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John Cage, Game Show Contestant

Until my last post, on Julia Wolfe—the undervalued also-ran for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music composition—I had never done much to remind myself of Garry Moore. I was describing an anonymous, home-made YouTube video set to Wolfe’s richly textured short piece, “Lick,” and I pointed out how easy it is to pigeonhole Wolfe as Cagean. Then I made a wiseass crack: “Whatever. I like the music.” Apart from the lame use of “whatever,” which no one in real life has used sacrastically since 1994, I should have done better than to use the subject of John Cage and his music to make a snarky joke. What I was trying to get at was the danger in facile categorization of everything that employs seemingly disparate elements in apparently random ways as Cagean; it’s like calling every TV show since Seinfeld Kafkaesque. Cage was too often taken as nothing more than a joke, especially in his early years, though he was more than willing to conspire with his mockers for exposure. He was also too often taken too seriously, especially in his final years, when he was largely denied the privilege of laughing at himself. The equinox of those two periods occurred on an evening fifty years ago, in January 1960, when Cage appeared on “I’ve Got a Secret,” the TV game show in which a panel of minor celebrities made light play of trying to guess the special talent or other hidden attribute of an unnamed guest on the program. In a show produced a decade after Cage emerged in the vanguard of process music, Moore introduces him as “probably the most controversial figure in the music world today.” Moore misstates the name of Cage’s New School class as one in “experimental sound,” and Cage is quick to correct the term as “experimental music”—not so much to distinguish between sound and music but to uphold his authority to define music as whatever sound he chose to call music. Moore does a fine job of circus ringleading and mock diplomacy, instigating the crowd’s aesthetic bloodlust while making a show of obligatory graciousness to his guest. The studio audience giggles, as it is expected to (indeed, as Moore prompts it to) at the sight of everyday objects—things from the home, things women use!—being employed to make sounds that this soft-spoken fellow appears to take seriously. Although Moore dispenses with the whole guessing-the-secret segment of the program, the proceedings remain a game show, a show of game-playing by both Cage and an audience who understands that in mutual exploitation, everybody wins.

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