The silence is deceptive: Cage Against the Machine

It’s a very curious moment. The first phase of the new youth rebellion (for there will soon be another) is winding down, the whole country is frozen over, yesterday’s snow lies on the ground, and here in Putney—like the days after the Icelandic volcano—no planes in the sky under the flight path into Heathrow. In short, blissfully quiet. But the silence is deceptive.

Enter Cage Against The Machine, a ‘campaign to put John Cage’s infamous silent piece, 4’33’, on top of the Christmas charts’—like Rage Against the Machine last year—’and to consign whatever X-Factor effort Simon Cowell chooses to unleash…to mid-chart mediocrity’ (in the words of the music presenter Tom Service, who provides a link to an orchestral version). This episode strikes me as bizarre—a notorious avant garde provocation from more than half a century ago, the absolute negation of pop music, challenging for the pop charts? Even more so when you discover that the Facebook campaign has more than 93,000 likes.

It’s going to be tough, because it’s up against Captain Ska’s Liar Liar, which I mentioned a little while ago as perhaps my favourite among the new spate of agitational videos to have appeared on the web in the last weeks. But the fact that Cage is there at all is extraordinary, and a token of strange rumblings going on under the surface of consumerism.

Liar Liar is a vibrant anthem for the protest movement that has exploded into action over the last few weeks. Cage Against The Machine (check it out on Facebook here, the campaign blog, and blog posts like this one) is a protest against the inanity of one particular programme, but speaks volumes about the cultural angst that also feeds into the wider protest movement. In short, a manifestion of burgeoning dissatisfaction with the values of consumerism—both its tax avoidance and its manipulative practices. Big business has put big store by mastering the dark arts of viral marketing, but both these chart challengers, brimming with the creativity and imagination of a new generation of digital cultural producers, represent something else in their instinct for the internet swarm, which collects interactively beneath the radar of the mainstream media.

Here’s the Guardian video of the recording session of Cage Against The Machine. It’s quite surreal. Some of the musicians crammed into the studio have brought the instruments which they’re not going to play, others are participating by mobile telephone. Some look serious, others jiggle to an internal rhythm, or sway together in a group. You have to watch (and listen) right through to get the full sense of paradox. You have to interrupt your life with the silence which isn’t silent. When 4’33’ was first given in 1952 at Bard College, the sonic background was the woods in the valley below the Catskill Mountains. When I heard it given by David Tudor in London once, it was the fidgeting of the audience and the creaking of the old theatre. When you watch the version given here, it’s mostly system noise. But it’s the system noise behind the system noise which we’re really invited to listen to. You then begin to wonder what other sounds might be heard if you could turn all the system noises off, and what other music you would then begin to hear.

Cage later wrote how he was inspired by experiencing an anechoic chamber, which he entered ‘not expecting in that silent room to hear two sounds: one high, my nervous system in operation, one low, my blood in circulation. The reason I did not expect to hear those two sounds was that they were set into vibration without any intention on my part…. I found out that silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around. I devoted my music to it. My work became an exploration of non-intention.’ But there’s also another side to it. Service says that ‘according to Kyle Gann’s recent book on 4’33”, Cage may have conceived the idea…as a reaction to a postwar urban America and its near-constant soundtrack of muzak.’ He had ‘cut out an article from the New York Post, which imagines a jukebox with silent singles, giving people the chance to escape the tyranny of continual aural bombardment.’

At all events, I think Cage would be delighted to find himself being taken up in this way, and would approve the anarchist spirit of such digital happenings. So here’s my own tribute, from a film I made almost forty years ago (so help me) in which Robin Ray reads Cage’s performance essay, ‘How to improve the world (you’ll only make matters worse)’:

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