The Restorative Pause of Silent Record Week ~ The New Yorker


In 1959, a group of undergraduates at the University of Detroit sneaked two records into a jukebox in the snack bar at the Student Activities Building: one was silent, and the other played a short beep every fifteen seconds. A pretty solid gag—until people started purposefully cueing up the records. They were played so often, in fact, that their surfaces wore down from overuse, and they had to be replaced by fresh pressings. A Billboard reporter attributed the unexpected success of the silent records to “an especially determined group of somber radicals,” but it mostly just seemed as if people were increasingly eager to secure a moment of peace. The students started their own label, the Hush Record Label Company, to meet the demand. “Other customers are willing to pay for sound, but here was a group willing to put nickels in the chute in return for nothing at all,” Billboard marvelled.

The following year, the same students declared the first week of January to be Silent Record Week and hosted a revue to celebrate. Performances included a theatre critic presenting “Famous Pauses from Great Drama,” a d.j. playing “Great Things Left Unsaid by Philosophers,” and a group of sixty-five vocalists “non-singing” a piece called “The Anvil Chorus,” accompanied by twenty anvils being gently tapped by rubber mallets. The timing felt deliberate: there is perhaps no other week on the calendar in which Americans are more desperate for a flash of quietude, a pause in which to take stock and collectively reconsider our life styles. January is the month most intimately linked with abstention: no more overindulging. We reorient our lives around a list of optimistic resolutions—self-betterment via denial.

Silence itself is often linked with piousness and a kind of dignified reserve. The monastic vow of silence is solemn and unforgiving; we linger in a moment of silence to commemorate grim events; we punish each other for transgressions by responding to earnest entreaties with stone-faced silence. But silence is also a balm; even the briefest retreat from the gnawing din of humanity can be spiritually and physiologically curative. Researchers have referred to pervasive sound pollution as a “modern plague.” A study from 2006 in the medical journal Heart found that silence was more effective at lowering heart rate and blood pressure than playing relaxing music. (The scientists discovered that people actually chilled out more during the inadvertent break between songs.) A study from 2013 in Brain Structure and Function discovered that two hours of silence each day led to the development of new cells in the hippocampus of mice, the region of the brain most firmly associated with memory, learning, and emotion.

Though it has been more than sixty years since the students in Detroit took over that jukebox, the idea of paying for a moment of silence still feels relevant. (Right now, within a few blocks of my Brooklyn apartment, there are opportunities to shell out a hundred and nine dollars to float in a sensory-deprivation tank for an hour or nine hundred and sixty dollars for a series of transcendental-meditation courses.) Much of modern wellness is concerned with escaping one’s self, but, at the same time, the self—as brand, as business—has become increasingly monetized. Every day, we are told to both cultivate and erase ourselves.

My own relationship to silence is complicated. Since the nineteen-eighties, when portable audio became readily available, it has been possible for anyone with a little disposable income to spend an entire day immersed in a bespoke audiosphere of one’s own design: to willfully curate exactly what you hear and exactly what you don’t. That this has become not just socially acceptable but perhaps even socially preferable is astounding—where I live, at least, it’s unusual to see people out for a run, or sitting on the subway, or standing in line at Duane Reade without headphones tucked into their ears. (I wrote about the ubiquity of headphone use back in 2016.) I’ve had to learn how to mediate the impulse in myself. Going for a walk while listening to music is fun for a lot of reasons, but, in part, because it casts the listener as the precise center of the universe, and everyone else as a bit player in that melodrama—your problems and your pleasures suddenly become beautiful and important, because they’re all that you can access. My resolution for 2020 was to resist perpetual sound: to nurture silence when I can, and when I can’t, to be more mindful of the natural sound of the world around me.

