Lawyers acting for the estate of late avant-garde composer John Cage have branded the Performing Right Society for Music ‘utterly useless’ after it was revealed that it has failed to collect any royalties at all for performances of his most famous work, 4’33” – a three-movement composition consisting entirely of silence.
‘These people are only too happy to collect money for the big pop acts each time their songs are played by hairdressers, shops and pubs,’ said lawyer Rupert Asquith, ‘but they just seem to turn a deaf ear to our client’s silent work. Honestly, if John Cage had had a penny for every time office staff were caught getting on with their work while shamelessly listening to 4’33”, he could have bought himself some state-of-the-art speakers to properly appreciate his composition.’
In a bid to assert Cage’s artistic rights and recoup some of his lost royalties, his lawyers have taken to the streets and are threatening to sue anyone going about their daily business without humming, talking to themselves or otherwise making a noise. ‘Public libraries continue to be the worst offenders,’ said Asquith. ‘They don’t even try to pretend they aren’t just playing his work on repeat. But at least they appreciate the integrity and beauty of the composition. If anyone interrupts the performance they get roundly hushed and the whole piece is started again from the beginning.’
The campaign by John Cage’s estate has found support from famous musicians. ‘It’s a cause close to my heart as it was the first thing I learnt to play on the piano,’ said Elton John. ‘It took a while to master, mind. But once you’ve heard it, it’s one of those pieces of music that stays with you. There are still days when I can’t get it out of my head.’
But Cage’s lawyers accept they have an uphill battle to get people to take their claim seriously. ‘The Performing Right Society for Music has plenty to say about fair reward for artistic endeavour, but as soon as we ask about the royalties cheques for 4’33”, they go quiet. Can you believe that? They sit there performing his most famous work and won’t even stump up a penny.’
Cage’s estate is desperate to reach an agreement on royalties quickly so that nothing stops them ‘hitting the jackpot’ on Remembrance Day when millions of people up and down the country perform a short extract from 4’33”.
steveupstone (with thanks to rickwestwell, ramblesnake and roybland)
25th October 2010