Tag Archives: composer

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

Less than six degrees of separation for Malcolm Hardee, Ridley Scott, Stevie Wonder, EdFringe and Apple iPhones

Paul Wiffen knows how to use Stevie Wonder’s thumb print

I am interested in the concept of six degrees of separation, because it is usually an overestimate.

I had a drink again yesterday with the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook, who is putting together a movie The Devil’s Dandruff, based on There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, the first of his three semi-autobiographical crime/drug trade novels.

He has now teamed up with Paul Wiffen who, like Jason, is what Hollywood calls a ‘hyphenate’.

He is a director-producer-composer-sound designer-performer and even, much to his own surprise, appearing in a cardigan in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

It turned out that Paul’s father was born in Chadwell Heath in Essex and Paul lives there now.

“That’s a coincidence,” I said.

It is the outer suburb of London where my parents briefly lived when my family first came down from Scotland. My teenage years were spent in nearby Seven Kings, where the perhaps one-mile long high road was lined almost entirely with second hand car dealers.

“This was,” I told Paul yesterday, “before the name John went out of fashion because of – I think – Alexei Sayle’s song Ullo John, Got a New Motor? making it a naff name.”

“That’s a coincidence,” Paul said. I was at school with Rik Mayall. I was in a school production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I was Rosencrantz; he was Guildenstern and we also did Waiting For Godot, but I wasn’t one of the two leads: I was the guy who comes on as the horse.”

When Paul left school and went to Oxford University, he joined the Oxford University Drama Group but found others were better at acting, so he concentrated on doing the music.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe,” he told me yesterday, “I was in this terrible po-faced Oxford production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. But, that same year, my friend Lindsay was musical director of a Cambridge Footlights’ comedy production at the Fringe which had Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery. Lindsay got food poisoning one night and I filled-in for three or four days.”

“Oh,” I asked. “Was Emma Thompson also performing at a venue called The Hole in The Ground that year?”

“I think she was,” Paul replied.

“Well that’s another coincidence, then,” I said. “I think that might have been the year when The Hole in the Ground had three tents in it – for Emma Thompson, The Greatest Show on Legs and American performance artist Eric Bogosian. My comedian chum Malcolm Hardee got pissed-off by the noise Eric Bogosian made during The Greatest Show on Legs’ performances – and Bogosian had made Emma Thompson cry – so Malcolm got a tractor and drove it, naked, through the middle of Bogosian’s show.”

While at Oxford, Paul also got an early taste of movie-making when he was an extra in the Oxford-shot ‘Harvard’ scenes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (the movie which destroyed United Artists).

“I was three behind Kirs Kristoffersen in the awards ceremony,” he told me, “but I was cut out of the ‘short’ version of Heaven’s Gate shown in Britain, so I have never actually seen myself in it!”

By 1982, after he graduated from Oxford University with a Master’s Degree in Languages, he shared a flat on the Goldhawk Road in West London.

“I went to some party that was a Who’s Who of early alternative comedy,” he told me, “and somebody introduced me to this rather chubby bloke saying: This is Alexei Sayle from Liverpool.

“I got on really well with him cos I grew up in Liverpool and he said: Oh, we’re doin’ a music video tomorrow morning in Goldhawk Road. Why don’t you come down. So I stood in the background on a car lot on the Goldhawk Road about three streets away from where I lived and watched them shoot Ullo John, Got a New Motor?

Later, Paul was involved in five Ridley Scott directed movies, the first as sound designer on the Blade Runner soundtrack composed by Vangelis. The gas explosions burning on the skyline are actually, Paul told me, slowed-down timpani “because explosions didn’t work.

“Most of the first three weeks on that project,” he said, “I had no idea what I was working on. There was super secrecy. I thought I was doing a Coca Cola advert. I wasn’t allowed in the main room to see what was being projected but, once, I looked through the door and saw this space ship floating across with Drink Coke on it. After three weeks, I realised Maybe even Coca Cola adverts don’t go on this long.

“Then I went on to another Vangelis soundtrack which was The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Roger Spottiswood. I didn’t do any work with Roger Spottiswood at all. On the final third of his pictures, Ridley Scott has the composer in the room with him – editor, composer, composer’s team and Ridley. Spottiswood wasn’t there.

“For The Bounty, we did the whole score on the 9th floor of the Hotel Pierre on Central Park in New York. Vengelis had the whole of the 9th floor because, he told me, he knew he would be making so much noise the hotel could not put anyone else on the 9th floor. It turned out the movie budget had also paid for every room on the 8th and the 10th floors as well, so Vengelis could compose the soundtrack on the 9th.

