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In U.K., stars record John Cage's silent work 4'33" - and it's a seasonal hit

The throng of musicians in the recording studio: ?It?s a beautiful blank,? organizer Julie Hilliard says of John Cage?s composition.

Lawrence Watson/Lawrence Watson

You can't sing along with it or dance to it. It does not have a catchy beat - or, in fact, any beat at all. Yet the producers of Cage Against the Machine are hoping that their single - four-and-a-half minutes of famous musicians being perfectly silent - will be the top-selling single in Britain this Christmas.

This week, 40 musicians representing the old guard (Billy Bragg, Orbital) and the new (the Kooks, Guillemots) entered a London studio and did not play their instruments in a performance of John Cage's famous silent composition, 4'33''.

The studio microphones picked up breathing, shuffling and, on the second take, the muffled sound of someone's buzzing BlackBerry. But there was no singing, and no music played. The resulting single, the proceeds from which will benefit four charities, will be released this week, in time for the frenzied British ritual known as the race for the Christmas No. 1.

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"There was an incredible atmosphere in the studio," said Julie Hilliard, who dreamt up the project with her husband Dave, an artist, and their friend John Rogers. "Everyone turned up on time, there was no diva attitude." (However there were reports that troubled Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty failed to show.)

Although it's not available for download or radio play until Monday, Cage Against the Machine has already won a sizable Internet following, with 80,000 fans on its Facebook page. The remix maestro Mr. Scruff is planning a cover version, in which he tapes himself walking around silently for four and a half minutes.

''The great thing about 4'33'' is that you can project anything you want onto it," said Hilliard. "It's a beautiful blank."

The Christmas No. 1 has become an unlikely battle ground in Britain in recent years. After several stars of the X Factor TV show won the top spot - which is so highly coveted that bookmakers take bets on it - last year an Internet campaign was launched to end the dominance of Simon Cowell's music factory. In a hard-fought battle, X Factor's Joe McElderry was narrowly beaten by the hard-core U.S. band Rage Against the Machine and its song Killing in the Name.

This year's silent single is in part a tribute to the Rage Against the Machine campaign (the band's Tom Morello has called the song "awesome"). "A lot of people see it as a way of sticking it to Simon Cowell," Hilliard acknowledges, "though I have nothing against him."

More important, she says, is raising awareness and funds for charity - including CALM, an anti-suicide group, and the British Tinnitus Association. In November, a charity single from the British Legion consisting of two minutes of silence reached No. 20 in the charts.

But will enough people actually buy a four-and-a-half-minute anti-song to propel it to No. 1? "That is the million-dollar question," Hilliard said, adding "there's definitely a place for silence and reflection at this time of year." It's an experiment worthy of American composer Cage, who once noted, "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear."

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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