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Cage Against the Machine: Silence is golden and going gold

December 15, 2010 | 11:57 am

John Cage’s “4’33”” was controversial when it premiered 58 years ago and continues to be today. And just in time for Christmas, Cagean quiet, labeled “Cage Against the Machine,” is going viral in Britain.

On Aug. 29, 1952, pianist David Tudor sat silently at the keyboard for four minutes and 33 seconds on stage in Woodstock, N.Y. The appalled audience (mainly members of the New York Philharmonic, summering in the Catskills), listened in anger to the sound of rain on the roof and in dismay to itself.

The U.K. Singles Chart also dates from 1952. And this year, in the closely followed race for the top pop hit Christmas week, called Christmas No. 1, these two seemingly incompatible worlds have finally collided. Thanks to an anti-corporate effort to bat down Matt Cardle’s treacly “When We Collide,” a few dozen real rockers crowded into a small studio in London to record a version of “4’33”.” The single can be downloaded from the usual sources, and the proceeds go to five charities.

Cardle is winner of “X Factor,” the British version of “American Idol” that is heading our way next year (duck!). Five years ago, the TV show and its obnoxious host, Simon Cowell, began using their promotion clout to take over Christmas No. 1. Last year, a rebellion began, and the rap metal band Rage Against the Machine won. This year, the dream is for a silent night.

The Brits can get a bit silly about all this. In 2004, I reported from London on a performance of “4'33"” by the BBC Symphony at the Barbican that devolved into jokiness. But the YouTube video of the “Cage Against the Machine” session on Monday does demonstrate the tension created by musicians with instruments in hand not playing them. But these rockers enter into the spirit by concentrating and swaying, perhaps their sense of companionship clearly enhanced and perhaps their sense of place somewhat heightened.

Although “Cage Against the Machine” has a way to go before it mutes Cardle’s uncertain falsetto, the quest for quiet and need for stopping to smell the roses has become an increasing urge in modern life everywhere.

Silence as an environmental, musical, artistic, spiritual and personal concern is the subject of a small library of new books, and of a year-end Sunday essay, which can be found here.

— Mark Swed