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from the Guardian 9 November 2001

CD art and the sound of silence
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent

Like any artist, Jonty Semper wants his audience to settle down and listen carefully through his two CD set, Kenotaphion, which is to be released on Sunday, Armistice Day.

They will hear... nothing. Or rather, seventy years of collected silences, broken by coughing, shuffling feet, bird song or a child crying.

"I really don't think people will find it boring," said Mr Semper, slightly anxiously. "All the silences are quite distinctive. What is remarkable is how different they are."

He has spent the last four years collecting every surviving recording of the two-minute silences at the Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday ceremonies at the Cenotaph in London. The earliest is from a British Movie-tone newsreel of 1929.

Adrian Gregory, a history tutor at Pembroke college, Oxford, an authority on the history of the Armistice Day commemorations and the author of a book on the subject, The Silence of Memory, admitted he found the project "a bit weird" but interesting.

"He is releasing it at a peculiarly appropriate time, when the events of September 11 have renewed interest world-wide in the idea of observing a two minute silence as a public affirmation of solidarity. The recordings are records of an absence, the absence of sound, but an absence which is also a highly political presence."

Mr Gregory published his book in 1994, at what he cheerfully says was "a disastrous point to end the story".

The ceremony was invented by a government committee in 1919 to commemorate the first anniversary of Armistice Day and the two minute silence was suggested by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, former high commissioner of South Africa. The entire country came to a standstill on the 11th hour of the 11th day, with trams and trains stopping, telephone exchanges cut off, and factory machinery shut down.

Mr Gregory's conclusion in 1994 was that the ceremony, transferred to the more convenient nearest Sunday, was dying out. However, that year the Conservative government proclaimed "festivities" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings. There was an emotional backlash, and a popular revival of the two minute silence.

Mr Semper, a conceptual artist who released a single of the silence marking the funeral of Princess Diana, says the oddness of broadcasting silence struck him while he was watching the ceremony on television.

He scoured archives to find the recordings. There are none for some years, including 1941 to 1944, when the ceremony was suspended. For some of the earliest newsreel he had to splice fragments together, looking frame by frame to see when the crowds doffed their hats. The variable sound quality of the recordings has not been evened out, so Big Ben sounds faint in some years, deafening in others. In 1932, somebody near the microphone was coughing miserably; in 1969, there were protesters yelling in the background; in 1982, there was torrential rain; and in 1988, a baby cried.

"This is raw history," Mr Semper said.

>Kenotaphion, 16, released by Locus+ on November 11

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