BBC Proms 2012: John Cage’s 4’33″
The London Sinfonietta will perform John Cage’s seminal 4’33” later today at a Late Night Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Image-conscious critics and commentators as well as members of the audience in need of a little self-aggrandising will nod sagely at the Cage’s existential work. The rest will no doubt tut, roll their eyes and call the whole thing pretentious twaddle.
Personally, I don’t think it is. Cage’s challenge to audience and performers alike forces us to deliberate over the definition of what we mean by performance and silence. It’s a delicious opportunity to engage in discussion about what the differences are between sound and music. As a piece of live performance it has an in-built guarantee of a unique interpretation every time it’s on the running order. It’s subsequent meditative qualities can in some cases make the 4’33” moving as well. And it’s an exploration of our individual and collective real-time perception of time. It’s a work that packs in quite a punch.
The work is also a marketing man’s dream. Cage appeals to a niche audience. Nerdy, thinkers, who are at ease being different. People who see the retro glow John Cage is bathed in as exactly the aspirational ticket they need to a better life. Cage is cool: if you don’t get him then you’re either humourless or you’re not on the same level as everyone else who does. Distinctive? Yes, but don’t be under any illusion that Cage and his work promotes exactly the same kind of snobbery as the ‘traditional audience’ he was indirectly having a pop at when he conceived the work in the first place. It’s snobbery of the highest order. And we all need a spot of snobbery to feel better about ourselves.
Cage’s composition has been performed one other time at the BBC Proms – in 1999 – during a children’s prom. Back then Blue Peter’s Konnie Huq presented while her colleague Simon Thomas ‘played’ the piano. Tonight it’s ‘performed’ by the London Sinfonietta. And yes, there’ll be copyright fees to be paid too – Mike Batt learnt that mistake to his cost ten years ago.
It’s no surprise 4’33” commands interest. There is an enormous amount of humour to be tapped into during a performance at the BBC Proms. Can the audience remain quiet? Do the audience need to remain quiet? Will the microphones be pumped higher than they normally are in between movements of more orthodox works so that we hear the hearts beating of the people in the gallery?
Will the emergency playout system kick-in (apparently, special provision has been taken) and the ‘silence’ be ruined on air? Will audiences at home be up in arms? Will the BBC be flooded with complaints? Will it be a triumph? Or will it be treated as a bit of a laugh by those in the know? A bit of a self-satisfying joke, itself an illustration of the inverted snobbery Cage does on occasion attract?
I genuinely hope that the inclusion of 4’33” in tonight’s programme is a serious nod to Cage’s breathtaking impact on music education. As a kid, I remember being talked to about Cage’s work at 10 years old by a off-the-wall music teacher who – disappointingly –moved on to another job in another school only a year after teaching us. His total lack of pretension and passion for Cage’s work made us talk, think and enthuse. It wasn’t necessarily met with the same enthusiasm by my parents, similarly when I spent a year studying 20th century experimental music at University. No matter. That education instilled the same love for Cage as I have for Benjamin Britten.
Cage is the bottom line. The starting point to music. And that was his aim. To start right at the beginning with sound so the rest of us could build our musical appreciation up from that baseline.
Not everybody understood him. Not everyone wanted to. Those that did got caught up in the semantics. But in the centenary of his birth, is Cage now moving into the mainstream? Is his notoriety in danger of chipping away at his cult status? Will we in time overlook the impact of his radical thinking and look instead for the cheap gags and the superficial? 4’33” relayed on the radio and the reaction it prompts afterwards will give us an idea. I’m hoping it holds up well. My childhood memories depend on it.