No Music Day: 2011

12 January 2011

Tomorrow is to be my personal and private No Music Day, well in fact most days in my life are no music days for me these days, as I have long since chosen not to have any means with which recorded music can be played in my home. But tomorrow is to be my No Music Day out of choice. It is the one that I chose some months ago, to be the day that I would attempt to focus my mind on certain topics and try and get whatever those thoughts might be down into my note book, but that is tomorrow, today is the first anniversary of the earthquake to hit Port-au-Prince in Haiti. More of that later.

As you may be aware, No Music Day was something that I launched publicly in 2005, with the website That No Music Day fell on the 21 November each year. And No Music Day was governed by a Five Year Plan. Thus the last of those No Music Days was on 21 November 2009.

Over those five years the idea of No Music Day attracted much media attention and in turn generated plenty public debate. There were many opportunities for me to explore in writing and interviews as to why I think we needed to have a No Music Day. It seemed that I had to explain several hundred times that it was not an anti music event, nor did I think that music used to be better than what it is now, and I did not have a problem with people choosing to listen to music where and however they wanted. And I did not think of other peoples listening habits as noise pollution. But, as I explained what seemed like several thousand times, No Music Day was a day we could use to think about our evolving relationship with music and what we want from it, instead of just accepting it. 

People obviously wanted to know why I had chosen the 21 November to be No Music Day. And I would tell them that there was this lad I knew when I was a teenager, he was the drummer in a band called Saint Cecilia, they had a novelty record that got to number 12 in the charts, Leap Up And Down Wave Your Knickers In The Air produced by Jonathon King, they were the only band from Corby to ever have a hit. I thought it strange that a band should have a saint’s name as their band name. He told me that they had chosen the name because Saint Cecilia was the patron saint of music.  It still didn’t make much sense to me then, but that was all back in 1971. 

Over the decades, Saint Cecilia being the patron saint of music was one of those trivial facts that stayed in my mind. Thus when I started to wonder which day I should chose to have as a No Music Day, I thought it might be good to have it the day before Saint Cecilia’s Day, the day according the Catholic calendar, we celebrate and give thanks to God for having music. A sort of famine before the feast sort of thing. So I put Saint Cecilia into Google and discovered her saint’s day to be on the 22 November. Thus No Music Day would be on the 21st. Not that I wanted to give this No Music Day some sort of religious overtone you understand.

Back in 2005 before I had got the No Music Day website up, I had no real plans for what it should be. It had started in my imagination as a personal thing, something that I might just do on my own. But once I had written the statement that began:




I could not stop myself from wanting to get a website up, thus inviting others to join me in taking part in it. The statement got turned into one of my Penkiln Burn NOTICES and later a SCORE for The17

At around the same time as this I had been invited to do a billboard advert as an art piece in Liverpool. This billboard was at the entrance to one of the Mersey Tunnels. I used this opportunity to use the billboard to announce the launching of No Music Day. But I also liked the way that it linked into my memories of when I would drive through this tunnel with the radio on, this was back in the 70s or early 80s, and how the radio signal would fade and then fall silent as you entered the tunnel and then come back on when you drove out at the other end. Back then, I would have these fantasies when deep under the Mersey, that when I got out the tunnel at the other side, the music would not return and in fact all the music in the world would have disappeared. But as soon as we could have cassette players in cars or vans I have never been able to indulge in that fantasy in quite the same way. 

Anyway back to the billboard, once it was done and up I thought it looked brilliant, even though I knew that the thousands who would drive past it for the month that is was up, would have no idea what it was about.

Billboard Poster: Entrance to Mersey Tunnel, Liverpool, UK

Photograph taken by John Hirst

For the 2006 No Music Day, Resonance FM, the London based radio station, wanted to embrace the idea of No Music Day. This seemed to be quite adventurous to me. Although an experimental station, it was still a predominately music based station, so for them to be going without music for 24 hours was quite a challenge. I remember that the weekly Jazz programme that fell on that particular day spent the whole programme discussing the evolution of album sleeve artwork for Jazz records.

Resonance FM was then based in Denmark Street in Soho. Denmark Street was the traditional Tin Pan Alley of London. It is still where all the music shops are. But more importantly for my own personal myth, it is where I had bought my Gibson 330, for £130 back in 1970. And it is on this guitar that I have written every song that I have ever had a hand in writing. For me Denmark Street will always represent the music business in this country. To celebrate Resonance FM embracing No Music Day, I went and stole a ROAD CLOSED sign from some road works near where I live, and placed it at the entrance to Denmark Street. In my head I was symbolically closing down the whole of the British music business for the day. The sign was soon removed, but not before I had it photographed.

