An old friend in the spotlight – ‘Cage Against The Machine’


“nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music

nothing is accomplished by hearing a piece of music

nothing is accomplished by performing a piece of music” 

These slightly alarming words are the first words that appear in John Cage’s collection of writings called ‘Silence’.They take me back to one of the most enjoyable things I ever did at Oxford – studying American experimental music of the 1950s. I’ve found it quite amusing recently that Cage is back on the agenda, reborn as a sort of anti-X-factor freedom fighter in that perennial barometer of the state of humanity, the Christmas charts. I even went and bought the single.

After a good number of terms full of dusty musicological tomes on Schenkerian analysis and the like (some of which I quite enjoyed, to be fair), Cage was a bit of a revelation to me during my final year at Oxford. Though he wrote with a light touch and plenty of humour, it was never through arrogance or judgement, but as a result of a complete lack of self-concern. All that he was interested in was exploring every element of his environment, judging nothing, sensing everything. 4’33”, his infamous ‘silent’ piece that has found itself in the UK charts this christmas, is more than a jokey idea – it is an operating mode for every moment of life.

A concept that Cage could never understand was the idea of attaching ‘meaning’ to music, somehow loading it with human purpose. “Let the notes be themselves” was a recurring motto of his, and the sentiment behind the quotation at the top of this post. I found myself thinking that Cage would be unhappy that his great monument to multiplicity and openness was being seized upon as something with purpose, in a good-vs-evil battle for musical integrity in which I suspect he would have had very little interest.

On the other hand, Cage rarely seemed unhappy with anything (a very good advert for Zen buddhism). What would he really make of ‘Cage against the machine’? I like to think of Imaginary Landscape No. 4, one of his iconic pieces involving 12 radios. Famously, Cage had not foreseen that, at the time of evening that the concert was programmed for, most of the radio stations would not be broadcasting, so most of what was heard was white noise. Maybe Imaginary Landscape 27 (or whatever he might have been up to by now) would involve 12 television sets at 8pm on a Saturday night, 12 remote controls, a randomly-generated series of channel switching, electronic manipulations, volume controls, live pauses (we’re assuming Sky + here), and tall, greying man at the front with a a gentle smile and open ears.

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