“It’s worth a dime to get a few minutes of silence.” said Mike McCann to the Billboard magazine in 1959. He was distressed by the impossibility to hold a conversation over the sawing of hill-billy fiddles and the beat of rock’n’roll guitars blaring from the jukebox in the campus hang-out at the University of Detroit. So he decided to press four silent records on a label and placed them in the campus jukebox. Then, for a nickel, they were able to buy three minutes of peace and quiet. Technically, in fact, there was no silence coming from the jukebox speaker but the scratching and hissing from the needle on the record surface. Though this might be covered by the chatter in the student’s hang-out, there is a strong cagean appeal to the idea, even if unintended. John Cage already had the idea of a silent piece in 1947 when he mentioned that he wanted to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence of the lenght of a usual single and sell it to Muzak Co. According to Kyle Gann’s book “No such thing as silence” Cage supposedly read about the plans of placing a silent record in jukeboxes by a studend in a New York Post article in 1952 and the author wonders whether Cage wasn’t worried to be preempted by a commercial version of his visionary concept.

If John Cage would still be living, this autumn he could be worried of not only one, but even two commercial “versions” or “interpretations” of his concept hitting the top of the charts in the UK. The Royal British Legion is selling a “2 minute of silence” mp3 on the occasion of today’s Remembrance Day (11th Nov.) in order to commemorate the sacrifices of armed forces and civilians during times of wars. The aim is to reach the top of the charts with the silent single this Saturday, the day before the official ceremonies are held in Great Britain and other parts of the Commonwealth. In an accompanying video, war veterans along with sportsmen, artists like Thom Yorke and even prime minister James Cameron are shown looking quietly into the camera, as in this excerpts:

It seems to be a clever move to connect silence with death, since this connection, the equation of death and silence, has been made several times in literature, art and human rights campaigns. But there is some unrest, and this is because the idea to push a silent piece into the charts was first conceived by Dave Hilliard after last years successful attempt to upset the XFactor’s winner subscription to christmas’ top-selling single with a Facebook mob buying Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” to the top of the charts. Encouraged by that, Hilliard started the Cage Against The Machine campaign, as he states, more or less as a joke but quickly gained traction after the Guardian and other papers wrote about it and gave the idea good chances to succeed later on at christmas. Now he is a little bit upset, as he writes in a blog post, that Liam Maguire sells the silent initiative of the Royal British Legion as his idea and probably diminishes the chances of Cage Against The Machine to score another defeat against a fabricated Cowell hit.

In the middle of this week, “2 minute silence” already entered the top 20, so even if the single won’t push Rihanna or Take That from the top of the charts, there are good chances that at the end of the year the UK might have had two silent pieces of 2 and 4:33 min., each at a top position in the charts, something John Cage would have never dreamed of. Should he be worried? In fact, there are two opposing re-contextualisations competing with each other, both using the charity aspect as a key argument. The Royal British Legion approach is serious and un-ironic to the bone: the silence of countless dead souls should scream at our ignorance and make us aware of how much we owe to the brave that risked their lives for our freedom. In case of the first and second World War, I’m absolutely with them, but with the second Irak war based on lies and false propositions, I rather would ask myself for what reasons these soldiers have been sent there in the first place. The Cage Against The Machine approach then is only ironic and has the charity aspect attached to it at a later stage to give it a somehow deeper meaning which it doesn’t have apart from the joke of having a “really” silent night with this track at christmas and another nice provocation in the direction of Simon Cowell. Or is the CATM campaign avoiding trouble with the John Cage Trust that might stage another bizarre copyright battle concerning the “rights” on the silent piece as against Mike Batt in 2002? But then, imagining the awkward comedy of a radio presenter to introduce a number-one hit single which is nothing less then 4 and a half minute of silence, is compelling. The BBC dealt with that situation in a funny way when they broadcasted an orchestral version of 4:33 at the Barbican Center live with the announcer giving a sportscaster-like explanation of what was going on at the silent performance. You can hear excerpts from this broadcast in this UbuWeb podcast about the sound of silence:


In 1959, McCann believed that “stereophonic silence will be twice as silent”, as Life magazine reported about his further plans to press stereo “silent platters”. Maybe two charts-topping silent pieces within 2 months provoke a deeper silence as well. Sometimes I think that John Cages 4:33 deserves more silence. It is probably one of the most discussed and talked-about musical or non-musical pieces ever. It is boring to hear again and again how sound artists use Cage’s silent piece as a reference point and as the only justification for a piece of work. 4:33 is 58 years old now, don’t we have some other fresh ideas we can build upon? Maybe making John Cage’s 4:33 a number-one hit is exactly what it needs to stop this endless academic discourse about the piece: many number-one hits leave a sobering effect after the audience has been polluted with a certain song. These hits suddenly fall into oblivion, as if everybody wants to forget former excesses. This silence might be something that does 4:33 better justice than the endless chatter about it.

Update on 15th Nov.: “2 minute silence” made it to number 20 of the british download charts this week (15th Nov.). James Masterton writes in his chart watch blog: “If we are being honest it reduces the buying of what is supposed to be music to little more than a personal gesture, nobody has bought this “single” based on what it sounds like in preference to others after all, and whilst it is hard to criticise something whose sole aim was to raise money for a good cause you do have to wonder just what the point was really. Was buying this really any better than putting money in a collection tin? I’m not completely sure.” At least it still leaves the possibility for the Cage Against The Machine campaign to score a silent number one hit…

Another update: here is the video with the orchestral version of Cage’s 4:33, as it was mentioned in the Ubuweb podcast…