Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Just how long could you listen to the sound of silence?

Last night at the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall thousands of people paid good money to listen to nothing. Four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing to be exact.

That's not strictly true I suppose. They would have heard musicians turning the pages of their empty score, the odd cough and probably somewhere a dozy punter's mobile phone going off.

In fact classical music audiences have been paying to hear nothing since the piece was ‘composed’ back in late 1952.

Its composer/originator American John Cage was perhaps, not surprisingly called an experimentalist.

Okay, here's the pretentious stuff. Deep breath. Here we go. Cage wanted his piece, an example of automaticism, to remove the author and musicians completely, to leave to chance what the audience heard. He believed that to achieve real truth the artist must be removed from the process of creation.

All he wanted the audience to appreciate was the environment in which they listened. The ending of the piece he wrote was “approaching imperceptibility”.

There, its over. Wasn't too bad was it? Oh and by the way two years ago a Facebook campaign was launched to get 4,33 as it is called to No. 1 in the Christmas charts to beat off whatever dollop of X Factor shlock was scheduled to occupy the spot.

When was the last time you heard nothing? Really nothing I mean? Perhaps the second before the gun fired on the 100 metre final the other Sunday but I doubt it's often.

We live in a world full of noise of course. The chaff of life festoons our world in a way never before experienced whether that be on the Playstation, flicking through 400 TV channels or being woken by the 24 hour dust carts that patrol our cities.

Background hum is everywhere. I can hear the air conditioning in my office, the sound of the keyboard and the squeak of my chair as I type this. Outside the window a drunk has just shouted a plaintiff “Mary “ as his fed-up lass leaves him behind.

I think what Cage is doing is turning us in on ourselves, forcing us to think in a vacuum, setting aside distraction. Try it yourself. Spend the next two minutes doing nothing but concentrating on your thoughts. It's scary isn't it?

Way back an old girlfriend of mine convinced me to have a go in one of those flotation tanks because she said I was “too uptight”. You float in water in the pitch black and you're supposed to try to empty your brain of all detritus and think about who you are.

Reader, I was hammering on the roof to get out of there in 15 seconds thus proving my then girlfriend's point. We didn't last long.

Is it good to do nothing with your mind but build snowy mountain scenes with babbling brooks or, even more frightening, ask who am I? We are built to avoid deep internal self-analysis (unless you're from New York where it's almost an Olympic sport) because frankly we are none too sure we'll like what we might find out.

Or even worse we might discover we are incapable of summoning up anything deep or profound but could win the gold for fretting about whether we fed the cat or why the fluff caught in your belly button is always blue/grey whatever you wear.

I'm not sure how the audience at the Albert Hall found it last night (by the way you can see a previous ‘performance’ of the piece on Youtube) but I reckon Cage, who died in 1992, knew he was freaking us out when he ‘wrote’ 4,33.

Simon and Garfunkel blew it by singing and playing instruments on the Sound Of Silence. Cage went the whole way.

Me, I'm now going to find an old episode of It Ain't Alf Hot Mum on the Dave channel. Even this half silence is doing my head in.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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