Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In Search of a Silent Night

© Sans façon.  By kind permission of Sans façon.

The holiday season is upon us, in case the endless Jingle Bell Rock loop at Starbucks hasn’t given it away.
-Jon Stewart

A few chocolates, a glass of mulled wine and a CD by the The Sixteen playing quietly.  Sublime.

Here today we are doing something special, we are stopping and appreciating the space between things, the unintentional sounds that make up our world.
-Dave Hilliard, Cage Against the Machine

Last year, in her post “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, Wide Open Spaces remarked on the auditory invasion of Christmas music at this time of year:
It’s not that I don’t enjoy Christmas music; I do have a nice collection of CDs that I bring up from storage this time of year.  I just don’t understand the need to have it invade all my listening hours.  Last year one radio station started playing Christmas music on November 1st –in effect, they devoted 17% of their annual product to these tunes. (And need I mention that these tunes are associated with a religious holiday that not all people celebrate?)
As she noted, while there is some decent holiday music out there, “not everything is listenable.  For every Bing Crosby or “O Holy Night”, there is Alvin and the Chipmunks or “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”  Blech.”

Blech is right.  Friko, in her marvelous Advent series, lamented this phenomenon as well:
Don't you all hate supermarkets at this time of year?  . . . All I wanted were some food bags and clingfilm for leftovers.  And while I was stomping through the aisles, backwards and forwards, I was forced to listen to an endless loop of Christmas jingles, a tinny, badly arranged, flat, featureless cacophony of sound.
On The Daily Show, in a hilarious Mark Your Calendar segment, Samantha Bee tried to remind us that there's more to December than Christmas and its music.  In the end, though, she gave up:
But really, let’s face it.  All other days bow down to the 25th, Christmas.  It’s the only religious holiday that’s also a federal holiday.  That way, Christians can go to their services, and everyone else can stay home and reflect on the true meaning of separation of church and state.
At times like this, we might long for John Cage’s Silent Prayer, “a piece of uninterrupted silence” that he intended to sell to Muzak as “an attempt to break through the din of mid-century American culture . . .  and to present the beauty that comes out of stillness.”

While Cage didn’t complete Silent Prayer, we do have 4’33", and this year, a campaign called Cage Against the Machine sought to take 4'33" to the top of the UK Christmas charts, with all proceeds going to charity.  (While 4'33" didn't top the charts, it did take 21st place, a remarkable achievement.)

As reported in the Guardian on December 13:
Last Monday, a group of musicians gathered in the intimate surroundings of Soho's Dean Street studio to record a charity single that they hope will compete against X Factor winner Matt Cardle for Christmas No 1. . . . The silent musicians, including the Kooks, Orbital, Enter Shikari, Dan Le Sac, Scroobius Pip, Suggs from Madness, and (by phone) Billy Bragg and Imogen Heap, were recording a cover of John Cage's 4'33", which features four minutes and 33 seconds of an orchestra not playing anything.
At the opening of the session, Julie Hilliard, one of the organizers of Cage Against the Machine, read:
Here today we are doing something special, we are stopping and appreciating the space between things, the unintentional sounds that make up our world.  I now invite you to honor John Cage’s legacy for our culture, bring your individual meanings to 4’33”, and enjoy the next 4 minutes and 33 seconds together.
Watching the rockers sway in silence as they held their instruments was unexpectedly sweet.  I had to agree with Ben McIldowie (Mr. Hudson), one of the performers, when he said, “There is already enough noise out there.  This is giving people a little time to think.”

To think, yes, and perhaps just to be.  My own thoughts turned to a project by British artist Tristan Surtees and French architect Charles Blanc, who work together under the name Sans façonJohn Metcalf worked with Sans façon to create Odd Sympathies, the sonic walk in Cardiff for which Cage’s 4’33” had been the inspiration.

One of Sans façon’s current projects is called Limelight:  Saturday night.  "In 2010 in six cities across the UK and America, a selection of sidewalks has been turned into impromptu stages by turning streetlights into theatre spotlights."  The image at the head of this post is one result.

As I looked at the Sans façon photograph, I listened to CATM’s recording of 4’33” and wondered what sounds surrounded this graceful young man.  The car passing, the hum of a streetlight, his own breathing, his footfalls as he moved?

I felt somehow refreshed, perhaps as Friko felt on settling in at home after that annoying trip to the supermarket:
How much more civilised it was to sit after dinner and write Christmas cards.  A few chocolates, a glass of mulled wine and a CD by the The Sixteen playing quietly.  Sublime.  My rage melted like snow in the sun.
Or as Wide Open Spaces described last year:
One December many years ago, before satellite radio and 24/7 holiday music stations, the head of my department at work let us leave early one afternoon.  As I made my way home, snowflakes began falling from the skies.  And in a wonderfully serendipitous moment, the radio began to play “White Christmas,” one of my favorite songs.  That happenstance became a wonderful Christmas memory of mine.
Whether your holiday is Christmas, or another, or none at all, we here at Raining Acorns wish for you the sounds—and the silences—that bring you joy.

© Sans façon.  By kind permission of Sans façon.
The photographs in the post are from Sans façon's Limelight:  Saturday night project.  For more great photographs from this project, click here and scroll down to snapshots.

A Potpourri of Sounds and Silences:

Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire, Happy Holidays Remix: 

Drop by Soho the Dog to hear a rendition of Joy to the World like none you've heard before.

