The sound of “silence”


One good thing about watching yesterday’s recording of John Cage’s 4’33” by the motley, X-Factor-spiking supergroup Cage Against the Machine (including members of Madness, Orbital, UNKLE and the Kooks) was that it allowed time for contemplation, which in my case led to ambivalence. Given that what the world’s most famous avant-garde composition has been dividing audiences since 1952, maybe this is to be expected.

The most common criticisms I’ve seen on Twitter don’t carry much weight. Elitists mocking the tastes of the pop-loving citizenry? Not really. Simon Cowell’s creations transformed the Christmas number one from contest to coronation years ago — let’s not pretend that X-Factor’s festive offerings get where they do because they are life-affirming classics. One can love chart pop and still find the X-Factor a suffocating drag.

That joke isn’t funny anymore after last year’s Rage Against the Machine stunt? OK, in the case of songs in rival Facebook campaigns like the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird (or, God help us, Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’), but CATM is almost the deliberate inverse of RATM — quiet and elusive where Killing in the Name was loud and furiously direct. I admire the conceptual wit and simplicity of the exercise: what purer way to express dissent than to pay not for a song but for an idea?

But does it travesty Cage’s intentions? One reason he waited years to bring the idea to fruition was because “I didn’t wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do or as a joke. I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it.” Inevitably, CATM makes it into a joke: even silence is better than The X-Factor, ho ho. But if you watch the video of the recording, and hear the coughing and shuffling and studio hum, you get Cage’s point anyway: “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.” The Rest Is Noise author Alex Ross, who recently wrote about Cage and 4’33” for the New Yorker, thinks the message gets across, as does the Guardian’s classical music critic Tom Service. And, y’know, it’s for charity.

It’s just the timing that bothers me. Now that street-level dissent is finally resurgent, I wonder why a TV talent show is still the only force villainous enough to mobilise mass protest at the intersection of music and social media. And given the national mood, I would rather have Rage’s explosive ire this year than Cage’s Buddhist calm.

Fela Kuti once boasted: “I play music as a weapon”. Well, CATM turns 4’33” into an unlikely weapon, but music that protests only against other music is a hall of mirrors. The RATM campaign did its limited job. Maybe CATM will do likewise, and it will be worth it to make the charts feel stranger, to introduce some people to Cage, to raise some cash for charity and to aggravate Simon Cowell. But please, Facebook wags, let this year be the last.

Note 1: The absence of music can be satirical: Orbital, who appear on CATM, once released four minutes of silence under the title Criminal Justice Bill? as a comment on the Tory government’s mid-90s crackdown on free parties.

Note 2: Some of the participants in the CATM video start swaying in mockery of the cheesy superstar bonhomie that’s been a staple of charity singles since Band Aid, which made me laugh at first, and then made me wonder if ironic distance is the best we can manage.


  1. I’m all for giving Cowell a run for his millions, but my problem is this: people paid for RATM because either they’d forgotten what a great track it was, or were hearing it for the first time and loved the anarchic message.

    As a student and not particularly bothered by the X Factor ‘machine’ (or Christmas number one, for that matter), I am not paying for a few minutes of silence – shuffling, coughing and all. It is a waste of money. At least show people that there is something better than third-rate people singing covers, if there is. I haven’t exactly heard millions of worthy contenders over the past few years…

  2. I think the big point here is ”why a TV talent show is still the only force villainous enough to mobilise mass protest at the intersection of music and social media.”

    With everything going on in the world, in the country, in our neighborhoods..actual hardship for real people …. what bothers us is who tops the pop charts at Christmas? (I was going to say ”what bothers us most”, but other issues are burning on twitter, too – The Apprentice, I’m A Celebrity, the Coronation tram crash….)

    Protesting injustice in the real world has given way to preoccupation with how we distract ourselves from it. (Or something half-ass clever like that)

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