I first performed John Cage’s Water Music (1952) in November, 1988 at the University of Maryland, College Park, and it was quite problematic to prepare.
The score calls for a duck whistle, a water warbler, and a siren whistle. I assumed that the water warbler was a bird call. (By the way, Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, which I was learning at the time, contains the sounds of nine varieties of warblers.)
My father-in-law loaned me what he thought was a duck call, but he wasn’t familiar with the water warbler. I looked up warbler in the encyclopedia, and it said that the warbler is primarily an Old World bird. I got worried. I remembered that in another piece Cage had made use of a cactus that could only be found in a specific region of Mexico.
My father-in-law suggested I call a hunting store in Gaithersburg, Maryland that would have lots of calls (ask for calls, not whistles). I called the store and asked about duck and water warbler calls. They had goose calls, and volunteered to loan me ten duck calls if I could return them after the performance. They hadn’t heard of a water warbler call. Why don’t you telephone the Audubon Society?
I called the Audubon Society number in Washington D.C. and explained that I needed to find a water warbler call. I was put on hold. Eventually someone answered and said that the office in Washington only did lobbying and that I had to call New York.
I called the New York number of the Audubon Society and spoke to a Mrs. Stevenson. She said that she had never heard of a water warbler, but that there were 30 other varieties of warblers in North America. Could I find out more about the bird? In the meantime, she would do some research for me.
I decided I’d better call John Cage. His assistant Laura Kuhn answered and said that John was away (Harvard lecture). I explained my problem and asked if she knew what a water warbler was. She said that she thought it was a plastic whistle, not a bird call, and suggested that I call Don Gillespie at C.F. Peters, who might know more about it.
I reached Don Gillespie in New York, and he said that, yes, it’s a plastic whistle that one fills with water. He said that he had found one in a Chinese store on Canal Street. He made me more worried than ever — I lived four hours from New York and had never heard of Canal Street.
When I hung up the phone it rang again. It was Mrs. Stevenson from the Audubon Society. She told me that the bird I was looking for was almost certainly the northern waterthrush, which was actually a member of the warbler family. I couldn’t bear to tell her that the water warbler wasn’t the northern waterthrush, it was a plastic whistle. Mrs. Stevenson proceeded to tell me a great deal about the northern waterthrush, including its markings, habitat, geographic distribution, call, and other information. I thanked her for letting me know.
I went to every toy, hobby, craft, and five-and-dime store I could think of. I couldn’t find a water warbler. Finally I talked to Tom DeLio in Washington, D.C. He said, call Stuart Smith — he has all sorts of things.