Unheard Music

Context N°23

Craig Dworkin

In 2009, poet and critic Craig Dworkin assembled a catalog of works of silent music to accompany a film about Czech-born artist Pavel Büchler, who claims that his work “makes nothing happen,” and is himself the author of several musical compositions that don’t include music. Below are some notable entries from Dworkin’s project, focusing on the history of such organized “moments of silence.”


ALPHONSE ALLAIS: Marche funèbre pour les funérailles d’un grand homme sourd (1897). The great granddaddy of silent pieces. Allais—something of a cross between Erik Satie, Raymond Roussel, and Joel Stein—is probably best known for pioneering fiction structured on holorhymes, but he was also a composer. Sort of. The first movement of his Funerary March is simply nine empty measures [see the Album Primo-Avrilesque (Paris: Ollendorf, 1897)]. No recording, to date, but a scaled-down version for string quartet was premiered at the FestivalManké (Nice) in 2000, under the direction of Ismaël Robert (who perhaps took a cue from Henry Flynt’s 1961 Fluxus score, which reads: “The instructions for this piece are on the other side of this sheet.” The other side, of course, is blank).
ERVÍN SCHULHOFF: “In Futurum” (1919). Manic, anxious silence. The influence of early jazz and dada cabaret songs is palpable in the third movement of the Czech modernist’s Five Picturesques for piano. Though entirely silent, the score bristles with notation: from long, angst-filled tacets to jittery quintuplet rests. The counting is tricky, and with any but the most accomplished pianist it can detract from the work’s potential for emotional outpouring; according to the composer’s headnote, the piece is to be played with as much heartfelt expression as desired—always, all the way through [“tutto il canzone con espressione e sentimento ad libitum, sempre, sin al fine!”].
JOHN CAGE: Silent Prayer (1949, unrealized). Hints at the neodada origins of 4’33” and its latent corporate critique. Cage’s plan was to “compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four and a half minutes in length—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned music.’” Cage, that still unravished  mariée, would have mise à nu canned music and translated it into a Duchampian “hasard en conserve [canned chance].” Always seemed to be playing in the elevator in my old building.

JOHN CAGE: 4’33” (1952). The classic. In three movements. Premiered by David Tudor on piano, although it sounds pretty good even in transcriptions. Not to be confused with either the showier 0’00” (1962), “to be performed in any way by anyone” “in a situation provided with maximum amplification,” or the watered-down Tacet (1960), which “may be performed by (any) instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time.” Recommended recordings: Frank Zappa’s acoustic rendition on A Chance Operation [Koch 7238], or Lassigue Bendthaus’s electronic version on Render [KK Records 115]; the definitive recording of 0’00” is by Peter Pfister [hat ART CD 2-6070]. For real range and lots of artistic license (well, lots of license at least), check out Roel Meelkop’s compilation of nine different performances on 45:18 [Korm Plastics 3005].
YVES KLEIN. Symphonie Monoton-Silence (1957). Meant to provide a sonic equivalent of his monochrome paintings, the second movement of Klein’s Symphony consists of twenty minutes of silence—just enough time to give the audience a chance to shake the sense of ringing from their ears: the first twenty minutes consist of a sustained D major chord. The work was originally conceived for full Wagnerian orchestra, but performed in 1960 at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain by a small chamber orchestra who memorized the score on short notice (though perhaps after peeking at the scrupulously notated version prepared by Pierre Henry a few years earlier). There is also a later, atmospheric version scored for mixed choir, strings, flutes, oboes, and horns. Not to be confused with the similar-sounding conclusion to Guy Debord’s film Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952), which stretches aggressively on for a full four minutes longer. Though he denies any influence, Klein, not coincidentally, was present at the premiere screening. There are rumors that Klein also issued a completely silent recording, in 1959, of a Concert de vide [Concert of Vacuum] (not to be confused with Sir Malcolm Arnold’s roughly contemporaneous concert of vacuum cleaners [op. 57, 1956]).

