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Friday, 17 December 2010

Cage against the machine

Last year in the UK hundreds of thousands of people raged against the machine that is the X-Factor and bought Rage Against the Machine's song of rebellion, in defiance of powerful musical institutions. We got it to Christmas number one and suddenly everybody felt the power of the people, the power of Facebook to spread the messages of real people. This year there is a whole collection of similar campaigns, but I don't believe that any have the power to succeed. Raging against the machine was about fighting repetition and monotony and the predictability of the British music industry. If every year there is a facebook campaign then all we succeed in doing is initiating a new kind of predictability; we produce a new mould for music to be forced in to. However in the light of a recent Kettles Yard exhibition there is one campaign which interests me; Cage against the machine

John Cage's '4'33' is a composition of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The statement is inherent. We would rather listen to silence than your manufactured rubbish. But paying 79p for a track of complete silence on Itunes, is definitely not the point. It is an absolute waste. Cage's composition is a performance piece in which the audience are given a unique opportunity to experience silence and to consider their experience of this. When Cage's composition is a track on your itunes which can be skipped or that passes by as an unnoticed interruption, it loses all meaning and effect. This is how 4'33 should be experienced, and you can't recreate this in your bedroom;

The campaign also annoys me because I'm sure for many people Cage is unknown or obscure. I don't think his silent composition heard in isolation is a representative introduction to the artist. So here are some real reasons to be interested in Cage.

Not Wanting to say Anything about Marcel, Lithograph 1969

Mushroom Book, Plate X, 1972

River Rocks and Smoke 4/11/90 1978 and 17 Drawings by Thoreau 1978

Hopefully this introduces the expansive stretch of Cage's work,;encompassing music, film, painting and printing. At one moment cage has the precision of a printer, the chaos of mapping ideas and feelings and the next is free in his abstraction. With lyricism and musical sense in all that he does, if you are going to Cage against the machine, make sure you understand what it's all about.


  1. I think you're underestimating people. A lot of people do know and admire Cage's work.
    (I hadn't seen his drawings before, thanks for posting them, they're beautiful.)
    Also, I think 4'33 translates into the digital medium. It becomes something else. What it is or isn't is part of the piece. It's a reflection of the audience adn the world that its played in, don't you think?

  2. I don't doubt that a lot of people do know and admire his work, but I think for those that don't this provides a far too easy an excuse to dismiss him.
    I think it's an interesting idea that the digital version might reflect a contemporary audience. I'm willing to accept that. Although I would stand by the fact that something is lost in its translation in to the digital. If the message is: this is what Art is and this is what can do, rather than 'silence is better than x-factor rubbish', then I support the campaign.

  3. FWIW to quote John: "I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece" and "I always think of it before I write the next piece." (

  4. Mr G, I'm glad you published this on the blog as well. So should we take 4'33 as a preface to Cage perhaps? I hope when Cage gets in to the charts people will explore him further.

  5. I was at the launch party for this in a nightclub in Soho the other night, and they played the video of the performance around 1am when most people were drunk and wanting to dance. Needless to say reactions were...mixed. But it was wonderful, listening to people shouting for music to dance to, or arguing about whether it had any artistic merit. It enabled a reflection in the time and place that simply wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
    It was definitely a performance of 4'33'' to my mind, even though it was a performance of a recording, and true to John Cages ideas. I think he would find it all rather amusing.

  6. I am learning a lot from this, thank you for all the comments. I would agree, that is a performance and a constructive one!


    thanks for posting on my blog, and I will post your text on mine for sure. last year we did a project on Brazilian's Biennial.... a sound project with many artists. if you have time, check it out!

    I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it

    Para o projeto Ao redor de 4´33´´, a artista LICA CECATO produziu a obra sonora I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it. É uma gravação de um texto do livro Silence, de John Cage. O texto fala sobre o falar, usando a dicotomia Zen da natureza das coisas como uma referência. Quanto à gravação, no tratamento de áudio, foi empregado um sistema que tenta sugerir a aglomeração e o individualismo, acentuando, assim, uma das dicotomias.