Life without music would be a mistake, Nietzsche said bluntly. But it's a mistake that many in Britain are prepared to make, at least for 24 hours on Wednesday, when the nation has been asked to knuckle down to a third annual No Music Day.
According to the official Web site (nomusicday.com), "iPods will be left at home," "rock bands will not rock," "choirboys will shut their mouths," "jingles will not jangle." All this is, of course, wishful thinking, because No Music Day has no legal force. It is simply the idea of one man: the maverick writer, thinker, conceptual artist and former rock star Bill Drummond, whose history as a member of the early 1990s band KLF gives him a certain authority on the subject of artistic self-denial.
At the height of its considerable success, KLF abruptly ceased playing, deleted its entire back catalog and - for no good reason that Drummond can now remember - publicly burned more than US$2 million of its earnings. Drummond has since dabbled in avant-garde activities and ruminated on life without fame. But more broadly he has been considering life without music, prompted, he said, by "the feeling that music wasn't having the effect on me that I wanted."
"I remember going into record shops and thinking, there's too much of this to cope with," he added. "So I started wondering what it might be like to go without music for a year, a month, a week, all of which was a bit unpractical. So I settled on a day. And that's how it began: an entirely personal thing that was never meant to be a crusade but nonetheless went public."
He chose Nov. 21 because Nov. 22 is the feast of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and staging an antithetical observance the day before followed traditions like celebrating Mardi Gras before the start of Lent.
The whole thing might look like one of Drummond's concept statements or, worse, a stunt. But in the three years that No Music Day has functioned (if that's the right word), there have been practical consequences. This year, for example, there will be no music on BBC Radio Scotland and a general abstinence on the part of thousands of people who have pledged themselves to silence on the No Music Day Web site.
Not all the comments on the Web site are approving. But most come from people promising to "cut the strings on buskers' guitars" or, more pacifically, to "go about my business in the splendor of silence."
"It's not music anymore," reads another remark. "It's white noise. It's product. It's a core demographic. It's a target audience."
too much of a good thing
And there you have the issue in a nutshell. People like the idea of No Music Day because they believe that the commercialization of music has reached the saturation point: too much, too easily available.
The argument is not new. And historically it has been advanced by eminent musicians. When Benjamin Britten received the first Aspen Award for the advancement of the humanities in 1964, he devoted part of his acceptance speech to a denunciation of instantly available recorded music. The loudspeaker is "the principal enemy of music," he said, taking care to add that he was not ungrateful to it "as a means of education or study."
How he would have dealt with the age of personal stereos and iPods we can only guess. And there was an element of paradox in Britten's words, coming from a man who spent much of his life in the recording studio, promoting the dissemination of his own works to their lasting advantage. What's more, it has clearly been to the world's advantage to have the works not just of Britten but also of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven on tap.