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John Cage, ‘Water Walk’, and Tiny Desks: Visual Comedy in Serious Music


Composed for Solo Television performer, and incorporating bath tubs, kettles, mechanical fish, and a grand piano, a remarkable recording exists of Cage’s ‘Water Walk’, given by the man himself on the 1960s American panel show ‘I’ve Got a Secret’.  It’s an absurd scene, made all the more surreal through the postponement of the game-show element of the programme, and the clearing of desks from the stage, in order to air an unrestricted, complete rendition of the composition.
However, one of the most striking moments of the segment, is when Cage is questioned as to whether he would permit laughter from the studio audience during his performance.

Dead-pan with his delivery, Cage replies ‘Of course; I consider laughter preferable to tears’.

The comedian (and Cage-enthusiast) Stewart Lee explains how the performance invites two kinds of laughter – ‘the sort of uncomprehending, Philistine scorn with which avant-garde activity has so often been greeted on its interfaces with mass audiences, but also a genuine and intended joy at a performance which is intended to be as non-serious as it is serious.’  (See Lee’s article and Cage clip)

This playfulness often seems to attach itself to music made by whimsical methods, and it’s a tone I’ve sought in The Tiny Desk Songbook – a collection of pieces for eight performers sat at individual wooden desks, who make use of party poppers, melody pops, spinning coins and pocket synthesisers during the 45 minute performance.

Much of the material derives from choices made by the performers at the start of the collection – each chooses a popular love-song, the characteristics of which influence tempo, melody, rhythm and timbre across the experimental collection, while the explicit articulation of these songs (delivered on portable cassette players) bookends the suite with pangs of affectionate nostalgia.

The recording of ‘A Sketching Song’ is hyperlinked below – a piece in which sounds are drawn with pens and paper by the performers, each of whom has a minor-tonality blues harmonica hanging from their mouth.


One response to “John Cage, ‘Water Walk’, and Tiny Desks: Visual Comedy in Serious Music”

  1. Bill Brooks says:

    The Cage video is also a remarkable instance of the complex relationships between institutions (CBS), unions (electricians and stagehands), and art (Water Walk): a union dispute regarding who should plug in the radios, which CBS is not going to touch in that era of strong unions is translated into an alteration of the score — which, some might argue, is an improvement. Oh, for the days when unions meant something, and new solutions therefore were required!

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About the author

Aaron is an MA composer currently working under the supervision of Roger Marsh. His most recent work explores unconventional instrumentation, and has been underpinned by the dialogue between organised music and indeterminate sounds. His musical language makes use of anything minute, infirm or tactile. He has previously studied music with the British contemporary-composer Matthew Bourne,…

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