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How important is the silence?

It’s an interesting question. I recently decided to put my first album ‘The Anomaly Project’ back on sale on all the digital platforms via a new distributor. (The reasons I took it away are also interesting, but not completely relevant here.) Having uploaded all the tracks I finally got my new artwork sorted which I’m very pleased with, and sent it off.

The album was rejected because the final track on the album, “Silence,” has too much silence in it. The message I received was:

“Track 16 has an unacceptable length of silence at the end. Please remove this and resubmit the product. We can process tracks with as much as 4 seconds silence. ”

I was surprised because it had been on itunes for three years without any complaints. So I wrote back to the man at My new distribution agency, who was very kind and understanding of my bewilderment. He wasn’t able to upload it because it didn’t fit the spec. The reason he said was that online music store managers didn’t think patches of silence worked in a digital sense because they are committed to a format where buying individual tracks and playing them in order works.

Now I get this, and I’m not attacking the music retailers for their decision. But it raises a few questions in my mind. First of all… I am pretty sure I’ve bought albums in the past that had long passages of silence at the end. But perhaps this was in the pre-download age. You might listen to an album all the way through and be surprised to find it was still playing long after the sound had stopped. Sometimes there would be a hidden track 20 minutes later.

I wanted my album to descend into silence. I remember we debated for some time about the length of this silence. It’s only about 20 seconds in the end. But is it completely silent? Or is there something in it? I feel like the silence contains an energy of something I wanted to communicate.

As Daniel Barenboim says in his 2006 Reith Lectures for BBC Radio 4, “sound does not exist by itself, but has a permanent constant and unavoidable relation with silence.”

He talks about how sound arises out of silence and goes back into silence. There is a certain, finite amount of energy that we put into creating sound, but eventually, according to the laws of nature, that energy will run out, and the note will die.

“This relation between sound and silence is imperative to understand, because it does produce the first tragic element of expression in music.”

So there is some question about whether sound and silence can be separated so clearly.

The other thing that concerns me is the idea that patches of silence might not work in a digital format, because people need to buy individual tracks and play them in order.

Would it be so very alarming for an unscheduled gap to appear in somebody’s playlist? Do we, as listeners, really require every moment of our experience to be filled with noise? Is the silence before and after one form of expression different to the silence before and after another? I think it is. I’m pretty sure Harold Pinter thought it was too.

What would happen if they didn’t like the silence? Probably the same thing as would happen if they didn’t like the sound. They would press a button and eradicate it from their ears at once. So what makes my silence more unpalatable than the sound of, say, Bruno Mars singing?

“The rest is silence” says Hamlet at the end of the play. What does he mean? While I don’t have time to go into an in-depth analysis of that here, I’m fairly sure death played a part. So can we conclude that an abhorrence of gaps on itunes playlists equates to a fear of death?

On that cheery note, here is the song in question, set to a video I made in the London Aquarium. Incidentally this version does not feature the full silence at the end, simply because I ran out of jellyfish footage. It happens.

And here’s a link to the brilliant, profound and thought-provoking Reith Lectures by Daniel Barenboim – I heartily recommend them – you can read/listen to them here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2006/lecture1.shtml

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Phil #

    Loads of really interesting thoughts in there. For me the thing you didn’t comment on which is one of my passions is the album vs the individual track.

    I love lots of things about the way we get music nowadays and the digital platform but I will always love the album more that anything else. I believe it evolved to be about an hour and about 10 tracks because that fits in our heads right. Its a natural thing and in that I think periods of silence can be really powerful just as the lack of gaps in ‘Abbey Road’ make for a really progressive feel.

    I agree that in the context of iTunes silence doesn’t work very well and as you suggest will tend to get skipped (maybe less often than Bruno’s siniging I’ve no idea) but in the context of an album (when listened to as it should be from start to finish) its a really useful tool that an artist shouldn’t have to be without.

    May 11, 2012
  2. Hey Phil, thanks for your comment! It’s a really good point. I also love the album format and as a creator of music I find one of the joys of making an album is putting it together in an order that makes sense. Even if many people will never hear it in that way, there are always some that will. I find exercising that level of attention to detail really satisfying. And coming up with a title that knits it all together, it’s like giving birth and naming your baby. Then you can let go of it…

    May 16, 2012

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