One of the most frequently narrated episodes about John Cage and his passion for mushrooms is certainly his participation at the Italian quiz show Lascia o raddoppia? in January 1959. The story is well documented in the johncage.it dedicated page both through written and visual testimonies.
Even though Cage was a composer of modern music, he was also a renowned mycologist. Cage himself liked to put together the words music and mushrooms, not only because they were alphabetically close terms in the dictionary, but because in his opinion they shared an intimate relationship.
In this article however, I’d like to have fun and demonstrate that there might be a tighter link between Cage and quiz shows.
Let’s push the fast-forward button from January 1959 and jump to January 1960. John Cage is the guest of I’ve got a secret, a popular American TV show where he is introduced as a music composer by the host, Garry Moore, in front of a yet-to-be-startled audience.
John Cage’s composer’s credentials were already quite respectable at that time, however as the list of instruments he would play for his performance scrolled on the screen (for the audience at home and in the studio) while he whispered it in the host’s ear, an inevitable laughter began to rise. Enough with words, the footage speaks for itself:
Interestingly the piece of music Cage performed on that occasion was Water Walk which he had premiered the year before in Italy during one of his appearances at Lascia o raddoppia?
In spite of numerous efforts to seek for it over the years, such Italian footage seems to have gone lost or destroyed, but the baffled expression on the face of the host, Mike Bongiorno, staring at the unusual network of devices connected to a piano set up by Cage for his composition, was captured in the most famous picture of the event:
Anyways, three years later, September 16 1963, it was John Cale and Karl Schenzer’s turn to be I’ve got a secret‘s guest contestants. The purpose of the show by the way, was to invite some guests and to have some experts question them about their secret (something funny, odd or hilarious which the audience was informed about beforehand) in order to reveal it. What was Cale and Schenzer’s? And how was Cage connected to it?
Apart from the the curious analogy between the names John Cale and John Cage, a week before the TV show was aired, Cage had organized the world premiere of Erik Satie’s Vexations: 840 repetitions of the same musical phrase that resulted in a concert that went on for more than eighteen hours. Twelve pianists alternated at the keyboard throughout the entire performance and John Cale (and yes, John Cale of The Velvet Underground by the way) was one of them. Only one spectator stayed for the duration of the whole concert and his name was Karl Schenzer. That was their shared secret. Here’s the clip from the tv show:
One more leap forward: 1979 and back to Italy. Twenty years after the last season of Lascia o raddoppia? Rai TV decided to celebrate this anniversary with a new series of episodes of its famous quiz show hosted again by Mike Bongiorno. The musicologist Alessandro Carrera took advatange of this opportunity to try to earn some money as he was in need of buying a car to commute to work.
Since he was an expert in the music field, he knew John Cage’s music, the story about him at the same quiz show and he hoped to repeat his success. Unlike Cage though Mr. Carrera slipped on a question (how many bassoons are featured in the orchestra of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), so his dream to buy a new car vanished [the anecdote is narrated in the essay Parabola per chi crede nel caso (Parabole for who believes in chance), by Alessandro Carrera, contained in the John Cage dedicated issue of Riga n°15, published by Marcos y Marcos, 1998].
Finally, let’s rewind the tape to August 1956. A young mailman with a great passion for contemporary music named Walter Marchetti – yes, the same Walter Marchetti who would later accompany and assist John Cage during many of his Italian adventurous experiences like the 1977 Empty Words in Milan or the 1978 prepared train in Bologna – ventured to gamble his expertise on the most popular TV show in Italy. Which one? Lascia o raddoppia? of course.
During five episodes, like Cage a few years later, Mr. Marchetti answered correctly to all the questions he was posed (about music by Hindemith, Milhaud, Dallapiccola, Berg among other modern composers, but not Cage) and eventually won the full jackpot as well as a ticket to the Venice Biennale to which he was invited after his successful appearances on tv.
The young Walter wasn’t aware yet then, but perhaps through his feat he unconsciously initiated the secret link between Cage and quiz shows.
(this article is dedicated to Walter Marchetti who died on May 12, 2015; besides his collaborations with John Cage, he gave an important contribution to new music)