Wednesday 12 December 2007

The Sounds (and Politics) of Silence

Music, silence and shared meaning

Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again… in 1963 Simon and Garfunkel gave shape to the comfort of many melancholics to come, releasing a single now famous to folk fans and sometime drunks, ‘The Sounds of Silence’.

In 1963, though, it was less a navel-gazer and more a public response to the assassination of JF Kennedy, shot on 22 November; it served as a beacon to grieving citizens and reminder of the possibility of a more equal, shared future. The lyrics warn against keeping schtum at a time political vision was getting stuck, ‘and the vision that was planted in my brain still remains / within the sounds of silence’, pointing out cheerily, ‘silence like a cancer grows’. The duo were worried about failing communication amongst Americans and thought some of the ideals people had fought for – such as in the Civil Rights movement, were in danger of being forgotten with Kennedy’s demise. They describe the situation on the ground as ‘people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening’.

Whoever shot JFK, it’s tempting to think they might have known 22 November was a date already inked into the calendar year – the traditional feast day of the patroness of church music, St Cecilia, celebrated with concerts galore. St Cecilia’s Day is certainly something Bill Drummond knows about, which is why his recent campaign – No Music Day (does exactly what it says on the tin) – is held on 21 November, the eve of St Celilia’s Day.

Drummond thinks all music is shite. Fed up with the ubiquity of today’s tunes, his No Music Day calls for 24 hours of life without melody, 1440 minutes for people to hide their CDs, unplug their iPods and drown their radios in the bath, 86,400 seconds to live free of note-like interference. Drummond is sick of sound; he wants silence, at first blush seeming like another disenfranchised fogey trying to back seat drive the rest of us. But in calling for a bit of quiet, he puts his finger on the same pulse today that Simon and Garfunkel picked up in 1963: that quite simply, we’ve not got the grand ideals we should or the confidence to put them forward if we do, and the power of music is muted because we don’t always listen.

Whilst there’s plenty of music knocking around in the public sphere, not least in popular TV programmes like X Factor and Classical Star, without any deeper and more meaningful way of organising and responding to it there’s only so much that can be done. And more broadly, with the disorientating spin of the political compass, the order of the day seems resigned consumption and rallying round single issues rather than principled ideological engagement: how should we know what to say with our music when we don’t know what’s going on more generally, and why should we bother to listen if nothing compelling is going on? Has music become a filler for the lost hopes of a disillusioned public, and surrounding ourselves with its soothing balm a way of blocking out our underlying lack of conviction? Wouldn’t it be better if music could be part of shaping a shared future rather than a way of taking comfort in the past?

And there are unfortunately some rather reactionary elements to Drummond’s thinking, that all pop ‘sounds the same’, and get-at-a-click downloadable songs, and sites like YouTube and MySpace are irrevocably dragging down standards, for instance. But he’s actually quite mild-mannered underneath the spin, attacking over-managed ‘live’ performances and schizophrenic sound-bite mentality more than whiney youths moaning down microphones. And there’s definitely something of the Old Lefty a-lurking: too much capitalism, down with commodification, let’s stand in muddy fields in our wellies and get down to what it’s really about, he seems to croon. There’s a resonance with Simon and Garfunkel again, ‘and the people bowed and prayed / to the neon god they made….and the sign said / the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’. Drummond seems to ask for a way to navigate the difficult line between the inevitable commercialisation and mass-production of music with a knee-jerk reaction to this trend. Rather than decrying the music industry for selling itself to the evil forces of capitalism, opening itself to the free market and allowing itself to be used and abused by advertisers and money-makers alike (and hasn’t this often been the case?), it’s useful instead to look at the public’s attitude to music. But is the answer really in being silent?

Investigating silence takes a bit of footwork. Simon and Garfunkel’s sounds of silence, for example, aren’t paradoxical puns but sounds that don’t express any vision – they beget silence of conviction, of belief, lack of balls. Pure silence of the vacuum variety where nobody can hear you scream would mean banging a drum and it not emitting so much as a creak – absolute absence. John Cage’s 4’33 radically challenged and remade what we think of as music. But wanting silence in the everyday way usually means having a headache, being confused, fed up and a bit lost. Familiar soundscapes are comforting – there’s the tale about the townmouse and the country mouse who swap places – the countrymouse gets disorientated by the buzz and bling of the city whilst the townmouse can’t cope with rustling trees and scrabbling beetles. The point isn’t that the country has less noise that the city, but that each mouse locates himself in the sound environment he’s used to, and feels alienated outside of. Is today’s music culture - and culture en masse - alienating people? When music – even noise generally – stops meaning anything to society as a whole it’s a good sign there’s no common frameworks of value in which to fit it and shared standards by which to judge it. Not that individuals or groups don’t have their own songs, but that these can’t be shared on a grand scale.

And in this, calling for a bit of a breather seems no bad move. Baldly, by standing back from ourselves and thinking more deeply about what we want – from our music and our politics – we can perhaps begin to form more coherent ideas about who we want to be, and why. It would be worrying if ‘too much music’ or ‘too much talk’ were the be all and end of the problem, as the answer seems to lie instead in better structured discussion and more collective decision-making about what music is heard and where. In fact, the idea that there’s too much music in the world, too much sound, is deeply disturbing. It’s like saying there are too many Picassoes so we should probably burn a few. Whilst there’s something in the thought that being rare makes an object more valuable, this doesn’t entail the converse – that being ubiquitous lowers worth.

