The mysterious appeal of silent music

From John Cage to Korn, musicians have long composed pieces with no sound. Is it a high-brow joke, an exercise in mindfulness - or a severe case of the 'emperor's new clothes'?

In March 1941, a New York audience gathered outside a Broadway theatre to experience one of the more unusual concerts the city had ever seen. The 13-piece orchestra was led by Raymond Scott (whose tunes would feature heavily in Warner Bros' cartoons), and made a great show of playing their instruments. But the only sounds to emerge were the quiet swish-swishing of the trap drummer and the gentle slapping of the double bass.

The aim, argued Scott, was to produce "silent music", though Time magazine's reviewer reported that his message had "fallen on deaf ears". "It was just provocative enough to make listeners wonder whether the silence of other bands might sound better than Scott's," the reviewer added.

Perhaps Scott's great idea had arrived before its time. Eleven years later, avant-garde composer John Cage would present his most famous composition, 4'33" - a piece of three movements written with the sole instruction that the musician must not make any deliberate sound. It was so radical that even his own mother had doubts. "Now, Earle, don't you think that John has gone too far this time?" she is said to have asked the composer Earle Brown at one of the early performances.

She needn't have worried. Since then, the silent (or near-silent) music canon has grown to include compositions by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Korn, Sigur Ros and the hip-hop group Slum Village, who sell both "explicit" and "clean" versions of their track on iTunes.

Of all the notions most likely to rile more conservative critics, the idea of composing music with no sound may be the most provocative. But can silence ever make a valuable artistic statement? If not, why are people still willing to pay good money for the chance to rest their ears?

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