“The next time Vangelis called me was for a terrible Italian film called Francesco – the story of St Francis of Assisi with Mickey Rourke strangely cast as the saint. Vengelis always works evenings and nights, so we were there at 4 o’clock in the morning scoring this scene in which Mickey Rourke rolls bollock-naked in a snow drift – apparently St Francis used to assuage his natural urges by doing this. So we are sitting there watching Mickey Rourke rolling bollock-naked in slow motion in a snow drift and Vangelis turns to me and says: Sometimes, this is the best job in the world… but tonight it’s the fucking worst.”

That is a key scene in the planned movie which Paul hopes to make about Vangelis. He would direct the film and also play Vangelis.

“And he’s happy with that?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Paul, “I first suggested the idea to him about two years ago. The main thing is he wants anyone who plays him to be actually able to play the piano.

“The only other film I did with Vangelis was 1492: Conquest of Paradise. I was supposed to do some stuff on Alexander, but I ended up getting 30 seconds of my music in the film and nothing with Vangelis. I’ve done two other movies with Ridley, both with Hans Zimmer – Black Rain and Gladiator. I think I’ve done 17 films with Hans Zimmer.

“On Gladiator, I did a lot of the synthesizers behind Lisa Gerrard, who plays the zither and sings on that score. That was probably the longest project I’ve ever worked on: it was over a year.”

For the last four years, Paul has been developing a movie script with Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran: a feature film version of their New Statesman TV series with Rik Mayall.

“The plot,” says Paul, “is about how Alan B’stard is responsible for the credit crunch and all that money that’s disappeared – Alan’s got it all.”

Gran & Marks are also, says Paul, “developing their half-hour TV comedy drama Goodnight Sweetheart as a 90-minute stage musical”

Between 2001-2004, Paul told me, he “realised the music industry was dying on its feet and I wanted to get into the film industry. I reckoned the only job that could get me from one to the other was working for Apple computers.

“I did the first ever demonstration of an iPod in Europe. The original pre-release version of the iPod recorded sound, but Steve Jobs got so worried about the idea it might be used to bootleg concerts that they actually took the capabilities off the first iPod they released.

“As part of what I did for the next two years, I had to work on the beta versions of new products and they sent me through – in great secrecy – what they called ‘an audio and video recording iPod’. Do you know what that was?”

“What?” I asked.

“It was the iPhone. We just thought it recorded audio and shot video. It looked very similar to what it looks like now, but telephones weren’t that shape in those days. Another team was working on the telephone part of it.

“I pointed out to them that, when you scrolled, it took a long time to go through long lists because it stopped every time you took your finger off. I said, Why don’t you make it so, once you swipe your finger and lift it off, the menu keeps spinning like a globe of the world does if you spin it. So you can spin it and then put your finger on again to stop it where you want…. 2004 that was.”

“Great idea!” I said. “You should be working for Apple at Cupertino!”

“I lived in California from 1986 to 1992,” Paul replied, “and I told myself I’m only going back when I’m a famous film director.”

“Maybe The Devil’s Dandruff will be the one,” I told him.

Jason Cook smiled.

“If you want to get an American work visa,” Paul said to me, “do you know how to get one?”.

“Marriage?” I suggested.

“No,” said Paul. “You get Stevie Wonder to put his thumb print on the application and then they have to grant your work permit, otherwise they’re not allowed to keep the piece of paper with his thumb print. There are always people in the Immigration & Naturalization Service that are big Stevie Wonder fans.”

Paul worked for nine months doing ‘sound design’ on Stevie Wonder’s album Characters which had one hit single –  Skeletons – which was used in the limousine sequence of the movie Die Hard.

Movies, music, Malcolm Hardee, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Willis.

Six degrees of separation is usually an overestimate.

Or maybe Paul Wiffen just has his fingers in lots of pies.

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Filed under Coincidence, Comedy, Movies, Music

Twelve years ago today, in London, I met a fetish songwriter

Twelve years ago today, I went to the National Film Theatre to see a movie with a friend. Before going in to the auditorium, we looked at the NFT notice board where one ad started FETISH SONGWRITER….

I asked my friend: “What on earth’s a fetish songwriter?”

A man in his late-twenties or early thirties with a leathery face and sticky-up blond punk hair standing beside us said:

“I put that one up.”

He turned out to be someone who, with a friend, wrote and performed fetish songs in drag with props such as a bed of nails and fire.

He told us it took a few weeks to recover from each performance as they really did get burnt:

“I’ve got lots of scars under these clothes,” he told us, “and the bed of nails hurts too.”

He was very happy that he had managed to write a fetishistic version of the Lord’s Prayer and felt that, being realistic, he and his friend (who call themselves Erotica Daist – not Dadaist) should be able to make some impact on the media within six weeks.

That was twelve years ago.

Times don’t change.

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Filed under Eccentrics, Music, Sex, Theatre