Facebook Campaign Counters EAM with 4’33”

December 6, 2010 at 8:00 am | Posted in Concerts | Leave a comment

A Facebook campaign in the UK is attempting to make John Cage’s 4’33” the number-one song this Christmas season. Tom Breihan at Pitchfork covers the basics well:

In the UK, the race to become the number one song in the country at Christmas is a big deal. Last year, a Facebook campaign succeeded in making Rage Against the Machine’s years-old track “Killing in the Name” the Christmas number one, upsetting X Factor winner Joe McElderry. This year, an indie-leaning all-star group of artists is attempting the same thing, with a “cover” of John Cage’s experimental piece “4’33″”, which famously consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

The group is calling themselves “Cage Against the Machine” — a well-placed pun if ever there was one. Check out their Facebook page. Proceeds from the campaign will be split among five charities, one of which is the British Tinnitus Association. (Tinnitus is a ringing in your ears that has no external source.)

I think this is a great campaign to counter EAM, Eardrum Assault Month. But it opens up a few cans of worms.

First of all, the idea behind that campaign itself: I love the idea of gaming the system — at least when it’s such a nonessential system. I also love the idea of a group of people working together and focusing on a single issue to produce something surprising. That is, after all, what a wind ensemble does. Flash mobs, random acts of kindness, and senseless campaigns like this are like individual sparkling stars in the vast black void of geopolitical history. They remind us that the course of humankind is governed solely by the rich and the royal. So, my hats off to the people who conceived this idea, and especially to those who are seeing it through.

Second, John Cage’s 4’33”: This piece is often brought up in the broad philosophical discussion of “What Is Music?” Is John Cage’s 4’33” a piece of music, even though it consists entirely of silence?

Here’s my take: 4’33” isn’t music. Music is a controlled collection of sounds and silences, so this piece falls short by half. 4’33” is, though, an artwork; it’s a performance piece. Like any good piece of controversial art, it makes you think about what you’re experiencing. It makes you question what you believe and why you believe it. It makes you part of the art.

The question of whether or not 4’33” is music stems from the facts that a) it was written by someone known as a composer, and b) it is entirely concerned with the sonic. Artwork that deals solely in sound is normally in the purview of “music.” And so a performance of 4’33” makes you wonder not only “Is this music?” but “What is music?” And you must decide the latter before you can decide the former.

So, given the alternative of those insipid, repetitive, happy-go-barfy Christmas carols, 4’33” gets my vote. The next time you hear “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” just think how much better your life would be if you could just turn the noise off for four and a half minutes.

So what do you think of 4’33”? Would you, like me, prefer silence to Christmas music?

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

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