The sounds of silence

A very, very quiet top ten.

The Hayward Gallery’s recent show of "Invisible Art" has proved that there is widespread interest in absent art. People are paying good money to see blank canvases and empty plinths. But is there the same market for silence? The Hayward’s director Ralph Ruggoff doesn’t think so. He has claimed that "in music you only have one person do a piece of silent music but somehow in art, artists kept coming back to the subject".

The music that he is referring to is John Cage’s 4’33’, which caused outrage when premiered in Woodstock, New York on 29 August 1952. For this performance the pianist David Tudor sat at his instrument but did not play it. Instead he opened and closed the piano lid three times, marking out the three separate movements that make up the 4’33” duration of the work.

Yet Rugoff is mistaken about 4’33” being the only silent composition. There have, in fact, been enough silent works to compile a Top Ten:

 

  1. György Ligeti, Three Bagatelles for David Tudor (1961). Paying homage to Cage’s pianist, Ligeti composed two silent bagatelles. Allowing a rare moment of noise, the third includes a single piano note

  2. John Denver, "The Ballad of Richard Nixon" (1969). Denver’s silent track inaugurated a series of mute critiques about politicians. See also Stiff Records’ The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which is comprised of two sides of blank vinyl, and Cherry Red Records’ The Compassion and Humanity of Margaret Thatcher, a box set featuring a blank tape and blank video cassette

  3. The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, "Anniversary of World War III" (1969). A time-travelling act of remembrance that lasts for two silent minutes

  4. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, "Two Minutes Silence" (1969). Combining their usual mix of solipsism and global politics, this act of remembrance marked Ono’s recent miscarriage as well as being a memoriam for ‘all violence and death’ (it was later covered by the grunge band Soundgarden who stated that they ‘appreciated the Lennon arrangement’)

  5. Sly and the Family Stone, "There’s a Riot Goin' On" (1971). This silent composition lasts 0’00”. It marks Sly Stone’s belief that "there should be no riots"

  6. John Lennon, "Nutopian National Anthem" (1973). Lennon’s second silent track was intended as theme song for his conceptual country, Nutopia, a place with no borders, leaders or laws ("other than cosmic")

  7. Ciccone Youth, "Silence" (1981). For this Sonic Youth side project the group shortened 4’33” to 1’03” claiming that it was a radio edit of Cage’s work

  8. Orbital, "Are We Here? (Criminal Justice Mix)" (1994). As a protest against the Tory government’s Criminal Justice Act, which sought to outlaw the "repetitive beats" of illegal raves, this mix of Orbital’s single is mute

  9. Slum Village, "Silent (Dirty)" (2002). Critiquing the campaign by the Parents Music Resource Center to sticker records with warnings about their "explicit" content, Slum Village self-censored this track, which features "the dirtiest fifteen seconds of utter silence ever not heard"

  10. Mike Batt, "A One Minute's Silence" (2002). Batt credited this composition to himself and John Cage. It was reported that Cage’s publishers sought full ownership of the work, demanding a six-figure sum for breach of copyright. While there is some truth in this story, Batt later suggested that the two parties had agreed to inflate the figure as a publicity stunt.

 

Mike Batt’s composition provides a rare case of a silent track gaining some attention. As Ralph Ruggoff’s quote indicates, most of these recordings are not widely known. Could this be because nobody has heard them?

Richard Osborne is Lecturer in Popular Music at Middlesex University

The composer John Cage. (Getty Images.)
JEFF HOLT/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
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A powerful portrait of the Bangladeshi textiles industry

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt goes beyond hand-wringing to investigate the true cost of cheap labour.

On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital city, Dhaka, collapsed. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble. The search for the dead went on for weeks. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; 2,500 were injured. The deadliest ­accident at a garment factory in history, the incident shone a light on the dire conditions endured by those who produce cheap clothing for the west.

