Perfect Sound Forever

Blague and Nothingness

The "Most Intriguing" Sounds of Silence
by Daniel Barbiero
(October 2022)

What is there to say about a recording that bills itself as "the most intriguing silences in recorded history"--a recording apparently about nothing? But this is the claim made by Sounds Of Silence - The Most Intriguing Silences In Recording History! (Alga Marghen, 2013), a collection of thirty tracks recorded at various times and under various circumstances.

At a first pass, what would make any collection of recorded silences intriguing would seem to be the idea of recorded silence itself. Recorded silence seems paradoxical if not outright self-contradictory, and even superfluous, since why bother recording for playback something that sonically wasn't there to begin with? But that may be asking the wrong question. Whether or not through a recording one can capture silence as an audible object may be beside the point. On the contrary, recorded silence may be interesting beyond the apparently contradictory fact that it preserves the audio image of the inaudible. It may be that what makes recorded silence intriguing--and presumably what makes one recorded silence more intriguing than another--isn't a matter of what one can, or can't, hear, but rather the reason it was recorded in the first place.

Not All Silences are 4'33"; Not All Silences Are Alike

The natural point of reference for any silent work inevitably is John Cage's 4'33". Cage's work set a precedent by admitting silence as an end in itself into the more-or-less agreed upon set of possible strategies for creating a musical work. And in fact, 4'33" did license the use of silence as an independent or semi-independent musical element, as demonstrated by, for example, composers associated with the Wandelweiser collective. But can the recordings collected on The Sounds of Silence be considered a part of 4'33"''s legacy in the way that certain Wandelweiser and other compositional works can be considered as 4'33"'s legacy? Possibly to the extent that 4'33" gave permission to create silent pieces, just as Cage thought that Robert Rauschenberg's white paintings gave him permission to create 4'33". But 4'33" as a silent work was about more than just composing an empty audio space; it was as much, or even more, about the reasons for composing an empty audio space. It was a predominantly conceptual work. This is where most of the pieces collected on The Sounds of Silence are like 4'33". They too are concept pieces--pieces whose meanings derive not from their sounds--of which there aren't any--but from the ideas they represent, or in some cases the functions they were intended to fill. What makes a silent work a silent work isn't (just) its absence of deliberate, artifacted sound, but why sound is absent to begin with.

Thus, all silent pieces are at least potentially different, despite their obvious similarity. They may sound the same, but they don't mean the same. By the same token, the pieces on The Sounds of Silence aren't all just repetitions of 4'33", no matter how much they may inevitably draw comparisons to Cage's work. Cage composed 4'33" for specific reasons having to do, at least initially, with directing the listener's attention to the sounds of the environment at a particular moment. The tracks on The Sounds of Silence, by contrast, were created with other concepts or functions in mind. They don't mean the same thing, or in the same way, that 4'33" means. And some of them don't mean at all, at least not in any non-trivial way. Such would be the case with the track taken from a record used to test the performance of a tonearm-cartridge combination. A purely functional item, its meaning, such as it is, is exhausted in its practical applications. But that track, and the track taken from a Swedish test pressing, are the outliers. Most of the other tracks were meant to say something substantive.

A good number are jokes of one sort or another--appropriately enough, perhaps, since Cage's perfectly serious piece was originally received by many as being a hoax. These jokes come in a variety of types. There are the broad and obvious ones, such as "The Sound of One Hand Clapping," taken from The Nothing Record Album, and the excerpt from The Best of Marcel Marceao [sic], a fictional parody of the famous mime. There is also the more subtle, wry witticism of Afrika Bambaataa and Family's "silent version" of the title track from their 1986 album Beware (the Funk is Everywhere). Political satire is represented as well, with an excerpt from the entirely blank Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan.