Perhaps the most famous instance of institutionalized “silence” is John Cage’s “4’ 33”,” a conceptual piece that he began working on in the late nineteen-forties. “4’ 33” ” is not silent, exactly, but is instead the sound of musicians in a room not playing their instruments—and the sound of a fidgeting audience, unsure of how to metabolize the musicians’ inaction. Since it was first performed, near Woodstock, New York, in 1952, “4’33” ” has confounded and occasionally titillated listeners, inspiring many (very good) volumes of scholarly analysis and meditations on the definition of music. No performance of the work is ever the same. Cage was frustrated by the mixed response that the piece received, which included heckles from the crowd. “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, following the première. “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Ultimately, there’s a difference between accidental silence and the deliberate playing of a silent record or a piece like “4’33”.” These projects do the simple yet profound work of formally containing a few minutes—of demarcating time and calling attention to it. I like their certainty, and the way they offer a kind of sanctioned time-out, a small but serious protest against abundance. Suddenly, all sound is music, and all life is art—a corny idea, maybe, but also a powerful way of humanizing the world.

The Church of John Coltrane ~ The New Yorker

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The church offers weekly services, where scripture is interspersed between spirited jam sessions.


Franzo and Marina King had recently moved from the Midwest to San Francisco when they decided to celebrate their first wedding anniversary by going to hear John Coltrane play at the Jazz Workshop. It was 1965, and the saxophonist was in the midst of a radical transformation, infatuated with a style of playing that was rapturous and free. “When he walked out, the Holy Ghost walked out with him,” Marina remembered. The couple had a spiritual experience. At times, it was as though Coltrane was looking directly at them while he played. “In our minds, we felt like he knew who we were and what we were there for, even if we did not know ourselves.”

From the outside, the church looks like any other house of worship.

Archbishop Franzo King, who founded the church with his wife, Marina.

Wanika K. Stephens, Franzo and Marina’s daughter and a pastor in the church, hosts the jazz show “Uplift!” on KPOO 89.5 FM.

After that show, which they came to think of as their “sound baptism,” the Kings became obsessed with Coltrane. They had come to San Francisco to be closer to Franzo’s brother, but they were also in search of community, and one place they discovered it was in their regular listening sessions with friends, studying records by Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. Eventually, they started a small jazz club. Coltrane’s death, in 1967, at the age of forty, devastated the music world. For one thing, he had seemed immortal, as though he had already merged with the cosmos. “I believe in all religions,” he famously said. He had become fascinated with the music and belief systems of Africa and Asia, exploring ways to capture the whole of existence in a string of notes. The music he was making at the end of his life was fiery and chaotic, in search of a transcendent beauty that few people yet recognized as such.


Bar Shiru, the Bay Area’s first hi-fi vinyl bar, is a haven for audiophiles ~ Berkeleyside NOSH

Aretha Biopic ‘Respect,’ ~ RollingStone

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It takes less than a minute for Jennifer Hudson to prove exactly why Aretha Franklin herself chose her to portray Franklin in the queen of soul’s upcoming biopic. The teaser emphasizes Hudson’s worthy vocals as she stands alone on stage singing “Respect!” In a shimmering gold gown, Hudson is illuminated by neon letters behind her that spell out the legendary demand. The short clip wraps up with an invitation for viewers to “find out what it means” in 2020, and we cannot wait to do so.


Courtney Barnett Covers Leonard Cohen On MTV Unplugged [Watch]

Australian indie darling Courtney Barnett performed an MTV Unplugged concert in Melbourne last week, treating fans to a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “So Long, Marianne”.

The cover came at the end of a set of reworked originals that saw the singer-songwriter translate some of her heavier, fem-rock anthems into softer, more melodic displays of a different kind of raw emotion, including “Avant Gardner” and “Depreston”. The whole concert, available on YouTube, is very reminiscent of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, minus the candles and Meat Puppets covers.

But it was her cover of “So Long, Marianne”, from 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, that saw Barnett make the difficult decision of how to go about covering the late legend, figuring out how to emulate the understated-yet-intense emotion inherent in Cohen’s low growl. It’s actually a similar question that Barnett faced when reworking her own songs: what approach to take? Does one try and build the songs up even more with added emphasis on melody to fill the void of amplification, or strip everything down and let the pain and loneliness in one’s voice be the amplification? Barnett, just like with the rest of her Unplugged performance, went with the latter.

Related: Courtney Barnett Rocks Grateful Dead Cover On ‘The Tonight Show’ [Watch]

Courtney Barnett –  MTV Unplugged – “So Long, Marianne” [Leonard Cohen cover]

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Courtney Barnett – MTV Unplugged – Full Show Playlist

[Video: milkrecordsmelbourne]

Barnett is currently in the midst of an Australian tour, which keep her Down Under until she returns to the Northern hemisphere on January 18th to play at Wilco‘s Blue Sky Festival in Mexico. After that, she will depart on her first-ever solo run through the United States, which will see Barnett play 14 shows in less than three weeks across the country before closing out at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. Tickets for that tour are available here.

