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‘Monotone-Silence’ Redux

The late Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony is scheduled for Jan. 12 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The performance, conducted by Petr Kotik, is free, but the cathedral requires reservations.

Klein (1928-62) was a painter, a leading member of the French artistic movement nouveau réalisme, and a pioneer in performance art, minimal art, and pop art. Klein described Monotone-Silence Symphony as “one unique continuous ‘sound,’ drawn out and deprived of its beginning and of its end, creating a feeling of vertigo and of aspiration outside of time.”

Musicians and singers hold a single continuous tone for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence. Klein originally conceived of the work with two friends on a beach in the South of France, around 1947-48, about the same time that John Cage was working on 4’33”, another musical composition incorporating silence and ambient sound.

Klein performed the piece with a small orchestra and chorus in Paris in 1960, although he never realized the work at the full scale he desired before he died of a heart attack two years later at age 34.

A brief biography on The Art Story says of Klein:

For some critics he is a descendent of Marcel Duchamp, a prankster who lampooned settled understandings of painting and opened art up to new media. Others consider him as a descendant of earlier avant-garde artists such as Kazimir Malevich and Aleksander Rodchenko, who were also attracted to the monochrome. And even in the ways he used performance later on in his career, he is like many artists who rediscovered some of the tactics of earlier avant-gardes in the 1950s and ’60s. Klein might also be compared to his contemporary Joseph Beuys, for, like Beuys, he embraced aspects of Romanticism and mysticism — Klein was intrigued by Eastern religion and Rosicrucianism, and was even influenced by judo. Also like Beuys, many have condemned him as an obscurantist and a charlatan: yet the brevity, wit, and seductive beauty of much of his work continues to inspire.

Randy Kennedy of The New York Times wrote about the symphony in 2013:

Of four performances held in a Paris church during a Klein exhibition at the Pompidou Center in 2007, [Klein archivist Daniel Moquay] said he felt that only one was wholly successful. But it worked so well, he added, that a lovely kind of St. Francis moment occurred.

“The door of the church was open, and a pigeon came in and sat where everyone could see him,” he said. “During the 20-minute silence, he did not move at all. It was kind of incredible. And then when the silence was over, he left.”


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