JOSEPH BEUYS: Grammophon aus knochen
[Record Player of Bone] (1958). A higher-fidelity version of Beuys’s tonband in filzstapel , the stummes grammophon [mute phonograph] displays a covered phonograph record, perhaps with a recording of Beuys’ feltwrapped piano (felt, of course, is a material known for damping sound, as it’s used around the hammers inside a piano). Though we’ll never know, because the swing arm and needle have been replaced by a bone, bluntly inverting Rainer Rilke’s hallucinatory dream of playing the jagged coronal suture of the skull with a phonograph cartridge.
George Maciunas: Homage to Richard
(1962). A student in John Cage’s composition course at The New School For Social Research (and the first professor of electronic music in America when he took over the class as Cage’s successor), Richard Maxfield must have heard the story Cage liked to tell about his own student days: “One day when I was studying with Schoenberg, he pointed out the eraser on his pencil and said, ‘This end is more important than the other.’” Maxfield, who seems to have taken good notes, was best known for using the erase button on the tape machine as a compositional tool. Maciunas’s Homage, accordingly, instructs the musician to follow a performance of one of Maxfield’s compositions by flippantly flipping the erase switch while rewinding Maxfield’s master tape. There is no record that Maciunas’ piece was ever performed, although he did provide a “chicken variation on the same theme” (“just rewind the previously played tape of R. Maxfield without erasing”), thus exponentially increasing the likelihood of a performance and opening the possibility for an encore. Maciunas’s self-canceling composition became a kind of tombeau in 1969 when Maxfield performed a fatal defenestration.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: Bande à part (1964). In a moment of boredom, unable to think of how to entertain themselves and too agitated to indulge in a true French ennui, Franz (Sami Frey) proposes that the bande take “un minute de silence.” Godard obliges by cutting the soundtrack [la bande sonore mise à part]. “Une vraie minute de silence, ça dure une éternité” [a real minute of silence can last forever], Franz notes, but Godard’s lasts only 33 seconds. Accessible, funny, narrative reprise of the acerbic, mean-spirited, abstract silence from the final twenty-four minutes of Guy Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952). The Situationists would denounce Godard’s version as a “tardily plagiarized and useless [. . .] pretentious false novelty,” but they were never known for their sense of humor, and it’s really pretty funny. A similar and even shorter composition, presumably by Michel Legrand, accompanies the tabletop finger performance of the film’s iconic dance scene, in which Odile and Arthur negotiate the steps they’ll soon dance to Legrand’s hipster swing number “Le Madison.” In mono.
KEN FRIEDMAN: Zen for Record (1966). Blank phonograph record in homage to Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (1964): a 16mm film consisting only of clear leader (often claimed to be an hour long, the screening I saw was advertised as 10 minutes, though it clocked in at closer to 8). Not to be confused with Christine Kozlov’s Transparent Film #2 (16mm) from 1967, or Madison Brookshire’s 2007 sound film Five Times, an audio update of Ernie Gehr’s 1970 History (“five rolls of film, unedited, spliced one after the other,” as Brookshire describes his version: “The only images and sounds come from the light that reaches the film when it is loaded into and taken out of the camera”). The incidental soundtrack to Paik’s film is a lot louder than Friedman’s disc. If you get a chance, sit near the projectionist; even after only eight minutes you’ll never forget the nervous clack and twitter of the shutter, blinking like a blinded Cyclops in the noonday sun…

