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.)
Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide