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The Year of Living Distantly: Songs For the End of Silence

With the end of the COVID-19 lockdown being bruited loudly in the press, Graeme Thomson the idea that ‘silence is perfection’ and where we can still find it in great music.

Detail from Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Frau am Fenster’: Google Art Project
Songs For the End of Silence

With the end of the COVID-19 lockdown being bruited loudly in the press, Graeme Thomson the idea that ‘silence is perfection’ and where we can still find it in great music.

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Several years ago, I interviewed Paul Buchanan, the lead singer of the stubbornly brilliant Scottish band, The Blue Nile. Offering a circuitous answer to the question of why his group had released only four albums in 25 years, Buchanan pondered the wider purpose of making music. “Silence is perfection,” he said. “How do you improve on that?”

At the beginning of lockdown, many of us I suspect struggled with the arrival of more time and space into our lives. The natural instinct, perhaps, was to confront it, to fill it with the comfort and distraction of noise. For lots of us, popular music helped with that. Loud, extreme, heavy, happy, abrasive – whatever worked.

I discovered that as time went on I preferred to lean into all that newly available silence and space, to knead it and stretch it, and see what it might yield as I travelled inside it. Music, too, has had an important part to play in that process. So much so, that as the prospect of a loosening of lockdown conditions appears ever more likely after this weekend, I find myself holding onto the music of silence more tightly than ever, reluctant to let it go.

Silence is not passive. It offers a challenge. Some of the most confrontational music I know happens to present as the stillest, the most quiet. It can be meditative, of course, but also daring and transgressive.

The Blue Nile certainly understood the power and elegance of a hushed palette, but as the ambient volume around us begins to rise again (it has, in truth, being getting louder for weeks) I find myself gravitating once more towards the records which have sound-tracked much of my lockdown – perhaps most frequently, Van Morrison’s Common One.

Music is Measured Silence

Released in 1980, Common One is Morrison’s most wildly unanchored record, seeing off stiff competition from his two other free-flowing masterpieces, Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece. The titles tell part of the story — Haunts Of Ancient Peace; Wild Honey; Summertime In England — but only hint at the full immersion. The final song on Common One is not really a song at all. When Heart Is Open spends 15 minutes exploring the outer edges of nothingness, as though asking the question: how little can music do and still be music?

It begins with a horn that scopes the silence like a beam of light sweeping across a cold dark sea. There is no rhythm; settled rhythm is the enemy of this music. A series of guitar notes fall into earshot apparently of their own accord, like snow-melt, and the gait of the music slowly shifts one way and then back again, like a galleon creaking in dock.

In this hushed landscape, Morrison’s voice is simply another breeze blowing through. It offers a gruff, wheezed, sometimes wordless incantation on a single theme of transformation — ‘When heart is open, you will change just like a flower, slowly opening’ — intent on taking the listener to a place where there is ‘no coming, and no going’. Just here, just now.

When Heart Is Open was heavily influenced by the title track of Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way.

Recorded and released in 1969, In A Silent Way is jazz stripped of its modal leaps and complex chord structures. It offers instead wide open plains of undulating texture, punctuated with repetitive clusters of small, tight grooves. There is no swing. Frequently, it is the music of drift, though not so overtly as Brian Eno’s 1975 album Discreet Music which, pertinently, grew out of a period of quasi-quarantine.

Eno had already explored ambient practices in previous works, but the catalyst for full immersion was the period he spent in hospital following a car accident. A visitor had put on a record of harp music for him before leaving. The volume was too low, and he didn’t feel sufficiently well to get out of bed and fix it. As random, barely-audible harp notes mingled with the sound of the rain outside and other, almost imperceptible noises in the room, Eno perceived music as part of the wider sonic environment rather than separate from it.

Following in the footsteps of the minimalist works of Satie, John Cage and Gavin Bryars, among others, Discreet Music offers a mix of silence, found sound and composed music. It is everything and nothing.

Though sonically quite different, the second part of Kate Bush’s double album, Aerial, plays with similar concepts. Several tracks are intermingled or punctuated with the song of the blackbird and the sounds of nature. The suite follows the arc of a single summer day, from daybreak to the following dawn. You can close your eyes and imagine yourself there. It will be time well spent.

Mark Hollis — who died last year — was the lead singer and songwriter in Talk Talk, whose journey from bright 80s synth-poppers to experimental post-rock pioneers involved a gradual shucking off of conventional notions of clarity, meaning, sound.

When the band ended, Hollis made just one solo album, released in 1998. The first 20 seconds of the opening track, The Colour Of Spring, consist only of silence. They are an integral part of the song, a blank overture freighted with the promise of what is to come. On a rapturously quiet record made entirely with miked-up acoustic instruments, primarily piano and woodwind, Hollis’s voice becomes simply one more quiver in the grain, a tonal blip.

Hollis did not release any more music in the remaining 21 years of his life. Listening again to his extraordinary record, you sense that he had reached a place where the only meaningful statement that remained was stillness. The music of silence became his final song. More than ever, it’s one worth hearing.

The next few days may be the last opportunity for a while to truly appreciate it.

Graeme Thomson is a writer and author. His biography of John Martyn, ‘Small Hours’, is published by Omnibus Press on 9 July.

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