In a cramped and unstable building, the workers – many of whom were women – stitched clothes for international brands such as Benetton and Primark. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of what happened was the wanton disregard for human life shown by the bosses. The building was clearly structurally unsound. The day before the disaster, cracks had appeared in the walls. But many workers were ordered to return the next day. Some of those who died had yet to receive their first pay cheque.

While the international firms that sold clothes made at Rana Plaza have offered ­financial compensation to the survivors and to families of the victims, not much has happened to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. This is not surprising. Numerous factory fires in recent years, cumulatively resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers, have also failed to trigger any systemic change.

In his book The Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook goes beyond the all-too-transient hand-wringing about sweatshops that has typified much of the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters. Seabrook is nothing if not prolific. He has written about forty books over the course of five decades, many of them focusing on poverty and development, both in the UK and on the Indian subcontinent. For several years he was a columnist for the New Statesman in Kolkata.

The richness of that experience is evident in this book. Researched over the course of many years, it stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.

“The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world but to provide it with limitless, cheap garments,” he writes. “The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.”

In lyrical prose, Seabrook places the personal stories of garment workers and their families in a broader context, showing them as dots in a bigger picture of the destructive effects of British colonisation and the injustices of modern globalisation, but also as the inheritors of their history: a people who have long been associated with weaving, in a country at the mercy of the ­elements, where riverbanks break and ­water consumes whatever scant resources the poor have.

The stories of the people Seabrook meets often extend to just a few paragraphs and the chapters, too, are short, sometimes just a couple of pages. Yet this fragmentary approach never feels disjointed. Rather, each small section layers on the last, gradually building up a complex and textured whole that illustrates the ways in which big ideas – colonisation, industrialisation and deindustrialisation – play out on the smallest of levels.

What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness. Quietly outraged, Seabrook sets out in detail how in the 18th century the East India Company deliberately destroyed the long-established weaving industry in Bengal in order to promote British textiles. At times, he makes specific comparisons, noting that the workers of Bengal were forced to produce opium, which was then used for sedatives and medicines that made things “less harsh for the disaffected and sometimes mutinous workers of industrial Britain”.

He also applies these contrasts, which illustrate relative privilege, to the present day, describing children at a factory in Dhaka who stitch clothes together for the lower end of the European and North American markets. “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west,” he writes. Elsewhere, he makes a cross-historical comparison between workers in the north of England in the 19th century and today’s Bangladeshi garment workers. Both groups are casualties of unjust capitalism.

Seabrook travels outside Dhaka, notably to Barisal, a city where poverty is so deep that families – many of which have lost what scant land they had to flooding – have no option but to send their daughters to work in the capital’s garment factories. These brief stories are woven into a fabric that displays the relentlessness of poverty in places hardly touched by modernity and the claustrophobic pressing-inwards of structural inequality.

Seabrook is at his best outlining the living conditions of the poor. He tells their stories dispassionately but vividly, always according his subjects dignity. These are people with the odds stacked against them. Lima, a garment worker who has migrated from Barisal to Dhaka, dreams of earning enough money to purchase land in her village and become self-sufficient. Seabrook explains to readers that it would take her 13 years to earn enough to buy a tenth of the land required for self-sufficiency. “Still, she goes about her daily work meekly obedient; her trust is absolute, both in the future and the grace of a God who will not fail her.”

There is not much hope in The Song of the Shirt but, sadly, that is a realistic representation of the situation. At present, for all the moments of collective outrage, there remains a huge demand in the west for cheap clothing, which is met by the supply of cheap labour in southern Asia. And if cheaper labour appears elsewhere, this industry that has sprung up so quickly that its buildings are hardly fit for purpose will instantly relocate.

Fittingly for what begins as a study of mutability, Seabrook ends with a question: “Will the resourcefulness of humanity demand a new and more ample relationship with material resources, one that does not continuously deplete the reservoirs of human energy, nor exhaust the limited treasures of a wasting planet?” We do not yet have an answer.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism