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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Philip Thomas said…
This sort of thing crops up every now and then and in many ways it could be said to have nothing to do with Cage and can safely be ignored. 4'33" is the only Cage work that gets discussed at national media level. Having said that, it remained Cage's favourite work until his death, though the time restriction was less of a concern. So there is a problem with the work - at one level it typifies every stereotype about Cage (joker, dadaist, 'not a composer but a philsopher', etc. etc.) and at another level it could be said to represent all of Cage's musical activity post-1951.
The frustration for me, as you suggest, is that the work rarely gets placed within a wider context for Cage's music, so much of which rarely gets heard live. And Cage's music really is rather great...
Anonymous said…
The origin of the "orchestra" comment by the BBC might have been because this was the first video one sees if one searches on YouTube. At a Cage-dedicated concert they did a full orchestral arrangement (if you can call it that) of 4'33" that was broadcast on BBC Radio Four.

Then again, BBC World News should do better than "google" for actual fact collection. Once upon a time, reputable world news organizations had their own facts department...
Unknown said…
As a great fan of the blog and of your judgment, I understand the Cage Against The Machine project differently. The point, for me at least, is not to raise Cage to more visibility. He has that, and especially 4'33 has that. 4'33 is the closest thing to a pop hit one can think of (including of course its length), and it is here used precisely as that. In fact, the project could not hope to be successful with anything else than a (half) genuine pop hit.

The point is not to raise Cage but indeed merely to counter the X-Factor, to create massive silence instead of the stupid (or, as Cage would say, uninteresting) sound of the X-Factor. And for this, it seems to make sense: the absence of deliberate sound (which is at the heart of 4'33) can hardly ever be so huge as when it is the absence of the X-Factor sound.

So, in the end, I think,this is not mainly about 4'33 as a publicity stunt but instead, for once, truer to what 4'33 was meant to be about than most of its performances before: a chance to listen to the sounds that are usually wiped out. (Including sounds of less media-friendly composers. Including Cage's other music, also less media friendly). At least, that is the hope I have.
Pliable said…
Although tangential to the main thrust of the post it may be useful to give the full text of the Boulez quote. It comes from Joan Peyser's biography of Boulez, and is a reflection on the death of Schoenberg. This is the complete quote:

"Of course I was not especially touched [by Schoenberg's death]. Schoenberg was to me part of the mystic adoration of [René] Leibowitz. The Leibowitz cult was repulsive to me, as repulsive as the Stravinsky cult. And Leibowitz was a joke. I never forgave his dishonesty. He was serviceable at the beginning, but I began to resent him when I saw how narrow and stupid he was. His analyses of Schoenberg are an arithmetical countdown. His book is a compilation of Adorno and Willi Reich.

Cult always kills the man at the centre. Look how repulsive Schoenberg became: 'I have discovered a method to save German music'. He opened the field but he closed a lot too. The last third of his life was terribly academic. With Opus 25, his work is not attractive anymore. Opus 31 is a lesson in counterpoint and variation. In it he pursued the aesthetic of Brahms. I don't find it very interesting to go back to Brahms."
Pliable said…
Comment received:

A good media stunt by J. Cage, later copied / pasted by the young F. Zappa .

The original is - as always - much better




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