The following year (2007) things were stepping up somewhat; BBC Radio Scotland asked if they could do No Music Day. This is a mainstream national radio station with several million regular listeners. By removing all music from the station for 24 hours, meant that all the station idents and jingles that were music based were not played. These included the ones that they used on the run up to the news or the weather forecast. It also caused a lot of negative emails and phone calls from licence fee payers, stating it was them that paid for the station and they did not want this sort of pretentious and indulgent goings on at there literal expense. There were others who stated that the only outcome of the day would be them switching to a rival station and they may never switch back. To balance that, there were loads who thought it a great idea and maybe they should have a No Music Day every week.

For me, having BBC Radio Scotland, not only endorsing it but embracing it completely, was a major coo. This was my country, and in my head anyway, it meant that the whole of the land was, in one sense, taking part in it. To celebrate this, I had a road sign made. In the dead of night, I fitted my sign to the pillars holding up the Scotland Welcomes You sign. This was by the side of the M6 as you cross the border at Gretna Green.

It was having BBC Radio Scotland taking part that brought the rest of the main stream of the media in, wanting to debate the whole idea. There didn’t seem to be a radio station in the country that was not trying to get me to come on air to discuss No Music Day. From the most trivial programmes to the most high brow all wanted a slice of it. BBC Radio stations 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 all had me on at some point through the 24 hours doing the discussing and debating.

Early in 2008, I got an invitation from some folk in Brazil. They wanted me to come out there and ‘do’ No Music Day. My preconception of Brazil was of a place where music is being played everywhere, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The idea of Brazil without music for just one hour seemed as unlikely as Brazil not getting to the World Cup finals. How could I refuse the invitation? The reality was, I was not being invited, by the Brazilian government, or some large radio station to come over but by an avant-garde composer cum academic who thought the idea an intellectually interesting one. So there was no big budget to make any sort of real impression, but he and his colleagues did agree to print up a few hundred poster of the No Music Day NOTICE translated into Portuguese and have them fly-posted around the city. And they agreed to do some graffiti. I just wanted the date 21 NOV painted on walls, with no further explanation. Both of these things they did and emailed me the photographic evidence.

21 NOV - Flyover - Sao Paulo, Brazil

So I flew out to São Paulo with no expectations. My hosts had translated the No Music Day site into the Portuguese spoken by Brazilians. They had also decided to print several thousand flyers that both proclaimed and explained No Music Day. I was there as their guest and was willing to do whatever they required of me in the celebration and promotion of No Music Day 2008. The day was spent walking the streets of downtown São Paulo, going up to anyone listening to personal stereos and asking them to remove their headphones, before explaining to them (in English) that it was No Music Day and handing them a flyer. 

Then there were the buskers – one of these, a flautist, I put money in his hat on the understanding that he would not play any music for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Another, a girl with wild hair, shades, accordian and striking voice, was all very apologetic. It was her first day as a busker and if she had known it was No Music Day, she would have not have started until tomorrow.

Then my hosts took me to the street in São Paulo where all the musical instrument shops were, their Tin Pan Alley, their Denmark Street. These music shop and the blokes that worked in them, looked identical to the ones in the UK. The same amps, drum kits, same T-shirts, the same impressive licks on the same Japanese electric guitars. And most of them took me turning up proclaiming it to be No Music Day with good humour. They were keen to enter into debate with me about the background to having a No Music Day. Then we gate crashed a commercial radio station; the folk there were not as welcoming as the blokes in the music shops. 

There were some surprising things about the two days I spent in the city – at no time did I see any lads doing any sort of amazing balls skills à la Ronaldinho and I did not see anyone dance to Samba music, or even hear any vaguely Latin American rhythms. So much for preconceptions.

One thing that I am pretty certain of, there was no less music played in Brazil on the 21 November 2008, than there was on the 20th or the 22nd. This is something that cannot be said for Linz on the 21 November 2009. 

Linz in Austria was to be the European Capital of Culture for 2009. Part of them embracing this accolade was a to promote a thing called the Hörstadt Initiative (Acoustic City)

The idea behind this Hörstadt Initiative was for the city of Linz to have as a goal to cut its noise pollution by half in the next ten years. Their thinking being that noise pollution causes far more distress to the citizens of a city than the look of the place. That governments spend lots of time controlling what does and does not get built based on what proposed building are going to look like, but none on what sound and noise these buildings may generate. They wanted Linz to be the first city in the world to tackle this problem and for them to be like some sort of beacon that other cities could follow. I had no arguments with this, why should I? 

