Sounds of Silence

When San Francisco conceptual artist Jonathon Keats came up with an idea for an unusual cellphone ringtone, he set up a pitch meeting with John Doffing, CEO of Start Mobile, which specializes in custom ringtones by independent artists. Keats brought a CD with a recording of the proposed tone and played it for Doffing.

"I told him that it was one of the dumbest ideas that I'd ever heard," recalled Doffing in an e-mail. "I said that nobody would want it."

Doffing couldn't have been more wrong. Though the company doesn't release download figures, he expects Keats' ringtone, which was released in January and is available for free, to go platinum this year. Its popularity is a little more than baffling considering that Doffing hasn't heard the ring. No one has. It's completely silent.

"I've always liked silence," explained Keats, whose recent projects include selling real estate in extra dimensions, and interpreting extraterrestrial art. "It's getting harder and harder to come by anywhere you go, and technology is partially to blame because everything beeps and makes too much noise. ... I started to wonder whether there was a way in which silence may be produced by the very mechanism that was causing so much noise."

The result was a four-minute and 33-second stream of silence, created using his computer's Audacity Audio Editor, titled "My Cage (Silence for Cellphone)." The "remix" of John Cage's 1952 live silent performance of the same length aims to perfect Cage's analog silence. "Cage's silence was confined to a specific time and space," said Keats, who has never owned a cellphone and calls them "noisy" and "obnoxious." "This silence was absolutely portable. It could be experienced in a way that could be woven into everyday life. It becomes serendipitous."

Still, Keats' silence isn't perfect. Compressing the original 31-megabyte file into 230 kilobytes created some noise. He also recommends users turn off their voice mail. A more pure silence might be achieved by what Keats calls the "phantom silence" — "the silence that's imagined when the phone isn't ringing."

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