Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Reader's Guide to Cage Against the Machine

From the New York Post January 1952:
“Darling,” said a frosh to a coed, “they’re playing our song.” For the first time since a juke box has been installed in the Student Union of the University of Detroit, she heard him. The place was swinging way out to one of those new sides called “Three minutes of Silence.” That’s it—silence. The student puts his dime in and he takes his choice, either the 104 jump records on the big flashy juke box or on one of the three that play absolutely nothing, nothing but silence. It’s a new idea developed by Dick McCann, president of the Student Council, for the comfort of the silent types who’d just as soon not be blasted off their chairs by the rocking records. He’s refining it. “The new model,” he said, “will have a beep tone which will sound ever so gently every 15 seconds so that people will know the machine is playing.” …Besieged by other students around the country for copies of the silent records, McCann is quietly contemplating two new projects: Stereophonic silence and blank home movies.

As everyone in the world knows, this year's campaign to defeat the X-Factor's dominance of British pop charts is centered on the work of one Mr. John Cage. As you can imagine, I quite like the idea of 4'33" charting, whatever the reason, and I have dutifully bought the single from the British

But as you can tell from the Post article, silence has a long history as a symbolic bulwark against mass culture. One of the famous inspirations for Cage's version of silence was the Muzak Corporation; four years before 4'33" he spoke of how it could be nice to sell a piece of silent music to Muzak to give its customers some brief sonic respite. He noted at the time that Muzak tracks were between three and a half to four and a half minutes in length, not coincidentally the length of your average pop single as well. As I argued in a dissertation chapter some years ago, the "target" of 4'33" is usually taken to be the classical music establishment generally, or perhaps more specifically the hyper-controlled modernism of his erstwhile friend Pierre Boulez. That's true, but at the same time popular music was squarely in his sights as well.

In a 1997 piece, Douglas Kahn provocatively asked us to consider not just which sounds are included in Cage's silence, but also which are excluded. So what is that Cage wished us not to hear? Well, let's see. The premiere of 4'33" was on August 12, 1952. The number one single of that week on the Billboard pop charts was the British singer Vera Lynn's classic "Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart."

Beautiful song, no? In some ways a bit of a throwback for its time, Vera Lynn having been strongly identified with the war effort thanks most especially of course to "We'll Meet Again." The strong nostalgism of "Aug Wiederseh'n" is indeed an omnipresent current on the post-war pop charts--Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz" from 1949 being the most successful iteration--but in 1952 it was on the decline. The new vogue was often for the novelty hits of Mitch Miller's musical empire, as in two other big hits from 1952, Patti Page's "Doggie in the Window" and Rosemary Clooney's "Botch-a-me." And even in the downtempo hits, the nostalgia of Lynn was being replaced by a more emotive, youthful sentimentality as in Johnny Ray's "Cry."

But I digress. I don't know how aware Cage was of pop music of his time. We know his feelings about the more modernist wings of jazz (not a fan), but he did not leave behind much of a published record when it came to actually-popular culture. He probably didn't have much of an opinion about Vera Lynn versus Rosemary Clooney one way or another. But the point is, silence can often stand in for a disdain for corporatized mass culture, be it John Cage himself or aging British rockers.

Is that a good thing? It is a conundrum for me. As Kahn would perhaps put it, this isn't just silence, it's silencing, and we must therefore ask who is being silenced. On the one hand, my intuitive marxism cheers on the spectacle of throwing a wrench into the culture industry; I'm perfectly fine with silencing Simon Cowell. On the other hand, my inner pop fan hates the dismissive way that the organizers of Cage Against the Machine talk about pop culture, often speaking in condescending terms not just about its producers but about its audience as well. As my friend Steph Pennington pointed out, there is a rock vs. pop dialectic at work, and a gendered one at that. I'm not quite sure how I feel about my beloved Mr. Cage being used to such ends.

Then again, nobody really loses in this situation. If nothing else, the world gets to learn a bit more about John Cage, and I suspect that X Factor fans won't really be affected if the aforementioned aging British rockers say mean things about them. So, carry on Cage Against the Machine, and I hope you are planning for next year as well. Wagner Against the Machine, anyone?