Water Walking and Bicycle Blowing (part 1)

Most of you are probably already familiar with the following videos:

(The remainder of Zappa’s performance can be found here.) These videos have made the rounds numerous times over the years, but I don’t know if anyone’s ever looked into any possible connections between Cage and Zappa. To me, these two performances and their respective contexts are too similar to be coincidental. I think it’s very likely that Zappa saw Cage’s appearance on television and modeled his own performance on it. Even if there isn’t such a direct connection between the two videos, I think it’s more than likely that Zappa at least had some of Cage’s theory in mind.

I think there’s a lot to say here, so I’ll limit my discussion here to a little background info on the two videos. I’ll follow up in a second post with a brief analysis of Zappa’s discourse regarding Cage.

The first video shows John Cage in his February 24, 1960 appearance on the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret. Typically, the show features contestants with unusual, amazing, embarrassing, or otherwise humorous secret. A panel tries to guess their secret using only yes/no questions. The host, Garry Moore, considered Cage’s secret–

I’m going to perform one of my musical compositions … The ‘instruments’ I will use are: a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, 2 cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a seltzer siphon, 5 radios, a bathtub, and a grand piano.

–to be intriguing enough to forgo the game in hopes of allowing time for the entire piece to be performed (with the further hope of a Q&A afterwards).

water walk 1

Floorplan for Cage’s Water Walk [1]

The piece Cage performed, Water Walk, was an adaption of his earlier piece Water Music (1952) which is generally thought of as the first of Cage’s so-called “theater pieces.” Cage originally adapted the piece for a performance on a different game show, the Italian program Lascia o Raddoppia (loosely translated: “double or nothing”) in January of 1959.


John Cage on Lascia o Raddoppia with host Mike Buongiorno

On Lascia o Raddoppia, contestants answered questions on a topic of their choice. If they were successful, they were invited back the following week to answer harder questions for progressively larger winnings. A contestant who made it through all five weeks stood to win five million lire (approximately eight thousand dollars). Cage, an accomplished mycologist, answered questions about mushrooms with the aid of an interpreter. Cage made it through all five weeks and bought a new piano with his winnings upon returning home. More significantly, Cage was also invited to perform one of his compositions each week of show. Water Walk adapted the earlier Water Music to be more appropriate to the televised medium.

water walk 2

Detail of the score for Water Walk [2]

Compared to Water Music, Water Walk is much simpler. Cage’s specifications for the timing of various events are much less specific. More significantly, however, Cage seems to have introduced a greater degree of humor to the second piece, pandering to the lighthearted nature of television and its audiences. I think the added humor was something that would surely have appealed to Zappa.

(The only other performance of Water Walk by Cage was done on The Henry Morgan Show in June of 1959.)

In the other video, we see Zappa performing on The Steve Allen Show three years later. Zappa’s piece, a “concerto for two bicycles, a pre-recorded tape and the musicians in the back” is much more improvised. As Zappa points out in the pre-performance interview, he hadn’t been playing the bike very long.

Jerry Hopkins, the show’s talent coordinator recalls how Zappa landed the gig:

The rules for my job were simple. Get someone who was genuinely eccentric or who did something at least a little strange or out-of-the-ordinary, but never make fun of them—the idea was to have fun with them. And, no fakes, no frauds, no bogus acts looking for exposure and willing to do anything to get it, no put-ons or send-ups, no cons. Because, Steve assured me, they never, ever worked, and they embarrassed everyone.

Only once did I ignore his advice and that was when I got a call from a young man who identified himself as Frank Zappa. He said he wanted to teach Steve how to “blow bicycle.” “Blow bicycle,” I repeated.

“Yeah, you know, like, the bicycle is a musical instrument.”

(You can read the rest of Hopkins’ account here.)

Zappa’s performance even got a write up in a local Cucamonga newspaper:

“Ontario Composer, Steve Allen To Play Wacky Duet”

Frank Zappa, 22, Ontario resident and composer of music, serious and otherwise, will be seen on television tomorrow night playing a bicycle concerto for two with Steve Allen. The show is at 11 p.m., Channel 5. “It’s very funny,” said Zappa. “You play a bicycle by plucking the spokes and blowing through the handle bars.” Other methods of producing “cyclophony” is to stroke the spokes with the bow of a bass fiddle, twirl the pedals and let air out of the tires. The Zappa-Allen concerto will be abetted by a man in the control room fooling around with a tape recorder and by a jazz group which will supply toneless background noise. Zappa studied music and art at Chaffey College. He wrote the score for “The World’s Greatest Sinner,” a low-budget tale about a sacrilegious imposter who repents. “Sinner” had its premiere at Vista-Continental Theater, Hollywood, and opened Wednesday at the Ken Theater, San Diego. Zappa writes musical commercials for TV and radio. They are recorded at Pal Studio, Cucamonga. [3]

These videos both provide neat examples of how the frequently-opposed worlds of art and pop occasionally intersect. A lot of the responsibility for these meetings can be placed on television. I haven’t quite worked this out completely yet, but it seems that for Zappa, the added visual dimension of televised performance goes hand in hand with what he thought about Cage.

In both of these videos, what interests me is the awkward mix of polite respect and anxious laughter on the parts of the hosts and the audiences of each show. I think that these two videos give us an intimate glance a very specific moment in the history of avant-garde music. Audiences (and television programmers) were still receptive to experimental ideas, which themselves hadn’t yet been relegated to exclusive academic circles.

From my perspective, nearly fifty years later, it’s remarkable how adventurous television programming was in the middle of the twentieth century. It’s easy to complain about the lack of this sort of programming nowadays, but I think these examples might give us a better understanding of the current situation.

[1] Taken from William Fetterman, John Cage’s Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996), 33.
[2] Ibid., 35.
[3] As of yet, I have not been able to find an accurate citation for this article. Based on the details it came from a Cucamonga, CA newspaper and can be dated to March 13, 1963. A transcription of the text can be found here.
Water Walking and Bicycle Blowing (part 1)