the day before I was scheduled to go into the hospital and have myself buzz-sawed in two, the phone rings and I get the answer to the question about what had been happening to me. Only I didn’t care any more because it was cold comfort. Great! I got the answer to the question but, by then, it had become a trivial question.”

“So the two shows are connected,” I said.

“No,” said Andrew. “They’re entirely separate. One is about me in London, falling apart. And the other is about me in New York trying to find my own pieces and put them together – or find someone who can do that for me.”

“And you had a serious operation just 13 weeks ago?” I asked.

“It’s a massively serious operation,” said Andrew. “They take you offline. You’re living on a heart-lung machine. It’s as serious as it gets. I had to be emotionally prepared to die.

“I had to say to myself: This could be the last day I’m alive. They’re going to sap away my consciousness and that may be my last moment of consciousness. I posted something on Facebook that night called Last Will and Testicles.”

“You’d never been that close to possible death before?” I asked.

“Well, I’d walked into the street and there are cars in streets,” Andrew said.

“Maybe this is the year of heart problems at the Fringe,” I said. “Rick Shapiro was in the hospital for three months and got out in late June, then arrived at the Fringe at the start of August. There’s Richard Tyrone Jones and his heart failure. And Carey Marx didn’t come because of his heart attack. Then your own operation was only 13 weeks ago.”

“In New York,” said Andrew, “I go to the gym three times a week.”

“You do?” I said.

“It’s cardiac rehab,” said Andrew, “and it’s just like the gym except it’s paid for by insurance. It’s at the hospital and you wear electrodes and they watch your heart while you do it. Because of budget cutbacks or whatever, you have to put your own electrodes on.”

“You’ve moved back in New York now?” I asked. “You’ve left London?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re going to stay in New York?”

“That’s a question I’m never capable of answering. I seem to go where the money isn’t.”

“Did you go back to the US because you had health insurance there?”

“Well, I only went back because of a wonderful thing that happened while I was in London.”

“Which was?”

“I went broke. Completely. So, when I went back to America, I was poor enough to get poor people’s health insurance. In America, you’re only allowed to get health insurance if you’re rich and can afford to pay for it. Or if you’re very poor. Because they want the middle class to go away. They get in the way. The rich people want poor people to stay alive so they can exploit them. So we have a healthcare system that is, in fact, the greatest healthcare system in the world if you have it, but you’re only allowed to have it if you either have a lot of money or no money.”

“But,” I asked, “if you’re an expat and have been living in London for a few years, how can they totally know what you have? You may have money salted away.”

“You wanna know the beauty of it?” said Andrew. “They just ask you how much money you make. You need no documents of any kind.

“By the end of my London experience, I had twitching eye muscles, my neck felt like it was pulling itself apart. I didn’t know if I was having a nervous breakdown or something was wrong with me. I went to Whitechapel Hospital and they said Huh. You’re alright! It went on for months. They didn’t care. It was not an emergency as far as they were concerned.

“So I went back to the States and started searching out the answers and, over a period of more than a year, it led me to more horrible questions.”

“You were able to search out the answers for free on healthcare as well?” I asked.

“You know what it was like when I got back to the States and had access to healthcare? It was like winning one of those competitions where you get to run through a supermarket with a giant cart and put as much as you can into it as you possibly can. I’ll take a foot doctor! And here’s a cardiac specialist! And you end up with a cart that’s just full of all these guys in white coats with various specialties, brandishing their diplomas.

“I looked up all my doctors online before I chose them. There are these great websites in the States where people go online and they comment on the doctors. They give the doctor stars like he was an Edinburgh Fringe show and they write their reviews.”

“So how did you choose which doctor to go with? You went on the number of stars?”

“Yes! It’s exactly the same as in Edinburgh!”

“I want to become an American citizen,” I laughed. “Do you get financial support once you’re out of hospital?”

“No. I was out of the hospital four days after they buzz-sawed me in two.”

“So, basically,” I said, “they do it all for free but then don’t help you support yourself when you’re recovering?”

“Well, you know what?” said Andrew. “The surgeon told me – and this is one of the top one percent of cardiothoracic surgeons in the United States – he told me, You know, when you get out, you’re going to do various things and some of them might hurt and, if it hurts… don’t do it. He didn’t realise he was saying the oldest, purest medical joke in the world!”

“Have you been performing comedy in America?”

“I haven’t been doing anything! I’m a patient! I’m a professional patient!”

“Have you got a fallback place to stay in New York?”

“In the 1950s, my grandfather, a very forward-thinking man, bought a large number of cemetary plots for the family. It was a steal, he told us. You know how much it costs to buy a  piece of cemetary land?

“So there have been difficult periods of my life where my domestic circumstances would have been better if I were dead rather than alive. I should have been able to live on my cemetary plot. It’s my land! Why can’t I live on my land? I’ve lived in smaller spaces in New York.”

“This is how big?” I asked. “A bit of ground maybe seven feet by four?”

