Originally published by The Quietus, Nov 27th 2013 as “Rum Music: some thoughts on silence”
A nearly-review of Sounds of Silence, V/A, Alga Marghen
When I was very young, around 2 years old, I fell silent. Literally. Nobody in the family can recall the trigger, nor the exact duration of the episode. But a cursory examination by the doctor resulted in the pronouncement that there was nothing wrong with me and that I would speak again when I was ready. Which I did.
That’s more or less all I know about an episode that may or may not have actually happened, yet it is something that continues to affect me – the quality of silence. I recall that there was a sense of protest and the need to find something to secure my survival in my adopting silence. It’s the same sense I feel now when circumstances defeat me. Silence becomes a monolithic, impregnable fortress, and the only safe place to be. Similarly, when I gave up on city living a decade ago and moved out into rural East Lothian I was hit hard on the very first evening by the viscous quality of the night. This was quietness, not silence, but palpable, thick and just as commanding as a presence.
When encountering new people, their capacity for silence is a parameter I tend to unconsciously measure, and in observing any group of individuals my attention is always drawn to the one who contains the most silence. The presumption being that this is likely to be the person with the highest possible quality of contribution to make. How much of this is conditioning?
In secular human interaction silence tends to be projected as a palpable force, always positive and good, if somewhat lacking in consistency. It is, variously, an indicator of wisdom (“Silence is a fence around wisdom.” German proverb) an aspiration (“The silent man is the best to listen to.” Japanese proverb) a balm (“Silence is medication for sorrow.” Arab proverb) a weapon (“You hesitate to stab me with a word, and know not – silence is the sharper sword.” Samuel Johnson) or a cultural benchmark (“Silence is the mother of truth” Disraeli)
Moving from the secular into the divine we find no less appropriation of silence as an articulation of ineffable yet laudible qualities. In Buddhism, there is the story of the nengemisho, in which Sakyamuni offers a wordless sermon. He holds up a white flower and stands in silence, thereby imparting the greatest wisdom. In most traditions of faith silence manifests a wholesome and desirable quality of withdrawal and reflection. Noise is waste. Silence is the location, or the circumstance, or the prerequisite to finding God. Nirvana. Peace. Wisdom.
As an abstract idea, silence acquires a certain degree of gravity by being offered up judiciously as something endangered. The world is becoming a louder place and eating up, along with all the other natural resources, all the possible silence.
So silence is on a par with north sea oil, rain forests and pandas. It’s a refuge, a sanctuary, an indicator of wisdom, and a high human quality to aspire towards and nurture. And all this for something of which we have absolutely no experience or first hand knowledge. We cannot know silence. There is always something to hear, whether it be in the outside world or internally, arising from our own bodies.
By means of an irresistible segue into music lets consider John Cage’s experience of the anechoic chamber at Harvard. Anechoic chambers are elaborately sound-proofed rooms characterised by large foam wedges and sprung floors that lock out external sound and absorb sounds created within the space whilst reflecting nothing back into the space. Its an environment as close to silence as we can hope to achieve and there are only a handful of such spaces located in universities and research facilities around the world.
At Harvard, Cage emerged from the experience offering the main impression that there was no silence within the chamber. That there were, in actual fact, two discrete pitches present throughout; one high, one low. “The low one’s your blood pumping” Cage was told. “The high one’s your nervous system.”
There is nothing particularly new or revolutionary about the use of silence in music. It is an essential component of the dynamic range. Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna closes with seven full bars of silence. Mozart observed that the silence between the notes was of equal importance to the notes themselves. Brian Eno once quipped that having no silence in music was like having no black or white in painting. It is, in a sense, just another tool in the box.
But there is a difference between objective or functional form – the structural pause, the rest, the fermata – and the more subjectively active intervention of silence as a force of intent in composition.
In musical contexts there is a parallel distinction to be drawn between the divine and the secular, with each having a different projected requirement upon this abstract, impossible condition; silence.
