On the one hand, the news that a CD containing half an hour of silence recorded in a church in southeast England has sold out of its first pressing, and that the church is now taking orders from as far away as Ghana, seems a little baffling.
“In this day and age, everybody seems to live busier, noisier lives — people sometimes like to sit down and just have a bit of peace and quiet for a little while,” said Ronald Byng, the member of the congregation at St Peter’s in East Blatchington, Sussex, who came up with the idea of recording in the church. How a CD of silence is supposed to blot out the noise of everyday life remains unexplained.
On the other hand, The Sound of Silence could be claimed as part of a surprisingly large musical subgenre: It is not the first silent album to be released — Stiff Records apparently sold 30,000 copies of the waggishly titled Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan in 1980 — and it’s certainly not the first silent track.
The first classical composer to offer a silent piece of music was Erwin Schulhoff, whose In Futurum of 1919 beat John Cage’s better-known 4’33” by 32 years.
Andy Warhol can probably take credit for introducing it to rock. On East Village Other: Electric Newspaper — the same 1966 album on which the Velvet Underground made their recorded debut with a track called Noise — he got a credit for a track called Silence (Copyright 1932).
You might have thought this was not a gag that bore a great deal of repetition, but you would have been wrong. Within 18 months, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band had concluded their third album with two minutes of silence: It abandoned Warhol’s prosaic track name for the more portentous title Anniversary of World War III.
Since then, a startling variety of artists have had a go, including Afrika Bambaataa, Sly and the Family Stone, Soundgarden, Orbital, Mike Batt — who claimed to have been sued by John Cage’s estate for “sampling” 4’33” — Crass, John Lennon (twice), prog band Coheed and Cambria — who, in true prog style, split their silent track into 11 different movements — Ciccone Youth, Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt.
Silence seems to be most regularly used to make a point about politics. Indeed, using a silent track to make a political point is perhaps the only thing that links folkie John Denver with industrial “power electronics” pioneers Whitehouse, authors of My Cock’s On Fire; Denver’s piece was called The Ballad of Richard Nixon, Whitehouse went for the more wide-ranging Politics.
Perhaps the sheer range of competition explains why St Peter’s has felt impelled to make a qualitative claim for its CD.
“It is an 800-year-old sacred space with a wonderful quality of silence,” Reverend Canon Andrew Mayes said.