Aesthetic and moral value, shared projects of meaning-making, aren’t bound by the rules the market: everybody can own a recording of Bach’s Passion without the piece ceasing to be a great one or having any emotional resonance. You would think more music would be a good thing. Allowing songs to be freely available and accessible to all on the web isn’t what makes them lose their punch. In fact, it seems mass-appreciation of music is the very thing that gives it worth, and those pieces that mean the most are those frequently played and heard, lived with and loved – or hated. But there’s a more difficult question to be answered here about what sorts of sounds are legitimate in what places, especially when our music is taken to say so much about who we are, where we come from and what we value.

Which leads onto the point that a lot of current high-octane thinking – and talking – about music is done from the top down. Whilst the authorities employ classical music as a calming measure in train stations and shopping centres, and the government’s Music Manifesto makes out all musical activity must happen in a classroom or community centre, there’s also a move to define ‘Britishness’ by the inception of a national songbook. Then again, both Live Aid and Rock Against Racism were organised without the behest of government, attended by thousands – many who have recently been reminiscing in Guardian Arts Blog – and the point – and I think Drummond’s point, is that something big happened because we made it happen, us. And again, it’s not because guitars sounded better in the 1980s (not always) but because mechanisms were in place where broader discussions and shared convictions could give real life purchase to musical expression which went hand in hand with political action.

And it’s not that this doesn’t happen today. Live 8, however, tagged onto issues led primarily by the media legitimised by the cult of celebrity, and little in the way of a continued campaign has followed. More, though, music is becoming the handmaiden of multiculturalism. Rap music, for instance, is seen as the property of violent black youth; opera is supposed to be enjoyed by the beautiful upper classes; post-punk transgender is for the cool apathetic and listening to Simon and Garfunkel means you’re gay. Train carriages become battlegrounds. The Music Manifesto recommends children from different cultures bring their traditional tunes into lessons so that everybody feels like they can join in. And just wince at the music the BBC plays every time it shows footage of China. Whilst it’s undeniable the music we listen to says something about the people we are, and has long been used by various groups as a hook for their values – states and national anthems, religions and sacred songs, marches and chants – the notion that there’s a clean and clear connection set in stone between a genre of music and a specific ‘value-system’, and that music is all about reactively asserting (often stereotypical) identity, is both shallow and scared.

Maybe it’s about time to move past the notion that only certain people can legitimately appreciate the music of their ‘culture’ or ‘heritage’ and that specific songs or pieces should still symbolise what they have since time immemorial, that music only meant stuff ‘in the past’. A good point to make about what we associate certain music is that we can change these things if we want. The Sounds of Silence, for instance, is a good bottom-of-the-bottle song despite originally being about JFK.

So how much credibility does No Music Day have? Its radical aim is to take control of the soundscape. Maybe not hearing any music for a day doesn’t make much of an impact, but it nevertheless forces consideration of where we’re going, though not too soon. If you want to jump on board Drummond’s bandwagon you’ll now have to wait till next year (he has a five year plan), but you’re certainly not the only once getting annoyed. From complaints from annoyed neighbours about the professional violinists next door to anger at yoof and their beats on buses, music is not only seen as an irritant, and sound as pollutant, but it seems people have quite firm ideas about what level of noise is acceptable, and what type of music should happen where.

There’s an amusing scene at the beginning of Mary Poppins when the flustered cook tells a tweeting blackbird to shut up because ‘the master’s got a headache’, the implication being he’s so uptight and serious a man that he can’t even countenance the sounds of nature. And it’s interesting that those sounds most generally considered legitimate are often natural: rain lashing in the howling wind or spring bees buzzing in the tall grass – the idea of blocking out the earthly things is absurd, to which the niche market in CDs of lapping tides for disgruntled city-dwellers attests. And legitimate noises are not just natural ones but those we think necessary for life, those we’re used to: babies squawking, couples squabbling, the James Bond theme tune turned up too loud next door, students bonking (again), somebody cutting the grass. By the same token, ‘pollutants’ are usually non-natural noises (though often described with nature-words): ‘roaring’ aeroplanes, ‘buzzing’ traffic, massive construction works. In calling for silence then, there’s an element of ‘re-connecting with nature’ or even ‘with ourselves’ by switching off beeping Blackberries and polyphonic ringtones – it’s not as if Drummond is attempting to gag the dawn chorus.

And this cuts to the heart of the issue of sound and silence, because it makes us question what noises should fill our social spaces – what sounds we should collectively decide to admit and why. Why lampoon Blackberries and lavish blackbirds with affection? Why idolise classical music and ignore rap (or vice versa)? To think about it, there’s nothing wrong with piping whalesong through Kings’s Cross, developing some device to cancel out aeroplane engines or wearing futuristic ear-devices that allow us to choose what we hear (my gran has somehow got hold of one of these). There’s something mature about being capable of making these decisions. But if we realise sounds - and music - get their meaning most often from our shared values, beliefs and ideas, rejecting so many of the things that make up our daily lives is a poor response. It’s important to realise there’s more at stake than simply sound.

Sarah Boyes is books editor of Culture Wars, and a co-producer of the music sessions at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in October 2007. The session on this theme, Turn That Racket Off!, is available on See also Sarah and others discuss No Music Day and the Music Manifesto on Claire Fox News, 18 Doughty Street, 19 November 2007.

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