STEVE REICH: Pendulum Music (1968). Like your high-school physics lab, but without fudging the results. Several microphones (no input) are suspended from a cable over a loudspeaker, with amplifiers arranged so that they generate feedback only when the microphone and loudspeaker are in alignment. The mikes are set swinging along their pendular paths, honking briefly each time they pass the speaker and coming naturally to a droning stop. Premiered in Boulder by Reich and William Wiley, the performers for the 1969 Whitney concert were Reich, Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow, Richard Sierra, and James Tenney. Two good recordings from the Ensemble Avantgarde (two versions) [Wergo 6630-2] and Sonic Youth on Goodbye 20th Century [SYR4].
TIMM ULRICHS: Schleifpapier-Schallplatten
(1968). A series of monaural discs made from thirteen grades of commercial sandpaper in a nuanced mood-music suite orchestration of V. A. Wölfli’s industrial noise composition “Pferd/Horse/Elastic,” named after the Pferd company’s steel-cutting discs. Wölfli apparently just slapped a hundred of the construction-duty grinding wheels inside record covers (safe to 5100rpm if you can crank the player that fast, but try only at your system’s risk). Putting the dust in industrial, the anarcho-duchampians Dust Breeders (Michael Henritzi with Thierry Dellès and Yves Botz, aka Mickey H and Youri Potlatch), issued their first single, “Sandpaper Mantra” (1989), as a 7” piece of sandpaper guaranteed to elevage de poussière when run under a diamond stylus. Their 1995 dance classic “I’m Psycho 4 Yur Love” then swapped the materials, so that vinyl was housed inside a sandpaper record sleeve, making the psychedelic noise even noisier every time the disc is removed [rrr062/EPP02]. An anonymous release in 1980 had used the same strategy on a microhouse track, issuing a blank grooved disc inside a sandpaper sleeve of Adolor/Norton P80 G21 abrasive sheets; starting as minimal techno, the track becomes increasingly glitchy with repeated play (variable speed). These discs are all introverted and considerate versions of various antisocial packaging for albums from The Durutti Column (1979: The Return of the Durutti Column [FACT14]); Illusion of Safety (1999: Illusion of Safety [Mort Aux Vaches 2]); and Feederz (1984: Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? [Steal 1]). Housed in sandpaper covers with the abrasive surface on the outside, in homage to Verner Permild’s design for Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s book Mémoires, they deface the albums next to them with every reshelving.
ROBERT WATTS: non-vinyl records (1969–72). Starting with the String Record, Watts began manufacturing records with various groove depths and material properties, but with no sound reproduction, to be played at a number of speeds. As Watts explains:

I began experiments with the manufacture of a series of records in different materials such as metals, plastics, wood, clay and latex. Most of these were made on a machine lathe at Rutgers University, and I thought of them as being sound portraits of this machine.

At 20 rpm, with lots of ripping scratches breaking the drone, the String Record sounds like the cabin noise of a jumbo jet as its aluminum skin suffers a catastrophic structural failure.


BRACO DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Njeqove Dovke Glas (His Pencil’s Voice, 1973). Pre-post-historical work from the Sarajevo-born conceptualist, who has written: “I want a style as neutral as possible, a kind of universal writing.” In this case, the neutral style takes the form of a stylus, the carbon of the diamond transformed into a softened graphite: the universal phonography here was done with a sharpened pencil on a piece of white cardboard, creating a unique variable-speed phonograph record (16, 33, 45, or 78 rpm). I’ve never heard this one (well, you know what I mean), but apparently the album was exhibited in Zagreb and Chicago in the ’70s. Whereof one cannot speak . . .

CHRISTIAN MARCLAY: Record Without a Cover (1985). Issued without a sleeve or cover, and with the stern instruction “do not store in a protective package,” one side of the 12” 33 rpm disc contains music made by “manipulated records on multiple turntables recorded 4-track at Plugg New York City March 1985” (as the inscription on the verso of the grooved side reads). Though museums and collectors probably take pretty good care of their copies, the inevitable damage to the unprotected vinyl was intended to increase the nonmusical noises over time, in a collaborative duet between chance inscription and the carefully recorded turntable improvisations. On initial release, the former member of that duo is entirely silent. While the side engraved with written text remains silent, its legibility decreases in an inverse ratio to the audibility of the grooved side’s aleatory duet [Recycled Records/reissued by Locus Solus in 1999]. In contrast, Marclay’s sophomore release, Record Without a Groove (1987) was issued in a swank suede protective package. In mint condition it reportedly sounds a lot like a Coil B-side. Edition of 50 [Ecart Editions].


COIL: “Absolute Elsewhere” (1984 et seq.). Reichian music (though that’s Wilhelm, not Steve), Coil’s EP is the sonic equivalent to the architecture of an orgone box: a lot of attitude and BS with nothing inside. In this case, BS stands for B side: the verso of the 12” The Soundtrack to the Program HOW TO DESTROY ANGELS: Ritual Music for the Accumulation of Male Sexual Energy (a long way of saying what T. Rex summed up with “bang a gong; get it on”). Unlike the gong-show A side, “Absolute Elsewhere” manifests itself — depending on the particular pressing — as a track of sheer noise, a constant quarter-hour tone, a series of lock-groove test tones, or a smooth grooveless slab (that is, a record with no “coil” at all). The CD version (1999) consists of one second of silence [L.A.Y.L.A.H. Antirecords LAY05].

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