At the beginning of this month I attended the latest UK and Ireland IASPM conference, which took place at the University of Huddersfield. I spoke about silent records, a subject I’ve toyed with since 2012. In that year, the Hayward Gallery put on a show of ‘Invisible Art’ in which they displayed blank canvasses and empty plinths. Invisible art is obviously akin to silent music. The Hayward’s director, Ralph Ruggoff, nevertheless argued that fine art presents a richer field. Publicising his show, he declared that ‘in music you only have one piece of silent music but somehow in art, artists keep coming back to the subject’.
This made me think, ‘hold on!’ There is clearly a dominant silent composition within art music, John Cage’s 4’33”. However, while this composition has cornered the market in notated muteness, there are many recorded silences. What is more, these recorded silences have diverse stories to tell. Some of them nod towards Cage, but others speak silently about censorship, another tranche offers memorial silence, there are silences that reveal the specificities of recording formats, and there are silences that comment upon the economics of record production.
My first response to Rugoff was to draw up a top ten of silent recordings for the New Statesman. More recently, I published a chapter detailing ‘Six Types of Silence’ in the collection Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound. My talk at Huddersfield offered an abbreviated version of this work. You can read it here.