Tag Archive: silence

Tweets about Sound

(Picture taken in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, somewhere in the wilderness…)

I don’t really know what to do with Twitter. I mean, tweeting about personal trivialities is boring and the 140 characters of a tweet only leave space for a less-than-complex form of communication. But sometimes less-than-complex can be good: reading a short punch line that sticks in mind, social or political commentary that reduces complicated issues to an invocing sentence without simplifying matters. Anyhow, I decided to use Twitter as a kind of container or scrapbook for citations concerning sound, listening, noise and silence I find in books, films or articles. It’s not about collecting the best sound quotes that everybody already knows, it’s more like a personal anthology of findings while being exposed to media, little gems I don’t want to forget and that have a particular meaning to me because they appeared in a certain context. I hope it doesn’t look like I’m boasting with cultural knowledge, maybe it does… Well, here are the tweets of sounds of the last two years:

“Movement is the silent music of the body.” – William Harvey

“There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave under the deep deep sea” – Thomas Hood

“Tonight I’m a noisy swamp squelching under your bare toes.” – Dorothy Porter

“Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolih acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Lauscht, hört aber nichts. Nichts regt sich, spricht. Das Dorfgehirn, zerschlagen, schaut mit kleinen Augen.” – Steffen Popp

“Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.” – Salomé Voegelin

“The final thing. The illiterate. The dumb. Speech? Quiet but still something? Noises? Nothing?” – Tom Lubbock

“Their pleasantness or unpleasantness is felt without the listener knowing where the grounds for such feelings lie.” – Hermann von Helmholtz

“Du musst doch hören können was ich denke.” – Franziska Schaum

“And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.” – Jennifer Egan

“And her shape is of such mysterious nastiness that you brace yourself to listen…” – Henri de Régnier

“Hunderte Töne waren zu einem drahtigen Geräusch ineinander verwunden, aus dem einzelne Spitzen vorstanden, längst dessen schneidige Kanten liefen und sich wieder einebneten, von dem klare Töne absplitterten und verflogen.“ – Robert Musil

“The ghost is fascinated by the soldier’s mysterious sound device.” – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (script of “Tropical Malady”)

“Und groß die Stille/groß wie der frischgeteerte Himmel/man müsste sie hören können. Ein tragender Ton für ein paar Sätze” – Christoph Aigner

“The static’s like the sound of thinking. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush.” – Tom McCarthy

“In den Regen gesprochen, geflüstert. Staub u Schatten – welch Großeslärmen doch um die-Toten ist. Um die Lebenden Stille” – Reinhard Jirgl

“The longest silence is the most pertinent question most pertinently put. Emphatically silent.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” – John Keats

“Im Sehen erfassen wir das Skelett der Dinge, im Hören ihren Puls.” – Erwin Strauss

“As if that sound were forming, unlikely as that might be, into a single high, strong voice striking the ear as if trying to penetrate further than into the mere human sense of hearing” – Franz Kafka

“The most exciting moment is the moment when I add sound… At this moment, I tremble.” – Akira Kurosawa

“On the way to a full silence the mark of language brands the body with a reminder of the time.” – Delphine

“Was aber ein regelmäßiges, stumpfes, sinnloses und sich stundenlang wiederholendes Geräusch angeht so müssen die Gehirne wohl verschieden gebaut sein.” – Kurt Tucholsky

“One can see looking. Can one hear listening, smell smelling, etc…?” – Marcel Duchamp

“By listening, one will learn truths. By hearing, one will learn half truths. Lucky numbers 6, 14, 19, 27, 30, 34.” – from a fortune cookie

“Bloom heard a jing, a little sound. He’s off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers. Jingling. He’s gone. Jingle. Hear.” – James Joyce, Ulysses

“Fear of sound, fear of sounds, all sounds, more or less, more or less fear, all sounds…” – Samuel Beckett

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead.” – Heraclitus

“While a word awakens other words, silence raises no echo. Silence only prolongs silence.” – Edmond Jabés

“Hearing is a physiological constant, listening is a psychological variable.” – Bruce R. Smith

“This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” – Martha Ainsworth

“Noise and nausea, noise and nautical, noise and navy have the same etymology. We never hear white noise better than when at sea.” – M. Serres

“I don’t push the sounds around.” – Morton Feldman, responding to Stockhausens question about his secret

“And just imagine that in this infinite sonorous silence everywhere is an impenetrable darkness.” – Béla Tarr, Werckmeister Harmony

“I try to listen to the still, small voice within, but I can’t hear it above the din.” – Eliza Ward

“The only sound that I hear, the only sound in the entire world, is my heart beating.” – Dexter

“Imprisoned in a cage of sound, even the trivial seems profound” – John Betjeman

“Das Schweigen wird nur zum Zeichen, wenn man es sprechen lässt.” – Roland Barthes

“Im Ohr nistet eine Spinne, im anderen eine Grille.” – Michelangelo

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” -Shakespeare

“Any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.” – Susan Sontag

“Noise may have lost its power to offend. Silence hasn’t.” – Dan Warburton

“When I am inside a sound then I am inside time.” – Christoph Korn

“Sound: everything we hear and many things we don’t” – Allen S. Weiss

“Sound is touch at a distance.” – Anne Fernald

“We should be sensitive to the thread of silence from which the tissue of speech is woven.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

“…unlike other sounds, noise is a nomad; it has no place to go once it has departed.” -Haroon Mirza

„Er fühlte sich wie gehäutet von der Scharfkantigkeit der Geräusche…” – Ralf Rothmann

“…the roar of more slamming doors, the last one finally hammering shut, leaving the room satured in silence.” – M. Danielewski

“L’odeur du silence est si vieille.” – O.W. De L. Milosz (“The odor of silence is so old.”)

“Gerade weil sich die Musik der wörtlichen Beschreibung entzieht, finden sich unter Musikkritikern die größten Metaphoriker.” – R. McCormack

“Hearing silence is successful perception of an absence of sound. A deaf man cannot hear silence.” – Matthew Nudds

Silence to top the Charts?

“It’s worth a dime to get a few minutes of silence.” said Mike McCann to the Billboard magazine in 1959. He was distressed by the impossibility to hold a conversation over the sawing of hill-billy fiddles and the beat of rock’n’roll guitars blaring from the jukebox in the campus hang-out at the University of Detroit. So he decided to press four silent records on a label and placed them in the campus jukebox. Then, for a nickel, they were able to buy three minutes of peace and quiet. Technically, in fact, there was no silence coming from the jukebox speaker but the scratching and hissing from the needle on the record surface. Though this might be covered by the chatter in the student’s hang-out, there is a strong cagean appeal to the idea, even if unintended. John Cage already had the idea of a silent piece in 1947 when he mentioned that he wanted to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence of the lenght of a usual single and sell it to Muzak Co. According to Kyle Gann’s book “No such thing as silence” Cage supposedly read about the plans of placing a silent record in jukeboxes by a studend in a New York Post article in 1952 and the author wonders whether Cage wasn’t worried to be preempted by a commercial version of his visionary concept.

If John Cage would still be living, this autumn he could be worried of not only one, but even two commercial “versions” or “interpretations” of his concept hitting the top of the charts in the UK. The Royal British Legion is selling a “2 minute of silence” mp3 on the occasion of today’s Remembrance Day (11th Nov.) in order to commemorate the sacrifices of armed forces and civilians during times of wars. The aim is to reach the top of the charts with the silent single this Saturday, the day before the official ceremonies are held in Great Britain and other parts of the Commonwealth. In an accompanying video, war veterans along with sportsmen, artists like Thom Yorke and even prime minister James Cameron are shown looking quietly into the camera, as in this excerpts:

It seems to be a clever move to connect silence with death, since this connection, the equation of death and silence, has been made several times in literature, art and human rights campaigns. But there is some unrest, and this is because the idea to push a silent piece into the charts was first conceived by Dave Hilliard after last years successful attempt to upset the XFactor’s winner subscription to christmas’ top-selling single with a Facebook mob buying Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” to the top of the charts. Encouraged by that, Hilliard started the Cage Against The Machine campaign, as he states, more or less as a joke but quickly gained traction after the Guardian and other papers wrote about it and gave the idea good chances to succeed later on at christmas. Now he is a little bit upset, as he writes in a blog post, that Liam Maguire sells the silent initiative of the Royal British Legion as his idea and probably diminishes the chances of Cage Against The Machine to score another defeat against a fabricated Cowell hit.

In the middle of this week, “2 minute silence” already entered the top 20, so even if the single won’t push Rihanna or Take That from the top of the charts, there are good chances that at the end of the year the UK might have had two silent pieces of 2 and 4:33 min., each at a top position in the charts, something John Cage would have never dreamed of. Should he be worried? In fact, there are two opposing re-contextualisations competing with each other, both using the charity aspect as a key argument. The Royal British Legion approach is serious and un-ironic to the bone: the silence of countless dead souls should scream at our ignorance and make us aware of how much we owe to the brave that risked their lives for our freedom. In case of the first and second World War, I’m absolutely with them, but with the second Irak war based on lies and false propositions, I rather would ask myself for what reasons these soldiers have been sent there in the first place. The Cage Against The Machine approach then is only ironic and has the charity aspect attached to it at a later stage to give it a somehow deeper meaning which it doesn’t have apart from the joke of having a “really” silent night with this track at christmas and another nice provocation in the direction of Simon Cowell. Or is the CATM campaign avoiding trouble with the John Cage Trust that might stage another bizarre copyright battle concerning the “rights” on the silent piece as against Mike Batt in 2002? But then, imagining the awkward comedy of a radio presenter to introduce a number-one hit single which is nothing less then 4 and a half minute of silence, is compelling. The BBC dealt with that situation in a funny way when they broadcasted an orchestral version of 4:33 at the Barbican Center live with the announcer giving a sportscaster-like explanation of what was going on at the silent performance. You can hear excerpts from this broadcast in this UbuWeb podcast about the sound of silence:


In 1959, McCann believed that “stereophonic silence will be twice as silent”, as Life magazine reported about his further plans to press stereo “silent platters”. Maybe two charts-topping silent pieces within 2 months provoke a deeper silence as well. Sometimes I think that John Cages 4:33 deserves more silence. It is probably one of the most discussed and talked-about musical or non-musical pieces ever. It is boring to hear again and again how sound artists use Cage’s silent piece as a reference point and as the only justification for a piece of work. 4:33 is 58 years old now, don’t we have some other fresh ideas we can build upon? Maybe making John Cage’s 4:33 a number-one hit is exactly what it needs to stop this endless academic discourse about the piece: many number-one hits leave a sobering effect after the audience has been polluted with a certain song. These hits suddenly fall into oblivion, as if everybody wants to forget former excesses. This silence might be something that does 4:33 better justice than the endless chatter about it.

Update on 15th Nov.: “2 minute silence” made it to number 20 of the british download charts this week (15th Nov.). James Masterton writes in his chart watch blog: “If we are being honest it reduces the buying of what is supposed to be music to little more than a personal gesture, nobody has bought this “single” based on what it sounds like in preference to others after all, and whilst it is hard to criticise something whose sole aim was to raise money for a good cause you do have to wonder just what the point was really. Was buying this really any better than putting money in a collection tin? I’m not completely sure.” At least it still leaves the possibility for the Cage Against The Machine campaign to score a silent number one hit…

Another update: here is the video with the orchestral version of Cage’s 4:33, as it was mentioned in the Ubuweb podcast…

Silence Radio 2.0

After a one-year-break,  Silence Radio returns with an edition of sound art in various forms ranging from documentary, fiction, electroacoustic composition, field-recording to soundscape. I contributed a track called “A Pot Calling The Kettle Black”. In the piece a strange woman (singer Almut Kühne) makes funny noises in the kitchen while she is dealing with frying eggs, drinking some mineral water, making a cup of tea and cleaning the dishes. Ambivalent kitchen sounds are mirrored in sounds from other origins and it seems as if she slips away while she is doing the kitchen work. Many of those sounds are somehow related to water and fire, therefore the title which is an old english saying about someone being hypocritical. Wikipedia provides the following definition: “The pot is sooty (being placed on a fire), while the kettle is clean and shiny (being placed on coals only), and hence when the pot accuses the kettle of being black, it is the pot’s own sooty reflection that it sees: the pot accuses the kettle of a fault that only the pot has, rather than one that they share.” I thought along these lines when working on the piece. Other sound “pastilles” were submitted by artists like Francisco López, eRikm & Eric La Casa and Alessandro Bosetti among others. Here is the complete track list:

Whoever likes to play with sounds likes to play with words.

UNTITLED #242 ___ Francisco López
No title, no comment, no meaning, not only one.

LE FILTRE DE RÉALITÉ ___ eRikm & Eric La Casa
The two sonic Erics meet Jacques Brodier and his ionic instrument.

MIDI MINUIT ___ Pali Meursault
Investigation by night into a sci-fi-like contemporary soundscape.

DEAD MAN ___ Alessandro Bosetti
After all the samurai of love is a very casual person though he’s got to live his life as a dead man.

TRUE BROMANCE ___ Bérangère Maximin
Tribute to boys’ pure love by a resounding girl.

LAURENT MAÏS ___ Sebastian Dicenaire
Laurent Maïs has got a revelation of love in front of his flat screen.

BARMAZ OU BALI ___ Kaye Mortley
A rough cut daydreaming snapshot mixing Switzerland with Indonesia.

AIR CONDITIONER No.8 ___ Nick Sowers
Domestification attempt of domestic white noises.

The power of volcanic myth is universal.

Listening to the Silence

“Africans listen to the silence and use it as a dimension in which they can improvise,” observes John Collins, host of this excerpt’s video about African cross rhythms. The word for music is not found in all African languages because music is omnipresent in even the daily routines, as this next video demonstrates…

via renewable music

Did you know that the lack of sound in silent film was not a question of technological limitations but an aesthetic decision? If you don’t, check the guys at You Look Nice Today who produced a nice video to honor the early foley artists who embraced the “purity of silence”…


“Music stands out from silence and has need of silence in the same way that life has need of death, and thought (…) has need of nonbeing. As something similar to a work of art, life is an animated, limited construction that stands out against lethal infinity; and music, as something similar to life – as a melodious construction, magic duration, an ephemeral adventure, and brief encounter – is isolated, between beginning and end, in the immensity of nonbeing.” Vladimir Jankélévitch in “Music and the Ineffable”.

An ephemeral adventure is in fact the already 1993 released work “Un Peu De Neige Salie” by German composer Bernhard Günter, and much more than that. It is quiet to an extend that it opens a kind of perceptual abyss of nothingness if the listener is willing to let himself or herself being drawn into this empty space of faintest noises. Even today, after 15 years of its first release the sound asthetic of this CD appears fresh and cutting edge, something rarely achieved in the quickly changing fashions of todays experimental music. The clicking sounds and sine wave brush strokes resemble the work of Ryoji Ikeda and others and has led people to consider the release as a landmark recording (one of the ‘100 recordings that changed the world’ according to The Wire). Bernhard Günter stated in an interesting interview for the Paris Transatlantic Magazine asked about whether quiet music is nothing else then the flipside of noise music, that “placative quiet music has no dynamics, and placative loud music has no dynamics, either – and I’m not interested in either. My music isn’t soft all the time. It’s not about loudness or quietness, it’s about dynamics.” Günther is running his own label trente oiseaux where most of his recordings can be found. He has also released works of Francisco Lopez like “Warszawa Restaurant” (another quietism experience…) and other artists like Marc Behrens, Daniel Menche and Steve Roden. On his myspace side one can hear some recent tracks in collaboration with Gary Smith that follow a more melodic and less ascetic strain.