By no means are all of The Sounds of Silence's tracks joke pieces. Some are actually quite serious. Soulfly's "9-11-01" is a minute of silence in remembrance of the victims of the September 11 attacks. From the 1969 John Lennon/Yoko Ono album Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions is a two-minute silent piece memorializing a child lost to miscarriage. The West Coast Pop Experimental Band's "Anniversary of World War III" from 1969 is a protest and warning in the form of an anticipatory remembrance of the anniversary of a war that presumably would leave nothing alive. A similarly politically motivated protest work is hardcore band Crass' "The Sound of Free Speech," a gesture of protest against the record companies that refused to press The Feeding of the Five Thousand if a spoken word track by Eve Libertine were included on the album. The silent track on the album is a gap representing an erasure of Libertine's right to speak.

With a seriousness leavened by humor, Lennon appears again with his four-second-long "Nutopian International Anthem," from the 1973 album Mind Games. This silent anthem belonged to an imagined country with a white flag for a banner, no land, no borders, no laws, and only citizen-ambassadors, of whom he and Yoko claimed to be two. The anthem was part of a quixotic gesture meant to help him in his efforts to avoid deportation from the US by requesting diplomatic immunity, given his status as a Nutopian ambassador. Halfway between joke and serious statement is Andy Warhol's track taken from the 1966 compilation The East Village Other. Through its silence, the track embodies the lack of self-definition that was the signature characteristic of Warhol's carefully crafted public persona at the time. He is the man without qualities, who literally has nothing to say. It could be heard as a put-on, or as a deadpan commentary on the emptiness of identity. With Warhol, one could never tell.

It would seem inevitable that an album of silent pieces would take 4'33" into account somehow, and accordingly, two tracks do point back to it. Ciccone Youth's minute-long "(Silence)" from The Whitey Album is one of them; "One Minute Silence," by the slick classical/rock crossover band The Planets, is the other. Whereas Ciccone Youth's silent piece is a respectful homage to Cage, The Planets' piece is an ostensible parody of Cage's work, the actual function of which was to serve as an interlude between some acoustic and electric tracks on the album Classical Graffiti. Because the group's composer Mike Batt provocatively credited the track to "Batt/Cage"--himself and his alter ego "Clint Cage"--it became the focus of a fake controversy involving Cage's publisher and a supposed-but-non-existent court case, which Batt had contrived to call attention to matters of copyright. Robert Wyatt's thirty-second-long silence may not have anything to do with Cage, but like Batt's "One Minute Silence," it was intended as an intermission of sorts. As Wyatt described it, it was put on the 2003 Cuckooland album "for those with tired ears to pause and resume listening later."

One of the conceptually more interesting tracks is the thirty-five second excerpt from Charles Wilp and Yves Klein's "Prince of Space," which originally was issued as Side One of their 1959 LP Musik der Leere ("music of emptiness"). The name of the piece is taken from Klein's nickname for Wilp, an artist and designer of advertisements that were fashionably influential in the 1960's and 1970's. Wilp's nickname paralleled Klein's own name for himself: "The Painter of Space." Wilp and Klein's silent work was another manifestation of Klein's interest in art's capacity to communicate the immaterial, whether through the monochromatic paintings he had been creating since the 1950's, particularly the paintings in his signature Klein Blue, or the audio works he composed. "Prince of Space" wasn't alone among these latter; as early as 1947-1948 he had conceived of the Monotone-Silence Symphony, a two-movement work consisting of a twenty-minute-long, held D major chord followed by twenty minutes of silence. The silence, or "after silence," as Klein called it, was the real point of the symphony; in his writings Klein variably claimed that it would create a "feeling of vertigo and of aspiration outside of time" or the "possibility of true happiness." Whether or not the thirty-five seconds of Klein's silence on The Sounds of Silence is enough to convey a sense of the vast void of empty space is up to the listener to feel, but the piece is nevertheless interesting as the audio counterpart of the artist's paintings' purported embodiment of the blue depth of nothing.

