Late last year, producer Paul Epworth (pictured) and a host of prominent musicians gathered together to re-record John Cage's iconic composition 4'33" in a bid to secure the UK Christmas number one spot. Phil Ward reflects on a sonic experiment that became a media message.
A Facebook group with just five members found themselves at the centre of a flurry of media and music business interest before Christmas, when their campaign to nominate John Cage’s iconic slice of serious tomfoolery 4’33” for the UK Christmas No. 1 single gained rapid momentum. Enough artist and production support materialised to prompt a chaotic recording session at London’s Dean Street Studios, presided over by MPG award-winning producer Paul Epworth and featuring several notable faces from Madness to The Kooks.
It peaked respectably at No. 21, and despite failing to oust an X-Factor winner from the top spot – as Rage Against The Machine did last year – represented a bold and unique chapter in UK recording. It’s difficult to imagine Cage’s work being accepted by the mainstream under any other circumstances, and for that achievement alone the organisers deserve recognition and praise. Much of the initial media frenzy died quickly as the ambitious goal of No. 1 faded from the movement’s grasp, a baleful comment on how the winners always get to write the biggest slice of history.
All of those involved were sincere and heartfelt in their motives. From a pro audio point of view the session presented obvious challenges, as five tracks of a Pro Tools 8 system and a 48-channel SSL Duality console were placed at the disposal of Epworth and a crowded live room intent on registering, essentially, nothing. “It’s a high-art concept,” said Epworth at the session, “and I love the fact that there’s the possibility of making something that proposes the polar opposite of manufactured pop music. Cage himself spent a lot of time in anechoic chambers when he was thinking about this piece, and wrote about how impressive it was when you’re completely isolated from the sounds around you.
“He suddenly realised he was hearing things while inside the chamber, and afterwards spoke to both his doctor and to sound engineers. The low hums were actually his own nervous system, and the higher frequencies were the blood circulating around his body. We’re not going to achieve that today, of course! But that’s not the point. This is a performance of musical rests by musicians, and the ambience that creates in any given concert hall or recording studio is precisely what the work is all about.”
After the session there was a quiet euphoria, as artists and guests mingled in and around the studio like the congregation emerging from a religious service. Brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll of techno duo Orbital reflected on a unique moment. “If you put on a track of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence,” mused Phil Hartnoll, “it focuses you well and truly on where you are in that instant. Every time you play it, it’s going to be different. And because it’s meditative, it will have different effects on different people.”
“It certainly had a different effect on that guy who insisted on turning that really noisy guitar amp on,” added Paul Hartnoll with a wry smile. “I didn’t think it should have been on. But that’s what collaborating with other musicians is like, isn’t it? It’s always a compromise! Even recording 4’33” there’s bloody issues…”
The eight-track MP3 bundle of 4’33” and its various remixes was ruled as legally eligible for the singles chart, providing supporters the opportunity to pay a little more for the product and increase their donations to the charity fund while also influencing chart position. You could also buy just one track, with most fans opting for the one listed as 4’33” (Cage Against The Machine Version) or simply 4’33” on iTunes. Other digital outlets to carry the work included 7digital, Amazon, Play.com and HMVdigital. The charities that benefitted were C.A.L.M., Youth Music, the British Tinnitus Association, Nordoff Robbins and Sound & Music.