The Difficulty of Silence | Cage Against the Machine | Egos

by , under Arts, News

I love what’s happening with the attempt to get a charity recording of John Cage’s 4’33” to Christmas No.1 – thereby ousting the almost inevitable other contender – some X-Factor manufactured product who we’ll struggle to remember this time next year.

This video has been released documenting the recording of the piece – with the usual gaggle of pop-star celebs gathering to don their headphones and do their bit:

What is fascinating about this is how unbearable silence has become. I don’t want to read too much into it, because I think it’s brilliant and a bit of fun, but it’s clear that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with the lack of noise. And the dancing, gestures, coughs and shuffles are small outbreaks of resistance – small ruptures where the ego just has to break through.

In my very limited experience of trying to attain silence, these are the things I’ve battled with too. The absence begs to be filled, and we find it almost impossible not to do so. The same happens in classes: silence falls, and the first response is the giggle, the cough. ‘I’m still here’ the … silent … message of all of these small noises.

We should do more silence. It is good for us because it challenges the ego, and challenges us to think about where our identities lie. The reactions of these pop supremos having cameras on them but not being able to speak, or sing, or play shines a light onto all of our insecurities, and tells us something important about ourselves. And if that’s the message we get from this charity single, then I’m all for it. So go buy it!


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  1. Richard

    Here’s the thing. Cage’s piece is not about silence. Cage’s view was that there is music that consists of the random sounds of the environment that we are sitting in “listening” to 4’33”. There is music everywhere says Cage with 4’33”. I agree with your point about silence, but that was not Cage’s point at all.

  2. Lizzie

    Hello Kester

    This is really interesting. Here we have ‘silence’, but not stillness, which for me speaks volumes about the kinaesthetic way some artists interpret and express their experience. Obviously some are way too uncomfortable to stand still, and despite the overtly self-conscious need they had to ‘tick-tock’ together, I found it interesting that out of the silence and stillness they chose a common tempo to move to, roughly the same as human pulse.

    I am embarrassed and ashamed that the whole thing was punctuated by the photographer’s shutter throughout. Deeply unnecessary and no wonder those people found it difficult to be truly still.

  3. Charlie

    Spot on response! It’s always amazing to me how much work I do just getting the actors I work with to be still and silent. If I can ever get myself or the actors to that point, we’re more than halfway to creating interesting work onstage. I’m working now in China, and it’s interesting how much harder silence is to come by here. There’s just more noise and input from every direction, and most people I work with seem deeply disturbed by the idea of actual stillness.

  4. acetate monkey

    Silence seems to be coming back into the general awareness of society, as there was also the memorial silence record for The Royal British Legion recently and a series on BBC “The Big Silence” looking at 5 people attempting to incorporate silence into their lives. They too demonstrated the difficulty of creating silence and stillness in their lives.

    Whilst Cage’s piece is, as Richard points out, creating a blank aural canvas to demonstrate the background sound, it was initially conceived in the spirit that this single is campaigning under- as a protest against commercialised sound: Musak in the 20th Century, Syco in this one. Thanks for the vid link, I hadn’t seen it 🙂

  5. KB

    “That was not Cage’s point at all”

    Nor was it mine. The incidental noise is the thing – but it’s the seeming inability to allow the incidental to occur naturally that is interesting. Watch the video and see how desperate people are to ‘do’ something.