Concept Work Minus Concept Equals Silence

What to make, then, of this collection of miscellaneous pieces? With a handful of exceptions, all of the recordings are essentially concept pieces. This is as true of the simple joke tracks as it is of the more conceptually sophisticated pieces. In all of those cases, the piece is made intelligible not by its surface sounds--of which there aren't any outside of those that might have accrued through the original recording processes or in the process of transfer to the anthology--but by the idea underlying it. Inasmuch as this is true, these pieces fit more or less comfortably into a certain tradition of the 20th century avant-garde, the tradition that tended toward the eclipse of the object by the idea, and extended itself to the point where the idea came to overshadow, and in some cases replace, the work as a physical object to be perceived and enjoyed by the senses. A silent piece whose silence is the realization of an idea--of mourning, of political comment or protest, of the purported emptiness of personal identity, of immateriality itself--is thus comparable to the dematerialized objects of the conceptual art of the late 1960's and early 1970's.

(But it's also worth noting that conceptualism isn't necessarily confined to the avant-garde. The moment of silence as a memorial gesture is a convention of such longstanding that it's easy to forget that it rests on a conceptual foundation of metaphor whereby the absence of sound comes to stand for the absent life or lives being remembered.)

For many of the pieces on The Sounds of Silence, the animating idea best, or even only, makes sense in relation to the context in which the piece originally appeared. What happens, then, when they are removed from these contexts and assembled into an anthology of one silence after another? The joke pieces may not need anything more than their titles to establish their meanings and to produce their full effects, but for many of the others, the situation is more complicated. A structurally functional track like Wyatt's intermission or Batt's silent piece, removed from its original position separating groups of musical performances, becomes just another bit of non-sound among non-sounds. Crass' protest at being silenced loses its impact when it has nothing to interrupt; Ciccone Youth's insertion of a homage to Cage in an album thematized around the pop star Madonna has an ironic edge it loses when surrounded by other silent pieces. For some of the other tracks, being excerpted compromises the effects they were intended to produce, and thus the meanings they had, at their original lengths. Reduced to thirty-five seconds, for example, the deep void of Wilp and Klein's "Prince of Space" becomes a shallow dent.

Take away the original contexts, and what's left are the silences, a sequence of nothings apparently now meant to be listened to-- "loud," as the curators recommend. The emphasis here is indeed on the sounds of silence. And it's possible that there's an aural satisfaction to be had from playing the LP and hearing the crackling of the needle or the accidental sounds resulting from the recording technologies originally used to produce the tracks, which The Sounds of Silence claims faithfully to reproduce. It's also possible that for some listeners, listening to one or both sides of the album has the same effect as Cage's silent piece--directing attention to the surrounding sonic environment. Call it 4'33", the extended mix.

But it's more interesting, and probably more to the point, to consider The Sounds of Silence as a work as being the heir not of Cage's conceptualism, but of Duchamp's conceptualism--the conceptualism of the art object as cerebral blague. The blague--the deadpan, ironic joke--has a long history in avant-garde art, but it was Duchamp who raised it to a high level of sophistication and effectiveness, and arguably used it as what critic Roger Shattuck has called the central axis of his career. With his ready mades, the Fountain, the mustachioed Mona Lisa, and other provocations, Duchamp developed the idea of the artwork as an intellectual joke that successfully undermined or disturbed conventions about what constitutes a legitimate artwork, and about what value it might have. Without the prior examples of Duchamp's seriously ironic, or ironically serious, gestures, it's hard to imagine that an opening would exist for considering a silent work as a musical piece to begin with--Duchamp's blagues put a foot in the door that allowed Cage's 4'33" to pass through. Cage's work was a serious one and not meant as a hoax, even if some initially thought so, but it may have required the provocative hoax of the Fountain to make it conceivable as a work. In the course of expanding what it is to be an artwork jokes, it turns out, have had a rightful place. In the end, The Sounds of Silence may itself be a joke, but as Duchamp demonstrated, not all jokes are unserious.

See Daniel Barbiero's article on John Cage's 4'33''

Also see Daniel Barbiero's blog

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER