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The sounds of silence

A very, very quiet top ten.

John Cage.
The composer John Cage. (Getty Images.)

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