John Cage's 4'33": Even silence needs rights clearance
Following the Proms performance of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, former SBJ Alan Connor recalls how putting together a John Cage megamix proved the biggest test of his journalistic integrity.
December 2010. It was my last week at BBC News and the year's chief attempt to prevent an X Factor Christmas number one was a supergroup called Cage Against The Machine: naysayers like Orbital and Billy Bragg recording John Cage's composition in which nobody plays a note.
I'd written text pieces about the previous Cowell-spoiler Rage Against The Machine the previous Christmas and Hallelujah the year before that, but words were no help in conveying this curious piece of anti-music.
It seemed obvious that the appropriate format for 4'33" was the audio slideshow: the immersive package of sounds and floating images that BBC News uses for some stories. Except this one would be quite thin on the sounds, as I wanted to include as many versions of 4'33" as possible, in a context that would entice the user into listening as Cage intended.
At this point I ran into problems. It wasn't that anyone said "why are you doing this?" or "we don't really do ambient news here"; perhaps they were thinking "it's his last week, let the baby have his rattle".
And it wasn't that recordings of 4'33" were hard to locate. But it won't surprise you to read that the artists who've approached it don't include Florence and the Machine, the Fratellis or the other artists we get to hear on TV all the time. In practical terms, they weren't readily clearable. The rights to nothing might seem a little abstract but as the slideshow describes, Wombles creator Mike Batt had recently announced he was being sued by the John Cage estate for including a minute's silence on a classical album.
That this turned out to a publicity stunt didn't mean make the issues around intellectual property go away. Each piece of audio came with the usual publisher, label and so on, many of them avant-garde, obscure or obsolete. So began the toughest test of my adherence to BBC values.Lesser journalists
The prospect of trying to telephone Japanese experimental noise-art collectives was becoming real and it was impossible to escape the strangeness of seeking permission to use fifteen or twenty seconds of people sitting still. I had proper news to deal with too, as well handing over to my successor and clearing my workstation. The clock was ticking and there had to be a way of making it easier.
If it had been a movie, it would have been quite a dull one, but this would have been the point where I idly fingered my pass, my eyes alighting on the words "TRUST is the foundation of the BBC". And I would have muttered "This badge means something. It's not just a way of gaining free admission to museums on holiday, dammit."
A lesser journalist might have bypassed some rights or recorded his or her own performance on a smartphone and used that to provide the wordless, note-less soundtrack for the slideshow. Nobody would know. Actually, that may not be true in the case of Frank Zappa's 4'33". I'm sure there are hardcore Zappa fans who would detect in a moment that the room tone was unlike that of any studio Zappa had ever used. But it wasn't the zappaphile's conscience that made me do the right thing. It was my own.
It wasn't even my training: there had been nothing on the Safeguarding Trust course that covered the appropriate attribution of recordings of nothing happening. But in order to demonstrate that each version of 4'33" is unique, the package had to be exactly what it said. So out went the version chosen by Radio 3 regular Ian McMillan for his Desert Island Discs in which Hungarian percussion instruments were not being played, sadly unclearable in the time available.Facetime
The piece was almost there, when I encountered the next tickly issue: classical performers' rights. I was keen to use a 2004 performance of 4'33" by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in part because the Radio 3 system, which automatically plays backup music when it detects dead air, had to be deactivated lest it mistake the symphonic version of Cage's composition for a mistake.
I had the audio and some images from BBC Four's broadcast, but discovered that in order to use them, I would have to secure permission from each individual member of the SO who played - or rather, didn't play - on the night. This was the moment when it appeared that I had come up with a piece of news that was impossible to deliver, or at the very least not worth the paradoxical paperwork and weeks of correspondence. After some judicious editing and a friendly chat with a lawyer, I was able to go ahead without denying (non-)working musicians their dues.
Incidentally, none of this would have been possible without shoe-leather work around Television Centre. My recollection is that it's unrealistic to try and reply to everything in the inbox, and abstruse queries from journalists trying to create impressionistic news soundscapes are likely to be anyone's priority. But I imagine facetime is easier now you are gathered in that lecorbusian spaceship in W1: just check Outlook and find your way to floor 24 subsection FMTJ04b/B.
It would also have been impossible with the good people at Archive: the understanding of news lead times among I&A staff and the miracle that is the BBC Redux archive of TV and radio content.
And it was worth it. It's the story of which I'm proudest during my time at the BBC: a four-and-a-half-minute package that shows that 4'33" is not a lark or a pointless indulgence but an enlightening statement about how we experience the spaces around us. And if it turns out that my finger slipped and I inadvertently included a BBC Symphony Orchestra bassoonist's non-performance, then I'm sorry. But you really can't say I didn't try.
Alan Connor is a scriptwriter, currently working on A Young Doctor's Notebook with Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe.