An original silence?

Here on stage is a group of musicians who seem to have been expressly chosen to make classical music sexually exciting to young people. The women are segregated: two blondes in spangly black; two brunettes in spangly white.

The men wear sleeveless T-shirts to show off their biceps. They launch into an arrangement of themes from Carmen that mixes Middle-Eastern writhings with Riverdance-style Oirishry.

The band calls itself the Planets, though there are only eight members. Perhaps Pluto has yet to be “discovered”. The man behind them is Mike Batt. And the music is just throat-clearing to the main event, which is a duel of silences.

A legal dispute has arisen owing to a noiseless track on the Planets’s album, Classical Graffiti, called A One Minute Silence. It is credited to Batt/Cage, which has sounded alarms in the hallowed corridors of Peters Edition, publishers of composer John Cage.

Cage’s most notorious work is 1952’s 4’33”: four minutes and 33 seconds of a musician (or musicians) not playing. Peters claims Batt has infringed Cage’s copyright. Batt, on the other hand, says the credit to Cage on the album actually refers to, Clint Cage, a pseudonym for himself. “I insist that my silence is original silence,” he says. There seems to be nothing for it but to listen.

First, the Planets perform A One Minute Silence. Batt conducts, waving his hands contemplatively as though like he is stroking a cat in slow motion. The spangly people look at him intently. They all hold their instruments in the ready position, apart from the violinist. He must be the one that rebellious teenagers identify with. Let us call him Uranus.

The “silence” constitutes these ambient noises: the hum of an air-conditioner, the swooshing of polyester trouser material, a jangle of keys and a deep nasal exhalation. A minute later it’s all over. We applaud enthusiastically.

Cage’s 4’33” is performed next, by Marc Dooley, a clarinettist and employee of Peters Edition. He warms up with a few burbling arpeggios, and adjusts the sheet music. Then he solemnly inserts the clarinet into his mouth and begins. It becomes clear that this is a very different piece. Batt’s work did not feature, for example, the rustling of paper as people followed the printed score (thoughtfully handed out beforehand), nor the footsteps of wandering camcorderists, nor the unzipping of a bag.

The live performance of Batt’s A One Minute Silence was actually unfaithful to the original CD version, which is simply one minute’s worth of the absence of any digital signal. Cage’s 4’33”, on the other hand, has always been meant to be an ambient soundwork, rather than a pure silence.

In the post-performance discussion, Batt says: “Ours is better silence: it’s digital. Theirs is only analogue.” Let us, too, compare the scores. Cage’s score consists merely of vertical ruled lines marked with timings. Batt’s piece, on the other hand, is clearly in the key of G major (or E minor), and is more structurally complex, finishing with a flourish of metre-switching from five-eight to three-eight to four-four. These are obviously quite different pieces of music.

Nicholas Riddle, managing director of Peters Edition, is here to defend his aggression. “If you perform a silent piece in the context of a musical performance, then that is Cage’s original idea,” he insists. But Batt’s piece is much shorter. “John Cage always said the duration of the piece may be changed,” he ripostes. I remind Riddle that there is no copyright on abstract ideas, only on their execution. And John Cage, in 4’33”, abrogated any control over the way in which the work was to be executed. So where exactly is the infringement? “It’s not for me to second-guess what a copyright lawyer might say about the technical aspects,” Riddle replies.

Ah.

Naturally, this dispute has commercial implications. Classical Graffiti has been number one in the classical charts for three months. Peters Edition would like a slice of the royalties. Well, wouldn’t anyone?

As we leave Baden Powell House, an idea occurs to me. I shall copyright the concept of writing an article as a kind of office-based performance. It doesn’t matter what it’s about or how long it is. Then I can sue anyone who writes an article, for stealing my idea. You never know, it could be a goer.

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