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.