Linz’s Hörstadt Initiative was to start on International Noise Awareness Day which is the 29 April 2009 (which also so happens to be my birthday) and was to end on 21 November – No Music Day. They flew me out to do PR. I was photographed standing on a boat in the middle of the Danube holding a leaving LINZ road sign.

Linz, N.M.D. Danube, Bill Drummond (2)

Photograph taken by Tracey Moberly

The whole city was to observe No Music Day. It had been decreed by the Burgomeister himself and every one of the citizens were not only encouraged but expected to embrace it.

It so happened that No Music Day 2009 fell on a Saturday. I was brought over to the city to be guest of honour for the day. There attention to detail had been almost complete. And now I will list some of the cities achievements on that day: The mass in the Cathedral was not sung; none of the local radio stations played any music, all concerts from the symphony orchestra to the Oompah band playing in the bierkeller were re-scheduled; no rock bands were playing in any of the bars; discothèques did not start spinning disks until after midnight; the hourly chiming bells in the market place were silenced for the day; the cinema only showed films that had no musical soundtracks and none of the shops played any piped music, even the big name fashion chain shops.

Well the last on the list is not quite true. I was taken around the city centre on that Saturday afternoon to inspect that all the shops were adhering to the dictact. We came across a shop that wasn’t. The shop assistant told me that he wanted to have the music off, as it drives him up the wall, hearing the same music day in and day out, but when his boss came in he told him that they had to put it back on. The boss was called for. He was not local, he was Algerian. The conversation that went between me and him went something like this:

‘Did you not know it is No Music Day?’

‘Yes I know they say it is No Music Day, but we do not have to do what these far right politicians want us to do.’

‘What do you mean far right politicians..?’

‘The government, the city councillors, whoever they are, they want to control us. They want to keep order for orders sake. They want to stop people from being themselves. I came to this country to get away from the restrictions of Algeria. But those that are running the country here, want to take it back to Nazi times.’

‘No Music Day has got nothing to do with the Nazis. I am an artist from the UK and No Music Day was my idea. I have been doing it at different places over these past five years. And I am anything but a Nazi.’

‘You might not be a Nazi or even of the far right, but you are being used by them without you even knowing it. You may have all sorts of reasons for having a No Music Day. But they are just using it so they can build up more control over the people by pretending it is art and for all sorts of good reasons. How much have they paid you to be here? How much have they paid you for your No Music Day? Whatever they have paid you is what you have sold your soul for. For your sake I hope it was a lot. Every right wing, left wing, Islamic or Christian dictatorship have used artists to make the propaganda seem interesting and inviting. Have you not read your history, this is the city where Hitler grew up?’

We shook hands and I went on my way. His words started a whole process of thoughts in my head. I have gone on record numerous times arguing the case that state sponsored art is always corrupted art. As soon as you have accepted an Arts Council grant you have compromised yourself. You are no more than a propagandist for those holding the reins of power. And if you think otherwise you are only fooling yourself. 

And then there was the busker who was playing his xylophone. I tried to engage him in conversation, asked him if he had not seen the flyers or read it in the papers about it being No Music Day. It was only then that I realised he was blind. He had an audience of a mother with a pushchair and an old lady. What should I do? Take his sticks from him or smash the xylophone? I did neither. Instead I walked away and comforted myself in the fact that the rest of the city had fallen in line.

That evening as darkness fell, I stood in the middle of Linz’s main bridge over the Danube. On one side of the river I could see the cathedral with it bells silenced for the day. On the other side was the very impressive ARS Electronica building. All very futuristic and impressive. I was not too sure what this ARS Electronica place was for. Sort of a cathedral for digital media based art would be my vague guess. But right there and then while standing on the bridge over the Danube, I did not care, as what was happening before my eyes made me feel like I was the greatest artist alive on the planet today. From the outside, this ARS Electronica building looks like it is made from panels of glass. Each of these panels can be lit up separately. These lights can also be programmed to come on and off at different times. What I was watching was all these lit panels switching on and off. But this was not just some random thing, what they had been programmed to do is make three simple words go around and around this building. And the letters of these words were each several stories high. This was massive. Thousands of people were crossing this bridge on the their way back from work. No one could miss it. No one could fail not to be impressed. And the three words, that kept on going around and around the building, was NO MUSIC DAY.

