The Sound of Silence

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Some time last year I listened to an interesting radio item about a minute’s silence BBC Radio 4 had ‘played’ as an experiment one evening. The ‘silence’ provoked uproar. Many people were furious about it; despite only lasting a minute, they had found it deeply disturbing, and were angry that the BBC had deliberately chosen to broadcast…. nothing.

I was intrigued by the furore, because up until this debate, I had not appreciated just how difficult many people find the presence of silence. Or the absence of noise. I frequently spend entire days in silence if I forget to put the radio on. I love music but it rarely occurs to me to play it whilst I work. I’m usually so absorbed in what I’m doing that I find it difficult to listen to anything anyway, and I suppose I just don’t feel the need for background noise to fill either psychological or physical space.

I was reminded of all of this today at 11am when the two minute silence for Remembrance Sunday was observed over the airwaves.

There had in fact also been a two minute silence on Friday, the actual armistice anniversary. That silence was a real silence: a total absence of any sound whatsoever.

In contrast, after the sonorous ringing of Big Ben at 11am today, the ‘silence’ in fact continued as a strange sound. At first I thought it was sea waves crashing. Then I wondered if it was wind battering a microphone. Then I heard some sort of shouting. “No more war”? I couldn’t quite make it out. I wondered what had prompted this noisy silence, reminiscent of John Cage’s famous work?

I still don’t quite know. I concluded eventually it may have been a recording of the silence happening at the Cenotaph. If so, it was clearly a more realistic ‘silence’ (as Cage’s work demonstrated) than the absolute empty nothingness of the BBC’s broadcast two days earlier.

But I also wondered if it was prompted in part by remembering the outburst of protest last year at the radio broadcasting nothing.

I think the discomfort many people will have felt with absolute silence is perhaps no bad thing in the context of what needs to be remembered at this time. A small price to pay for the huge sacrifices made by so many for their country.

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