Of course not all modern “serious” music is like Cage. Among the more welcome musical developments of the modern era is minimalism, the repertoire of which we are currently exploring. The genealogy of minimalism is peculiarly contemporary in contrast to its predecessors which grew up in such institutions as the court and the church. The earliest examples of minimalism were conceived on the university campuses of the post-war generation, before the movement found its role as a rearguard against the advances of the tuneless post-modernism of Cage and Stockhausen. That such music has ceased to be fashionable owes much to the success of minimalism in rediscovering such pure and simple virtues as harmony and structure. For, seen in its proper place, minimalism is a reaction, and a very welcome one at that. It is recognisably modern but respectful of the lessons of the old masters rather than childishly rebellious against them, and most of the best twenty-first century art music acknowledges its influence.
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.