ARS Electronica - NMD 1: 2009

Photograph taken by Bill Drummond on mobile phone

ARS Electronica - NMD: 2009 - Linz Austira

Photograph taken by Bill Drummond on mobile phone

ARS Electronica - NMD: 2009 - Linz Austira

Photograph taken by Bill Drummond on mobile phone

ARS Electronica - NMD: 2009 - Linz Austira

Photograph taken by Bill Drummond on mobile phone

In the past I have often proclaimed that no artist should make-work bigger than themselves. That big art always relies of the tactics of the playground bully. Big art uses size to impress and big art is used by states and regimes to keep the people down. And the people are seduced by it; they willingly let themselves be kept down. And here I was being impressed by the size of my own art. Not only was it the size of my words going around and around ARS Electronica, but the fact that the whole of Linz on this 21 November 2008 was like one big artwork and I was the artist responsible for it. By some definition that I could not quite define this must have been my most successful artwork to date.

Linz 2009 was the last of the years in the Five Year Plan for No Music Day. It had definitely ended on an almighty high. 

Less than a month later I was in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. I had been invited there as one of the invited artists at the first Ghetto Biennale. I have written at length else where, what I did there and how it went. But for the sake of this text I want to remind you of the graffiti that I painted on a wall there – it read IMAJINE OU LEVE DEMEN EPI MIZIK DISPARÈT and translated into English that reads IMAGINE WAKING TOMORROW & ALL MUSIC HAD DISAPPEARED. The same graffiti that I have done in various languages around the globe. But it was after they had their earthquake on the 12 January 2010, two-and-a-half-weeks after I returned to the UK, that this graffiti took on a different meaning altogether.

IMAJINE graffiti in Haitian Kreyol, made by Bill Drummond in of The Grand Rue, Port-au-Prince, Haiti: 2009

Photograph taken by John Hirst

São Paulo may not have been the 24-hour a day, 365 days a year non-stop sort of music place, as I imagined it to be, but Port-au-Prince certainly was. The battered but brightly painted and decorated tap-tap buses, that are everywhere in Port-au-Prince, all have a sound system on board. Each of them blaring out tunes. It as if there are hundreds of these mobile discothèques criss-crossing the city from before dawn to well past dusk. At no time that I was in the city, could I not hear music coming from somewhere. 

In the aftermath of the earthquake along with all the information that was getting through to me about who had died and who had survived, of the people that I had worked with, I learnt something else. On the 13 January 2010, the day after the earthquake, was the first day, anyone alive in the city could ever remember, when there was no music playing or being played anywhere. All the tap-taps had fallen silent. There was no electricity to power sound systems or radios or anything. The last thing that any actual musician was going to be doing was playing their instruments. Other than the howling of dogs and the wailing of the dieing, there were hardly any sounds at all. This was truly the first No Music Day that I had witnessed even if I was not witnessing it directly or even as it happened. 

This put paid to my vanities regarding the success of Linz. This was almost that phrase ‘pride comes before a fall’ writ large. And then I started to learn that the wall that I had done the IMAJINE OU LEVE DEMEN EPI MIZIK DISPARÈT graffiti on was one of the few walls left standing in that area of the city. And that people were now seeing this graffiti as a prophesy of the earthquake to come. This in turn made some small corner of my brain think that I, being the instigator of No Music Day and painter of the graffiti, was responsible for creating this very much more complete, in every sense of the word, No Music Day.

Over the months since then, thoughts and images about that particular No Music Day on the 13 January 2010 keep returning to me, keep haunting my dreams. They have obliterated all of my ideas about the previous five No Music Days.

At some point I decided to try and contain these thoughts by turning the idea of that 13 January 2010 into a No Music Day that was part of The17’s Coast-to-Coast world tour. It would be the one happening somewhere else in the world, twinned with the one happening tomorrow, the 13 January 2011, in my room.

I have just gone to make myself a pot of tea to celebrate getting all the above written, but while waiting for the kettle to boil, my mind started thinking about things. This is what I have been thinking – is this in some twisted sense, me trying to say that the entire population of Port-au-Prince, in their darkest hour, when music was the last thing on their minds were collectively performing as The17? If so it is sick. And is no more than my own small town megalomania let loose. Tomorrow I will reflect on these things. Get some balance.