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Notes on a Year: Mark Swed on classical music

With John Cage's "4'33" " gaining popularity, it could be a tacit hit, at least in Britain.

By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic

December 19, 2010

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"In the Middle Ages," Sara Maitland writes in her brilliant "A Book of Silence," "Christian scholastics argued that the devil's basic strategy was to bring human beings to a point where they are never alone with their God, nor ever attentively face to face with another human being." Hence our Faustian pact with Facebook, with cellphones, with virtual everything.

Overstimulation is one outcome of social media and the sheer intrusiveness of modern life, the noise of it all. But in 2010, the backlash began in earnest. This is the movement to take back our connection to each other and the physical world we live in, not the one we cyber surf in.

Silence is being hailed as the solution. John Cage's 1952 silent piece, "4'33"," is the theme song. The Brits are calling it "Cage Against the Machine," and the movement for a silent night this Christmas, or Cagemas, has gone viral. In London, Cage's picture is showing up on fake million-pound notes and the slogan is on posters with clenched fists and Che Guevara's image.

This movement, moreover, is being bolstered by a small library of new books, books with real pages (Cage against the iPad?). Besides Maitland's profound meditations on silence, I have before me more than a dozen recent tomes on noise and its alternative.

Some are quixotic pursuits by lovable noise cranks, decibel meters always in geeky hand (George Prochnik's "In Pursuit of Silence," Gordon Hempton's "One Square Inch of Silence" and George Michelsen Foy's "Zero Decibels"). These authors scream against noise, reminding us of its health hazards — hypertension, aggression, stress, learning disorders, hearing loss, heart disease. Foy notes that "bad noise" is rated the No. 1 occupational disease in the country by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are New Age noise books about "the transformative power of silence" (such as Anne D. LeClaire's "Listening Below the Noise") and two frightening but terrific books on sinister noise (Steve Goodman's "Sonic Warfare" and David Toop's "Sinister Resonance"). Brandon LaBelle ("Acoustic Territories"), Garret Keizer ("The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want") and Salomé Voegelin ("Listening to Noise and Silence") find ways to come to terms, at least theoretically, with the soundscape we cannot hope to escape.

What all the writers are forced to acknowledge is that there is no such thing as silence. Even our ears make noise in the process of listening. It is imperative that we reduce noise pollution for the survival of the human race. But sound is also essential to existence, and being attuned to that is a quality-of-life issue as well.

And that is precisely the point of "4'33"," in which a performer sits without playing for four minutes 33 seconds. Cage's seminal score directs us to listen to everything that we miss when we hear music, and it also gently accommodates us to our concert hall environment. "4'33"" is the subject of another new book, Kyle Gann's "No Such Thing as Silence," an excellent short introduction to Cage and the concept of coping with noise. And since Gann's study is part of the Yale University Press' "Icons of America" series, a silent piece has even become an icon, in company now with the Empire State Building, the hamburger, the Hollywood sign, Wall Street, striptease and "Gone With the Wind."

More remarkable still, "4'33"" has a reasonable chance of becoming the Christmas No. 1 — Britain's bestselling single of Christmas week and a big deal on the BBC. For the new recording, some 60 reverential rockers — the Kooks, Billy Bragg, Imogen Heap and Orbital, among them — went into a London recording studio on Dec. 6 with their guitars and drum kits and did their best to shut up, although they did begin swaying to a silent beat after a minute or two. The single (available on YouTube was released Monday, its proceeds will benefit charities.

This "Cage Against the Machine" (last Christmas, Rage Against Machine was the chart topper) will compete in Britain with Simon Cowell and the X-Factor and as I write the odds are about even. Almost 70,000 already have signed on to a silent night and the welcome prospect of four-minute 33-second gaps of blessed radio silence during the holiday season. Alas, FCC regulations against extended periods of silence would forbid this "American Icon" single to be played on U.S. airwaves.

Where can you find out more or join the campaign? On the "Cage Against the Machine" Facebook page, of course.

But Cage always counseled a friendly and uplifting acceptance of life's contradictions, like the enjoyable sounds of silence. Maybe the Rolling Stones could be enticed to make a "Sympathy for the Devil" remix, say, '6'66"" sans Mick et. al. Here's hoping the year doesn't end with a bang.

mark.swed@latimes.com