Jankélévitch said in another passage of “Music and the Ineffable”: “Silence blossoms through voids that interrupt a perpetual din.” This perpetual din can be the stream of noise that our daily life constitutes, that “lasts our whole life and accompanies all we experience, fills our ears from the time we are born to the moment we die”, and a music such as this “ephemeral adventure” can constitute the interrupting void.

…because it imposes silence on noises and before all else the most unbearable of these noises are words. Music is the silence of words, like poetry is the silence of prose, it makes the gravity of logos more bearable and prevents men to identify with the act of speaking. The conductor waits till the audience ceases to speak, because the silence of men is like a sacrament music needs to raise its voice.”

This quote is by Vladimir Jankélévitch, taken from the German version of “Somewhere in the Unfinished” (translation of the quote by myself, sorry for the poor English). It unfortunately was never published in the English hemisphere to this date, though this book probably offers the best introduction to subtle thinking of this French philosopher. It is based on a conversation with Béatrice Berlowitz that was taped, then transcribed and edited so the text reads more like an inspiring philosophical talk and is far more accessible than his theoretical writings. That I’m able to read some of his books in German translation now was not possible till lately since Jankélévitch turned his back on German culture after fascism and ordered that his books should never be translated into German language. He fought the German nazis in the résistance and blamed German culture for not only failing to prevent fascism but even being partly responsible for its rise. His voice was heard 20 years after the end of second world war when a French debate boiled up about legal limitations to collaboration crimes. He wrote an essay called “Should We Pardon Them?” which was so influentual that the law was dismissed. Nonetheless Jankélévitch stayed mostly unknown since the existentialists and post structuralists dominated philosophical discussions. Things might eventually change now, after his death 1985 his ruling about no German translations seems to crumble and slowly some of his writings are translated and published.

Jankélévitch is very much rooted in the romantic French music tradition, even to such an extend that in “Somewhere in the Unfinished” he evades all questions towards modern music at all. He appears to be completely immersed in an old disappearing tradition of piano salons and silent studies of classical scores that he loves. Dispite this superficially conservative stance his thinking is much more inspiring than many modern music thinkers. He is driven by a deep sensitivity and his thinking is sharp and elusive. Many of his thoughts about music mentioned in “Somewhere in the Unfinished” point back to his book “Music and the Ineffable” with a great final chapter about music and silence.

I will try to translate a few more words taken from “Somewhere in the Unfinished” where Jankélévitch discusses the comparison between the two “languages” speech and music. This also provides a poetic answer to that recent comment I made about what sense writing about music finally does. First he says about the limitations of language: “There are not enough keys on the keyboard of language to be able to discribe all the endlessly subtle nuances of thinking and passion. Therefore we have to speak beyond words and induce misty clouds, a twilight zone, a halo around those words where ambivalence simmers and the powers of desire grow.” And then he ponders about the “logic” of music and the music can evade rational discourse and thus be highly ambivalent: “Music is a process of ‘doing’ at its best, because music uses tones without inner meaning, that way staying perpetually new and accessible. Therefore music is made to be played, not to be spoken about!”

If you are into superlatives, here are two dealing with anechoic chambers. The acoustic anechoic chamber has an absorbing surface and is shielded from the outer world in order to investigate sound waves with all reflections being removed (more recently there are radio frequency anechoic chambers as well). The experience visiting such an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1948 and hearing his own blood pressure and nerve system instead of silence led John Cage to the famous statement: “until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The most quietest place on earth is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the anechoic chamber of Orfield Labs in Minnesota, Minneapolis, while the biggest anechoic chamber of the world is the Benefield Anechoic Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, California. I imagine what Cage would have said if the anechoic chamber he had seen at that time would have been a facility “to support ground testing of electronic warfare systems on full-scale aircrafts such as the B-1B and B-2 bombers”… Thanks to Unidentified Sound Object for the link.