Whoever said that silence is golden probably never knew that it has a precise dollar value as well. Recently, British composer Mike Batt produced a song for the classical fusion band the Planets that involved no lyrics, no instruments, no rhythm section, no sampled tracks--in effect, the self-explanatory "A Minute's Silence" was made up of nothing at all. Apparently, nothing is something important: Batt was promptly sued for copyright infringement by Peters Edition, publishers of John Cage's 1952 composition "4'33"," which called for a pianist to sit quietly for the titular length of time without striking a note. And like some Dadaist masterpiece, Batt was subsequently forced to "perform" his composition in court.
The idea of being able to copyright personal silence is frightening. When you're taking a walk down some quiet street after all the anonymous kids and parents have gone to sleep, and you're suddenly disturbed by someone's car radio blaring "Hot in Herre" off in the distance, it can make you want to take off just enough clothes to stuff in Nelly's wordhole. In fact, experiencing such things can make you believe that silence doesn't even exist. "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise," John Cage wrote in his 1961 collection of lectures and writings Silence. "When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." And, one might add, when we fear it may overwhelm us, we fill it up with noise.
A good way to do that is by listening to Jucifer's indie-metal album I Name You Destroyer (Velocette). On "Queen B," singer/ guitarist Amber Valentine hisses like some prehistoric beast that's being wrung out like a wet washcloth, while sound from her guitar gushes forth with a Sabbath wrath that could cream Korn. And then it happens: You hear the soft scrape of Valentine's hands slipping off the strings, and the music cuts out. In the following two seconds, you feel your heart walk off the job. Flashing through your brain is the thought that your friends might have to stab a needle directly into your aorta and pump it full of adrenaline to start the blub blub blub again. Hell, you'd fill the syringe with Michelle Branch singles and inject it directly into your ears just to make some noise. But just as soon as it stops, Valentine's guitar starts chug-chug-chugging back in.
Maybe the quiet reminds us of mortality--as Hamlet suggested, death is the only true silence. (Of course, it took him four hours of yammering to get it out.) A corpse in a sound-deprivation chamber is completely mute: Where there was once the squish of organs working and the rush of blood, there is no breath, no heartbeat, no dyspeptic combat with a taco. And maybe that's why fast, noisy rock 'n' roll makes us feel so alive: It's a way to beat the clock. On the Catheters' sophomore album Static Delusions and Stone-Still Days (Sub Pop), the four Seattlites play frenetic, Mudhoney-revivalist punk that illustrates this point: "There's a clock on this wall that's staring me down/The big hand points a finger that drives me to the ground," singer Brian Sandeford warns. Such fatalistic lyrics may seem fitting for someone who orders Liquid Plumr at happy hour, yet Sandeford is not even old enough to order a Kahlúa and milk.
But there's an accelerated chronology to his music: Static Delusions was recorded and mixed in 36 hours by four musicians who are all barely drinking age (or not there yet), and the energy it gives off could threaten OPEC. The last time the Catheters came to Minneapolis and played at the 7th Street Entry, they launched the kind of aural missives that leave your ears ringing so loudly that you lose your balance. And then came that other type of silence, the kind that hangs there, right before the applause comes in.