To hear The Sixteen, click here.

For a beautiful meditation on silence, read Clare Kirwan's poem The Silence Museum

Cathedral Bells:

And for silence of another sort, here's Cage Against the Machine's 4’33”:

The source for the Cage Silent Night quotation is "What Silence Taught John Cage," by James Pritchett.

An excellent L.A. Times essay on the Cage Against the Machine campaign, including references to some intriguing books about silence, can be found here.  The essay notes that, ironically, "FCC regulations against extended periods of silence would forbid this "American Icon" single to be played on U.S. airwaves."


  1. Mrs T and I were in Tesco's long enough yesterday to hear the Muzak CD loop round. It started with "Merry Christmas" (Slade)

  2. You've done it again! I drafted a post about 4'33" for posting this week and once again we're on the same wavelength!

    Some great links here - and thank you so much for making me one of them!

    p.s. I've been to Tesco twice in the last week and they had NO music on either time. I kind of missed it, but it did make the experience calmer!

  3. My special joy is the sound of an Anglican church on Christmas Eve - the carols take me back to my childhood and my father's church, his voice the loudest as he marched down the aisle in his Christmas regalia, flinging the incense-belching censer out before him.

  4. Dear Raining Acorns,
    Thank you for this wonderful post - as always I learned such a lot (and discuss it with Husband afterwards, who is on the theme of 'silent' or soundless music from a different point of view (though he has to hold two speeches too: on Kesha, a teeny singer, and "Elvis is living").
    I am really fed up with Christmas music and cakes in the supermarket from end of October on. Here they open up the stores on Sunday now - so that people can buy like mad. And everywhere: jingle bells. One radio station plays from December 1st till Holy night nothing else but Christmas songs - and though I love them the rest of the year I boycott them in December.
    But I love Christmas, and wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and enough time for contemplation, reading and listening to good music! Yours Britta

  5. I was cut off a moment ago after posting a comment, which doesn't seem to have got through.

    What I said was something like:

    A wonderful mix, thank you for including me.

    May we all have the kind of Christmas that pleases us, whether silent of joyously noisy, so long as it is genuine and doesn't come out of a tin.

    Merry Christmas to all at Raining Acorns from Friko.

  6. As always, RA, there is a lot to contemplate in your piece. You've given us lots of links to explore and introduced us to new people and compositions.

    Where to begin? First, the Daily Show is always phenomenal - funny and insightful. While no one is too sure about separation of church and state (!), church(Christmas) and commerce are tightly bound at this time of year!

    4'33" sounds like less of an oddity this time of year. While we all can probably use a pause in our busy lives, year round, I imagine everyone needs a break in December, regardless of which, if any, holidays you celebrate. The conglomerate that is Christmas directly or indirectly affects most peoples' jobs, schools, recreation, and travel schedules.

    At my son's holiday concert last week (one of the many things added to my schedule this year!) the choir sang an Amy Grant song titled, "I Need a Silent Night." Although she is a Christian artist (What? Singing her music in a public school?) and the song is primarily about Christmas, the lyrics really resonated with me. In part, they are:

    I've made the same mistake before
    Too many malls, too many stores
    December traffic, Christmas rush
    It breaks me till I push and shove

    Children are crying while mothers are trying
    To photograph Santa and sleigh
    The shopping and buying and standing forever in line
    What can I say?

    I need a silent night, a holy night
    To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise
    I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here
    To end this crazy day with a silent night

    December comes then disappears
    Faster and faster every year
    Did my own mother keep this pace
    Or was the world a different place?

    Where people stayed home wishing for snow
    Watching three channels on their TV
    Look at us now rushing around
    Trying to buy Christmas peace

    I love the concept and photos from the Limelight project - thanks for bringing it to our attention, RA. To all of you out there, I wish you your own moment of peace.

  7. Tenon Saw: Nothing says Christmas like the supermarket loop, eh? Just the other day, I heard the truly execrable "Hippopotamus" song of which WOS spoke. Whoever thought that was a good idea?!

    BB: Love the serendipity of your post, Another few moments of silence, and thanks to you back for the link to RA! Speaking of silence and sounds, I am still hearing whistles and chomps coming from somewhere like Merseyside where someone has made homemade truffles—a woman of many talents are you!

    Carol-Ann: Thank you for adding this beautiful recollection. Your words create a vivid picture of your father in his church. You’ve reminded me of the lovely sound of church bells, and I’ve added a little something on that to the post.

    Britta: How intriguing are your husband’s preoccupations and speeches, and a good laugh thinking of your December boycott!

    Friko: And thank you for recapturing the true spirit of this time of year with your wonderful Advent series.

    WOS: “I Need a Silent Night,” love it! Not to mention your amusing little aside about Amy Grant.

    Happy holidays to all!

  8. So much there that I am not familiar with and then of course reminders of our youth. I listened to Bing, checked out Soho the Dog and had to watch the Jon Stewart clips...quite entertaining. Nicely done!

  9. jms: Glad you checked out Soho the Dog. I don't know why, it just appealed to me the way he went jazzy on Joy to the World! And thanks to Youtube, I was able to have Bing, original version (or at least I think so). They don't croon like that anymore, do they?

  10. Just wanted to wish you a Happy New Year and best wishes for 2011. And a Thank you for your lovely comments over the past year. millyx


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.