Arvo Pärt’s favoured conductor and essayist, Paul Hillier, has spoken of Pärt’s music “illuminating the silence that surrounds it” and of music, more generally, as the negation of silence. It remains unclear, on this evidence, whether silence is seen by Hillier as a super structure which music stands against. Or as the medium in which sound exists. Certainly in the negation of silence role the relationship seems more confrontational. Pärt himself, however, speaks more in terms suggestive of silence being in itself a manifestation or projection of the divine principal in whose name his life’s work is offered. Performers of his work have to face the challenge of how to play variations of silence written into his scores. His Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten, an unusually secular work for Pärt, begins and ends with three beats of silence. Für Alina, the first manifestation of the tintinabuli style, begins with a single, scored moment of silence “This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me” Pärt has said. The performer needs to be mindful of the importance of the silence when allowing a note to end, and to be equally mindful of the importance of silence before seeking to break its purity by announcing a new note.
Cage’s 4’33” was by no means the first example of scored silence. In 1897, Alphonse Allais’s Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man featured nothing more than 24 measured rests. In 1949, some 3 years before 4’33” was first performed Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony scored 20 minutes of an orchestra holding a single D Major chord, followed immediately by 20 minutes of enforced silence.
Monotone Symphony, performed only once in Klein’s lifetime, and by a 10 piece band at that, enjoyed a sell out performance with full orchestra in Manhattan’s Madison Avenue Presbytarian Church on 18th September 2013 and showed that silence, in combination with context, juxtaposition and a full house can result in a compelling experience of poignancy and power.
Cage’s most notorious work, however, despite often being referred to as four and a half minutes of silence, was concerned more with the impossibility of silence. The experience of the anechoic chamber gave him that much. Silence doesn’t exist. The work, and others making similar episodic use of the device served to focus the listeners attention on the context rather than solely the “musical” content.
Silence, it seems, a phenomenon which can only be conceptualised rather than realised, depends for its gravity upon that against which it is counterpointed. If silence is a protest, then it requires the presence of that which it is in opposition.
Which – and thank you for waiting so long – is the main problem at the heart of Sounds of Silence: the most intriguing silences in recording history, a limited edition double vinyl release by Italian label Alga Marghen. It is a self styled compilation of “notorious” silent tracks by the likes of Crass, Ciccone Youth, Whitehouse, Orbital, Robert Wyatt, Andy Warhol, and many, many more. (Check out this Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_silent_musical_compositions) for a growing list of occurrences of silence used as protest, abstraction, poetical or theoretical statement, expression of cynicism, absurdity or just a plain old joke)
The recordings are presented as they were originally recorded, preserving imperfections. Each silence is, say the label, considered as a “surface”, and that the record itself should be played loud.
It pays lip service to the hipster requirement for a desirable object – a slice of vinyl, and contains a mooted association with significant cultural figures, whilst the whole endeavour has managed to rid itself entirely of any creative act requiring accountability, effort or commitment.
These are empty recordings, denied their original context, delivering an approximation of a phenomenon that we cannot experience. Even Orbital’s digital silence is compromised by the vinyl medium and the inherent weaknesses in both human hearing and the listening environment. Any sense of presence, of intent, can be transferred only by the title; Are We Here? Criminal Justice Bill?
And so it follows that each musical track is an imperfect vacuum, pulled out of its individual context, floating in space, merely soundless. Their only hope for success is in the transfer of the title, the appropriation of the artists fame, or infamy, and whatever new context the compilation can bring to the table for the silence to work against. Viewed in this light it represents the difference between first hand experience and an after dinner bore poorly relating second hand reports of sketchily recalled events that at some point long ago meant something to someone. Safe. Predictable. Sickly. Mentioned only for perceived conversational value. Tick. Done. Next.
As a record, of course. It fails. It has to. There is no music, no sound excepting the crackle of vinyl. Its just a simple jape, a one-line joke. The only frame in which it may be regarded otherwise is one of pure post modern posturing, where the work itself exists solely to provoke a reaction and that it is the reaction that is the point rather than the work. To that extent then, and reviewed within that context, the release has to be considered as something of a success.
Given the ongoing process of devaluation of the role of the musician only half hidden by fashion, media, fame and the slippery premise of the evolving digital ecology. This minor release potentially provides the bleakest waypoint yet. A physical artefact with no content and stolen context. Physically there, but absent by any other measure. The opposite, in fact, of silence.
Sounds of Silence: the most intriguing silences in recording history is released on vinyl by Alga Marghen
Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony, performed only once in the composers lifetime, was performed by a full orchestra in Madison Avenue Presbytarian Church, Manhattan on 18th September