50 Years After Altamont: The End of the 1960s ~ NYT

A reluctant rock concert attendee, Bill Owens nevertheless photographed the disastrous 1969 music festival Altamont and the close of an era.

CreditBill Owens


Photographs by

Text by


A half-century ago, 1969 capped a radical, idealistic decade that saw the rise of the hippie generation and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Woodstock, perhaps the most famous concert ever, happened that summer, with free love and drugs serving as backdrops to sets by Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Richie Havens and others.

But another large, raucous rock festival that year became notorious for very different reasons: Altamont. That December, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead organized an impromptu concert at Altamont Speedway, in the golden hills of Northern California’s East Bay, that drew an estimated 300,000 people. Four people died, including a man who was killed by members of the Hells Angels who had been hired to provide “security” for the event.

So much for peace and love.

Credit…Bill Owens

Credit…Bill Owens

Credit…Bill Owens

Credit…Bill Owens


The concert was featured in the documentary film “Gimme Shelter,” and a few photojournalists captured the experience. Among them was Bill Owens, who would soon rise to photographic fame for his seminal early 1970s project “Suburbia,” which cheekily documented the rise of the suburbs in California.

In December 1969, he was working as a photographer for The Independent, a newspaper in nearby Livermore, Calif., when his friend Beth Bagby and her boyfriend, Robert, who worked for The Associated Press, called to see if he wanted to shoot the concert. His editors gave him the day off as long as he let them publish a photo of the gathering.

“The concert was going to be on a Saturday morning,” he recalled. “For some reason I had a motorcycle, probably because it was $85. So I drove my motorcycle out, and I went on the back roads. People were abandoning their cars, so pretty soon I had to ditch the motorcycle, because there was a barbed-wire fence there, and I couldn’t take it up this hill.”


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Five myths about country music

November 27, 2019 at 12:04 p.m. MST



Love it or leave it, country music — with its whiskey-soaked nostalgia and crying steel guitars, its trains, trucks and lost love — is a defining feature of the American soundscape. This fall, Ken Burns’s documentary series, along with an outpouring of Dolly Parton tributes on NPR, Netflix and the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, has trained a spotlight on the genre. Still, myths infuse many people’s understanding of country music — and some of them are integral to its appeal.

Myth No. 1

Country is white music for white people.

Country is just white to the bone,” the Daily Beast wrote in September. This racial association is so strongly embedded in American culture that it recently supplied the punchline for a “Saturday Night Live” skit, in which Kenan Thompson quipped, “A sea of white faces is just looking back at me, and I thought, oh, Lord help me, this must be what it’s like to be Darius Rucker!”

In fact, the genre’s signature sound has diverse roots. African American string bands were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and played the same types of music, on the same types of instruments, as their white counterparts. Jimmie Rodgers, the “father of country music,” made a number of recordings with African American musicians, including Louis Armstrong. In the 1940s and ’50s, Mexican performers in the Southwest United States mixed their musical styles, including ranchera and norteño, with country; mariachi-style trumpets are heard on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Johnny Rodriguez, whose songs featuring Spanish lyrics topped the country charts starting in the 1970s, amplified similar influences.

Today, the sounds of Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson unapologetically blend soul and country. Within the past year, rapper Lil Nas X had a viral hit, “Old Town Road,” that challenged listeners’ — and the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart’s — definition of the genre, and Jimmie Allen, another African American artist, debuted with a No. 1 single on country radio, a ballad called “Best Shot.” According to a survey by the Country Music Association, the genre’s fastest-growing audience is non-white and Hispanic listeners.

Myth No. 2

Country music listeners are mostly working-class.

From Kacey Musgraves’s “Blowin’ Smoke” to Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man,” working-class narratives are a staple of country lyrics. The claim that the working class constitutes the genre’s “core audience” has been repeated by sources from Nash Country Daily to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Country music is certainly rooted in the working class, but as America’s midcentury prosperity spurred migration to suburban and urban settings, the audience changed.

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