Replacing One Machine with Another

Many readers will know about the recent campaign to have John Cage’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence elevated to the top of the charts for Christmas, as a rebuke to the power of X Factor and following on from Rage Against the Machine’s number one last year. In the end the campaign was a fairly emphatic failure, but it did raise some interesting issues. It is surely a noble endeavour to protest against the X Factor, a miserable excuse for entertainment and an enemy of both good music and good television. And while the programme’s success was hardly diminished by last year’s festive setback, the idea of such an enterprise is useful as an elegant reminder that the X Factor leviathan it is not in fact omnipotent.

However it must be doubted that the feted Cage was the correct vehicle for this year’s protest. For the post-modernist, ultra-conceptual school from which the Cage is drawn is as much anathema to real music as the X Factor. Cage and his followers claim that 4’ 33” is musical essentially because it provides listeners with the opportunity to create their own image of the music, and reach some profound conclusions about the interaction of music, silence and everyday sound. However it is hard to see how such an outcome is in Cage‘s gift; everyone who lives in a tolerably quiet house can ponder on the distinction between hearing silence and listening to it every night of their lives. The idea that Cage has done something audaciously novel is surely mythological. Indeed 4’ 33” is devoid of intellectual as well as artistic value. It is not hard to imagine an indolent music student who, having realised with horror the imminence of his composition deadline, conceives some silent concoction reinforced by a flimsy commentary explaining why his submission really does constitute music. But pure silence is not music; anyone possessed with minimal intuition is aware of this, and no amount of semantic sophism can make it otherwise. Yet 4’ 33” is also anti-musical in the more profound and damaging sense that it turns the public away from serious music into the alluring embrace of X Factor hooks which, for all their faults, are capable of providing some transient entertainment. Supporters of Cage rightly argue that there is so much more to music, and life, than pop and the X Factor. Yet if the alternative is Cage, why should anyone believe this? Little wonder that if Cage is the best competition to the X Factor that “Classical” music can muster, large numbers of popular music fans stick to what they know, leaving the genuine and vast treasures of the real Classical world tragically under-discovered and under-appreciated.

In truth it is not clear why real music fans should care less who has the Christmas number one. But perhaps that is beside the point. By all means rage against the machine; but please, don’t use such blunt weapons as Cage’s hollow, lifeless hymn to academic self-indulgence.

Merry Christmas and Happy 2011 to all our followers.

2 replies on “Replacing One Machine with Another”

4’33” is a piece in which the performer makes no sound. It is not intended as a silent piece, although it can be – depending on where it is performed. I think of it as an invitation to listen to the sounds around us as music. Others have had other ideas about the piece over the last 60 years, some of them quite silly. As a artistic work of high concept, it is indeed an intellectual tour de force.

On the other hand, to someone who is defending “serious music” and “the real Classical world” and is probably unable to think of “real” music beyond the concepts of schoolbook melody, harmony and rhythm, 4’33” must be quite threatening, since it has come to represent an entirely new way of conveying meaning through sound.

Thank you sir for your constructive insults (i.e. unable to think of music outside of the schoolbook). 4′ 33″ is more of a juvenile prank than an intellectual tour de force, and it is remarkable that anyone takes it seriously, or that the composer himself intended it to be taken seriously. Although, as you intimate, it is hard to describe as a “composer” someone who has so little control over performances of his work that he cannot prevent a piece of music not intended to be silent from so being. It is very kind of Cage to invite us to listen to the sounds around us as music, but we can do this without his invitation. A far more enduring intellectual achievement would surely be to create some music rather than invite us to concoct our own. Far greater composers than Cage could have done what he has done, but preferred instead to write something to which someone actually might want to listen in the future. This, presumably, is the point of the kind of “real music” which Cage’s efforts have, fortunately, so far failed to render an abstraction.