Is it time to give John Cage a rest?
It will come as no surprise for regular readers to hear that the X Factor is further off my personal radar than Norman Lebrecht's blog. But last night, courtesy of our daughter, I sampled TV's most influential music show. Which brings me to a topic that has so far been conspicuously absent from this blog.
Cage Against the Machine is a Facebook-driven project which involves an anti-X Factor supergroup trying to hit the Christmas UK number one chart spot with a variation on John Cage's silent 4" 33". Practically every aspect pushes Overgrown Path hot buttons - all the musicians are free thinkers and they include Imogen Heap who featured here in a recent Aldeburgh post, Cage Against the Machine is being released on independent label Wall of Sound, and proceeds are going to deserving charities including several connected with music. Plus, of course, the online buzz about the project is raising John Cage's profile among young people. So I honestly wish I felt more enthusiastic about Cage Against the Machine.
But, for me, there are two problems. First, I totally agree that the X Factor is no more than a slick media stunt created for commercial gain. But Cage Against the Machine is also a slick media stunt, albeit created for laudable non-commercial gain. And, as regular readers will know, I have an aversion to slick media stunts, whatever their objectives. Particularly when they depend for success on a Facebook flash mob.
Secondly, I had been thinking for some time before this project surfaced that it is time to give John Cage a rest. There is no dispute about Cage's genius or about his contribution to contemporary music. But, and this links to my recent Oulipian thread, I was already starting to feel that Cage was being featured too frequently, both on this blog and elsewhere. And that he was being featured at the expense of other important but less media friendly figures. It was also clear that if I, or others, wanted a whacky and alternative slant on a musical topic it was too easy to gently massage part of Cage's copious output, both verbal and musical, to fit the slot, sometimes quite inappropriately. Yes, it would be fantastic if more young people engage with John Cage as a result of this anti-X Factor protest. But I have searched in vain for links from Cage Against the Machine sites to other Cage resources or music. But there are plenty of misleading bites; for example the BBC News website seen above describes 4' 33" as " the sound of an orchestra not playing".
It can be argued that John Cage turned the media stunt into an art form, or was it vice versa? And I do not dispute that Cage Against the Machine is a very deserving media stunt. Call me a killjoy if you will, but we should heed the words of another media savvy musician. It was Pierre Boulez who warned "Cult always kills the man at the centre".
* More on the sounds of silence here and on the X Factor here.
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