Magnetic North Blog

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The sound of silence

Most people will have heard by now about the campaign to get John Cage’s 4’33” to be the Christmas no.1 single ahead of the X Factor winner.  Last year a similar campaign managed to unsettle Simon Cowell’s plans by getting an old track by Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas top spot and this year’s campaign has honoured this by calling itself Cage Against the Machine.  As a friend of mine tweeted yesterday “we have to make this happen, it’ll be the best thing ever!” and I share his enthusiasm for a number of reasons. First of all, what on earth will they do on the chart countdown?  Radio silence is anathema to broadcasters as it means that anyone who turns on during it will re-tune on the assumption that the station is down.  Secondly, I share a dislike for Simon Cowell’s apparent mechanisation of the music process – popular music has of course always been susceptible to a purely business-led approach (and the results have sometimes been great) - but I get the feeling that he does music because that’s where he sees the greatest financial returns are possible rather than because he feels any great need to produce great music.   It seems that it could just as well be films, widgets or software if any of those thing had the same potential for cross-market selling.

But the main reason is that it’ll bring an iconic and very important work of art into the mainstream.  Conceptually, 4’33” is as important as Duchamp’s Fountain, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in its gamechanging importance.  Like all of those works of art, Cage’s piece changed the way people thought about art; similarly it attracted criticism along the lines of “I could have done that”.  To which the obvious response is “well maybe you could have done, but you didn’t”.  4’33” can initially appear rather crass, but like all great art, the strength of both the idea that underpins it and its execution shine through.  Before Cage wrote “Tacet” and nothing more on a piece of manuscript paper, silence had been a punctuation – the thing around which music was formed – but Cage’s brilliant idea was to show us that there is actually no such thing as silence, only less noise.  If you sit for 4’33” and listen you discover that the world is full of sound, but we rarely give ourselves the opportunity to really listen to it.

In a sense, 4’33” has finally come of age – we are now so surrounded by activity that the opportunity to just stop and take time (even if it is less than 5 minutes) to just be is a gift in itself.  For that alone, Cage deserves this unusual accolade.