Water Walk and Variations
John Cage's composition Imaginary Landscape No. 4 wasn't the end of his engagement with the use of radio as a sound source. In fact his imagination, now glowing like a hot tube, was just getting warmed up. I will turn to his next experiments shortly, but I wanted to dwell for a moment on his earliest radio work, that I overlooked in last month’s article. I had quite forgotten about Cage's involvement with the Boy Scouts in Los Angeles in the early 1920's . It was during this time period that his fascination with radio was sealed. His father had built a crystal set that could be plugged into an electric light system. For his effort it got his father listed in the city directory as a "radio engineer" though he had been more recently famous for his work on submarines. Cage sr. had invented parts and systems for subs that helped keep them level and also a system for running the engines on gasoline instead of batteries, which increased the speed of the subs. His father's flair for invention seemed to have been passed on to Cage jr. As a Tenderfoot in the Boy Scouts John got the idea of hosting a scouting program on the radio. First he obtained permission from his organization, and then he approached LA station KFWB who rejected his proposal. He next took his idea to KNX, and they gave the show the green light. It broadcast weekly on Friday afternoons. John at the time had considered himself destined to be in the ministry as his grandfather had been. As such he began each program with ten-minutes of oratory from a local religious person, be they minister, rabbi, or priest. The rest of the show was devoted to singing Scout songs over the air, sometimes with John accompanying his fellows on the piano. Other topics included such favorites as building fires and tying knots. KNX is still on the air on 1070 kHz in L.A. as one of the original clear channel stations, blasting a non-directional 50,000 watts. KNX had begun with a humble 5-watts when amateur Fred Christian put it on the air as 6ADZ. It was from these small beginnings, and his first taste of the airwaves, that he built on as a composer, presenter, experimenter, creating works for radio and incorporating radios themselves into a number of works.
After Imaginary Lanscape No. 4 Cage's next piece involving radio was written for a television program. His piece, Water Walk, lasts about three minutes and consists of many small actions relating to water. He timed each of his sound making actions to the precise second required by the score using a stop watch. Written for such fun sound making things as gong with water gun, and crushed ice in electric mixer, it also includes five radios and a piano. He stopped at the radios and adjusted frequency and volume, then released steam from a kettle, and plinked a few keys on the piano. Water Walk appeared live on television twice, first in 1959 in Milan, on the show Lascia o Raddoppia, an Italian version of the then popular Double or Nothing Game Show. Returning back home he got the chance to share it with American audiences on I've Got a Secret in 1960.
Six years down the road came Variations VII that was presented on two of the nights of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering that paired artists, musicians and performers with engineers from Bell Labs in presenting new works fusing technology to contemporary art practices. The 9 Evenings was the first in a series of projects that came to be known as E.A.T., or Experiments in Art and Technology. This was the first organized large scale collaboration between artists, engineers, and scientists. Some of the engineers included Max Mathews (whose work was included previously in this column), Bela Julesz, Billy Klüve, John Pierce, Manfred Schroeder, and Fred Waldhauer, alongside many others, around 30 in total. There were 10 artists involved including Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman. The collaboration between the artists and engineers produced a number of "firsts" for technology in the theater. Some were specially-designed systems and equipment. Others repurposed existing gear in innovative ways. Closed-circuit television and television projection was used on stage for the first time; an infrared television camera captured action in total darkness; a Doppler sonar device translated movement into sound; a fiber-optics camera picked up objects in a performer's pocket; and portable wireless FM transmitters and amplifiers transmitted speech and body sounds to loudspeakers. The performances took place between October 13-23, 1966 at New York's 69th Regiment Armory, at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street. Around 1000 people attended each evening.
The engineering side for Cage's piece was overseen by Cecil H. Coker whose primary area of focus was acoustic research, specializing in articulatory speech synthesis. Coker, with two colleagues, wrote the first software text-to-speech program in 1973. Coker had worked with Cage before on the piece Variations V helping to develop a system of for using photoelectric cells to provide lighting and randomly triggered sounds. Variations VII was considerably more involved though it still used photoelectric cells as a key component for triggering sounds.
In composing Variations VII, Cage used no previously prepared sources of music. It consisted only of "those sounds which are in that air at the moment of performance." Part of the elaborate set up included ten telephone lines installed to the Armory and kept open at various locations in New York City. Some of the places they were connected to included Luchow's restaurant, the Aviary, the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station, the ASPCA lost dog kennel, The New York Times press room, Merce Cunningham’s dance studio, and one next to fellow composer Terry Riley's turtle tank. Magnetic pickups on the telephone receivers fed these sound sources into Cage's sound manipulation system, and from there to a dozen loudspeakers, one ceiling speaker. He also used 20 radios, one tuned to the police department dispatch), 2 television bands, and 2 Geiger counters. Oscillators and a pulse generator were other sound sources. Rounding it all off were a dozen household appliances such as blenders, fans, a juicer, and washing machine, wired with contact microphones. If that wasn't enough sounds from four wired body parts, heart, brain, lungs and stomach were included in the unpredictable mix. The entire set up stood on a platform with equipment stretched across two long tables. Cage, David Tudor and three other musicians moved around between the rows twisting knobs, plugging and unplugging cords and circuits, and flipping switches. Adding further randomness to the mix were the 30 photocells and lights mounted at ankle level around the performance area. These activated and triggered different sound sources as the performers, and audience who came in close to watch, moved around the set up.
Video artist Naim June Paik compared the roaring noise of Variations VII to a Niagra Falls of sound. Nothing like it had ever been heard before. And since so many of the sounds came from live sound sources an exact sound replica can never be recreated. Paik also considered to be Cage's masterpiece performance in the realm of electronic music.
The Maker and Hacker movements have had a great success in continuing to build relationships between the technically minded and the artistically minded. Ham radio has different restrictions imposed on it by the FCC. However it seems to me that somehow Hams could still work in creative ways with artists and musicians, and continue to forge vital connections between art and technology.
Begin again: a biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2010.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin Press, New York, 2012.
Reception: the radio works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, by Alana Pagnutti, Smith and Brown, 2016.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.