Music stars launch their silent protest against Cowell

Cage's silent composition gets the Live Aid treatment. Rebecca Gonsalves reports
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The Independent Culture

Rehearsals had been brief. A single page of sheet music was passed around the packed recording studio at the last minute, as musicians clutching their instruments were abuzz with the camaraderie of rebellion. Lined up on a grand piano were phones linking to Billy Bragg and Imogen Heap, each offering long distance contributions. In the control room, producer Paul Epworth struggled to make himself heard over the cacophony to count the artists in, and then... four minutes and 33 seconds of precious silence – one of this year's more unlikely contenders for the coveted Christmas No 1.

A small army of artists including Suggs, Luke Pritchard from indie rock band The Kooks, The Guillemots and spoken word artist Dan Le Sac descended on a tiny recording studio in Soho yesterday to make their mark on one of the most controversial pieces of "music"; John Cage's entirely silent composition 4'33", first released in 1952.

The work is broken into three movements, and the performers could be seen at first to enjoy the novelty of the self-imposed silence, before slowly getting into the groove. During the second movement impromptu Band Aid style swaying led by Pritchard broke out around the piano.

Inspired by the success of last year's Facebook-led campaign which saw rap metal band Rage against the Machine seeing off the might of Simon Cowell's X Factor to the Christmas No 1 spot with the re-release of their track "Killing in the Name Of", this year's effort labelled Cage against the Machine started as a joke on the social networking site.

The original composition was Cage's reaction to the continuous aural assault of post-war America, filled with muzak and jingles, the spirit of which is alive in this poignant homage. However, it is impossible to record true silence and the recording of yesterday's performance was punctuated by the bass of creaking leather jackets and the gentle percussion of breathing bodies.

When the single is released on Monday, proceeds will go to four charities, including the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity that tackles suicide in young men. Several of the artists were invited to take part by members of the English band Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, whose singer Chazz Haddon committed suicide at music festival in Germany in August.

Madness frontman Suggs said: "I've never heard musicians silent for more than two seconds in my life. I just wanted to experience it."

He added: "But Charlie was a close friend of my daughters, it was a very tragic story and that's really why I'm here. And to have a bit of fun as well, by knocking X Factor off No 1 with silence, wouldn't be such a bad thing."

Silent spats

While the American composer John Cage's 1952 piece, 4'33", is the most notorious example of musical silence, another similarly themed composition caused controversy in 2002. Mike Batt, a musician who had a hit in the 1970s with "The Wombles", was threatened with court action by Cage's publishers, Peters Edition, who accused him of breaching copyright on 4'33" with his own silent work, "A Minute's Silence". Mr Batt tried to prove that his piece differed from Cage's by staging a recital at London's Baden Powell House in July 2002. Cage's publishers retorted by hiring a clarinettist to perform 4'33". Eventually an out-of-court settlement saw Mr Batt pay a six-figure sum to the John Cage Trust.