“I own whatever the amount of space is that they need to allow you to be dead. I should pitch a tent there! Who would I be hurting? Who am I going to disturb? It’s beautiful greenery and I know the people there; close relatives everywhere I turn. And yet I’m told I can’t stay there unless I’m dead and what good does it do me then? It’s in New Jersey. It’s suburban. I would be a squire. What kind of free market laissez faire capitalist country is it where a man can own a plot of land and can’t place his weary bones there unless his bones are past the point of all weariness?”

“Well, you should do it,” I told Andrew. “I think you should go and pitch a tent there for the next nine months and that could be the subject of your Fringe show next year.”

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Gay American comic would steal babies

Mike Player: the shock of the funny gays revealed in the US

(This was also published on the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

The 5th annual Outlaugh Comedy Festival – America’s first gay and lesbian comedy festival – is currently being held in Los Angeles and lasts for another two weeks.

Mike Player wrote the book Out on the Edge: America’s Rebel Comics. He created and organises the Outlaugh Festival.

I asked him how and why it started.

“I lost my mind,” he told me, “which is the only way to get anything done in the U.S. At the time, America had no national queer comedy festival and we (the comedians) were all tired of things like Gay Tuesday Night at Mongo’s Steakhouse. We wanted something that actually meant something.”

I have been to Los Angeles but not San Francisco. I think of the West Coast as being fairly laissez-faire and (in the British use of the word) liberal, but Mike tells me is was not easy for gay comedians even eight years ago:

“In 2004, my comedy group, The Gay Mafia, got kicked out of a club in Hollywood. We were doing a sketch where two retired Navy SEALs were getting married. The straight club owner had a brother who had died in Iraq and he said that portraying Navy SEALs as gay was deeply offensive to him and that he would pull the light cords out if we did the sketch. So, naturally, we did the sketch. We sold out the house and he was too busy helping sell drinks at his bar to pull the plug. But he kicked us out afterwards.”

So gay comedy was not totally accepted even eight years ago?

“I can tell you,” Mike says, “that The Gay Mafia, was reviewed by the LA Weekly without them mentioning that anything we did in the show had any gay content or that the show was gay at all. I heard the reviewer only showed up for the free meal.

“But,” Mike admits, “there was no real resistance to the idea of starting a gay comedy festival. No-one resisted except, oddly, the queer TV and film companies, though we conquered them in the end. The place you find the haters hating Outlaugh is on Netflix where they write homophobic reviews of our movie and TV show.”

Because the even more admirable thing – to me – is that Mike managed to get a movie made about the first Outlaugh and then an 8-part TV series The Outlaugh Festival on Wisecrack. I asked him How come?

“I financed the movie with my own money,” he told me, “which is amazing because I didn’t have any money! But it made all its investment back. With the TV show, for once, I was in the right place at the right time. We had Margaret Cho hanging out with The Gay Mafia and everyone in America worships celebrity more than Jesus. All you have to do is spoon cat food onto a dish in a commercial and people will treat you like you captain a spaceship.

“I was on a conference call with the folks at MTV’s LOGO network and Margaret Cho and my production company associates and we all listened in sad horror while a network executive sniveled and begged Margaret to do anything and be on any shows in addition to Outlaugh.”

“During the production of our TV series Outlaugh Festival on Wisecrack, conference calls happened every day with the production company I worked with, myself as the artistic director, the network and what they call ‘listeners’ who are opportunistic network assistants who actually spy on conversations for some network reason – probably to take over the country. LOGO and other networks have to hear a celebrity commit to a project to prevent celebs from backing out. People have to sign agreements and swear on the Bible – or just the parts that don’t condemn gays.

“Just like straight people, though, queer people in entertainment are mostly out for themselves. In TV and film, it’s all about whose project something is, rather than the merit of the project. I had film people and TV ‘suits’ fighting over who should get credit over what, more than how to make the idea of Outlaugh good. I had to make sure Outlaugh was good myself.”

Even today, Mike tells me, gay comedy in the US is not totally acceptable.

“A lot of the comedy clubs out here,” he says, “have ‘gay nights’ on non-weekend nights and many advertise the comedians as Some Gay and Some Not to get people to attend. I think that’s bullshit. Imagine advertising a ‘black comedy night’ with Some Black and Some Not. There is a sentiment which is fading away that ‘gay comedy’ is not accessible to everyone. Again, bullshit.”

In my British Islander ignorance, I think of San Francisco as being more gay and Los Angeles less so, but Mike tells me I am wrong:

“LA is actually gayer,” he says. “There is more gay theatre and comedy going on here than in San Francisco. I think because all the closet cases finally came out and because it’s chic to be gay now. I wish John Travolta would realize that.”

Inbrook, the New York based entertainment company for which I am a UK consultant, is in discussion about bringing Outlaugh to Britain.

Mike says: “I would steal babies for that to happen!”

“But,” I asked him, playing devil’s advocate: “why should the UK have a gay comedy festival? Isn’t that ghetto-ising gays?”

“No,” he argues. “It’s centralizing gays. There are gay film festivals and gay pride festivals and gay political organizations. Comedy is another major art form that we can rally around to tell our stories and assert our outrage.”

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