Sunday, 19 September 2010

4'33" – Please Take it Seriously

I've been following with interest the facebook campaign "JOHN CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010". On some levels, it is a great idea, although I struggle to understand why so many music enthusiasts care about the domination of the pop charts by a TV talent show.

4'33" would seem to be the ideal vehicle for the protest, after last year's successful campaign to topple the latest X Factor winner and replace them with 'Killing in the Name', they no longer need to scream 'Fuck you I won't do what you tell me' at Simon Cowell. This more demure protest sends the same message, but with a menacing veneer of passive aggression.

Successful or not, the campaign is certainty going to bring Cage's masterpiece under the spotlight, but how is the work itself going to fare? If you go to the campaign facebook page and look at the responses from group members to the various announcements, you'll find a lot of this sort of thing:

     I downloaded it accidentally once. Well, it was 4'32" of silence, but what's one second? 

     I can't hear anything.. is this some kind of joke? 

     makes an excellent ring-tone too...

But 4'33" is not silent. Cage's score stipulates that the performers refrain from making any deliberate noises, but those aren't the sort of noises he is interested in. Ambient sound is part of the work, as are the noises our circulation and nervous systems make, and even the sounds that we imagine when listen intently in a concert hall setting.

The sheer quantity of cultural context of the work is astonishing, and has recently become the subject of an entire book by Kyle Gann, appropriately entitled 'No Such Thing as Silence'. The 'blank' canvases of Robert Rauschenberg are an important precedent, while the Zen Buddhism that Cage was studying at the time even suggests a deep spiritual dimension to the work. And the significance of 4'33" on later music demonstrates its important cultural status. According to Paul Hegarty, the whole discipline of noise music, which admittedly isn't to everybody's taste, but which has pretty much defined the cutting edge of avant-garde electronica for decades, actually began with 4'33". 

Sure, John Cage was a bit of a joker, but he was making a serious point. Deadpan humour is an important part of the work, and most performances treat it as a send-up of the conventions of the recital hall. But there is much more to it than that. Fortunately, at least some of the facebookers get it, as the following interchange on the message boards demonstrates:

     Anyone ever read the emperor's new clothes?

     Have you ever read John Cage's book "Silence"? 

One last thought: when you type "JOHN CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010" into Google, it responds: "Did you mean JOHNNY CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010" What's that all about?

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