In 1985, the seminal experimental group The New Blockaders put out a 46-minute cassette of silent audio named Epater Les Bourgois, which translates, minus spelling errors, to Shock The Bourgeois. Released on a short-lived eighties label named Frux and limited to merely 25 copies, the release has nonetheless attained a mythical status, leading to two separate reissues. The most recent re-release appeared in 2017, courtesy of a Swedish label whose lavish re-boot included a special version housed in a handmade box with a t-shirt and sundry other goodies. As the venerable noise blog Do or D.I.Y.? opined, “If you listen to this collection of tape hiss for longer than ten seconds, then you are beyond pretentious, and beyond help……and probably Middle Class/bourgeois.”
Although there is limited supporting documentation about Epater available, its absurd uselessness as an audio object is consistent with the New Blockaders’ credo. In 1982, they published a manifesto that was a rallying cry against art:
Blockade is resistance. It is our duty to blockade and induce others to blockade: Anti-music, anti-art, anti-books, anti-films, anti-communications. We will make anti-statements about anything and everything. We will make a point of being pointless.
In his PhD dissertation, writer William Moran Hutson argues that The New Blockaders regarded their noise performances as distinct from music altogether:
Their concept divided all artistic expression into two categories: Art and Noise, which they equated with anti-art.
He reflects that their noise was simply a byproduct of the performances themselves, which were conceptual in nature, located more closely in the performance art realm than the music realm. He views the subsequent boom of noise musicians, who peddled tapes and records through the eighties, nineties, and beyond, as diverging from the main point of The New Blockaders’ sound. While they enjoyed and perpetuated the sonic properties of noise, TNB’s motivations were conceptual, not sensory, in nature.
TNB’s extensive body of abstract noise tapes, records, and CDs stands as a testament to this philosophy of purposelessness, though by this metric, Epater seems like the conceptual apogee of their body of work. How better to subvert the expectations of music than with 46-minutes of silence on tape? It was an idea so good that they repeated it in 1991 with their blank tape Simphonie In Ø Minor, which much later was reissued on vinyl.
I reached out to Richard Rupenus, core member of TNB, to help shed some light on Epater and his other silent work. Epater was the first silent composition they released, but not the last, and he generously outlined the full history of TNB’s silent compositions, which I’ve summarized in a table at the end of this post.
Regarding the motives behind Epater Les Bourgois, which he refers to in its properly-spelled form, Rupenus seems somewhat unsure. “I can’t recall what the ‘concept’ behind Epater Les Bourgeois was, if there even was a concept. Some reviews assumed that it must have been influenced by John Cage’s (in)famous ‘4:33’ but that wasn’t the case. The Pulp (w/ David Jackman) 7” had been described (by Paul Lemos in Unsound) as ‘Relentless musical violence, the most savage aural attack ever committed to vinyl’ so perhaps I wanted Epater Les Bourgeois to be the polar opposite of that?!”
He then provides some background on the title. “‘Épater les bourgeois’ is a French phrase that became a rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including Arthur Rimbaud. It will not translate precisely into English, but is usually rendered as, ‘To shock the respectable classes.’ As stated in the sleevenotes to the the Nonchalant Acts Of Artistic Nihilism CD: ‘…Volume isn’t always the end-game. Silence is often far more interesting.’”
Frux was a short-lived record label run by Mark Lally, who was a teenager when he put it out. “I was one of those punkee kids that wrote to Crass and asked them questions when I was about 13 and I was going to do a punk zine,” he tells me via Facebook. “I was getting my records then from Probe Records which Pete Burns from Dead or Alive used to work for. He looked like Marilyn Manson in 1979, with dark contact lenses and a nun bone necklace from Bryan Gregory of The Cramps. I am from one of them underclass UK council estates about a mile in size, so it’s a proper no future thing. I funded my label with my 25£ a week wages and college grants and put any profits from releases back into the next release when I got the label more organised with distribution through Rough Trade.”
Epater Les Bourgois was the third Frux tape. His first, a compilation called Not By Chance, featured tracks from Muslimgauze and Band of Holy Joy. Second in line was a collaboration release between TNB and Organum. He heard about the artists for these releases from Dave Henderson’s seminal Wild Planet column in Sounds magazine, and via suggestions from mail correspondence with artists, then reached out to them to contribute to Frux releases.
His connection with TNB was, similarly, a function of networking. “I just heard about them somewhere in 1983 to get a track for my compilation LP, Born Out of Dreams.” They submitted a silent track entitled “Seinsart.” “I liked what they did and their manifesto so I just asked if I could release something else, whatever it was.”
“They might have done it as a joke or they might have been doing very anti music but I just released it anyway,” Lally explains. “It was a manufactured tape from the cassette copying place. It cost money to do, was not just a blank tape put in a cassette case. I did the label bit of the artwork for that tape — the expensive recent reissue copied that style. They might have sent me a blank tape which was copied or something. Have you been in touch with them about it? They do not say much. I did not tell them I was a kid releasing stuff.”
“The tape sold out at the time, quickly,” he recalls. “I do not know if people knew it was going to be silent though.”
Reissuing a Silent Tape
Kenny Johansson is a Swedish noise artist who records under the name Obskyr. He is also the owner of the Obskyr Records label, which in 2017 took on the extraordinary task of reissuing Epater Les Bourgois.
By Skype, Johansson talked to me about this unusual project. Johansson recalls obtaining the original tape years ago, only to be pleasantly surprised that the tape was blank. “I was like ‘Oh, yeah this is so great… oh wait there is nothing… even better!’” He has been a long-time fan of The New Blockaders’ irreverent take on music.
Ten years ago, he emailed Richard Rupenus, one of half of The New Blockaders, asking for his address to send some materials. “It felt natural to send gifts to a great guy like him. He and his younger brother Philip made ‘noise’ to what it is today and I am forever grateful for their work.” They ended up striking a friendship and have collaborated on many releases ever since, including a bizarre KISS tribute album under the name Torpedo Girl.
In the late 2010s, Johansson was working on a reissue of a New Blockaders seven-inch single from 1992, “Epater Les Bourgeois,” to be released on a Japanese experimental label called Siren Records. Though that single shares almost the same name as the tape (except properly spelled), it had more typical noise fare on it and was not silent. But it occurred to Johansson that the silent cassette Epater might be worth reissuing too, albeit on his own label.
“I asked Richard if we could do a reissue as it is a favorite of mine,” Johansson recalls. “Richard was very skeptical at first. But when I told him about my plans, he later agreed and we both had a blast working on it.” Johansson requested the master of Epater from Rupenus and received one in the mail.
“When I sent the master tape to Tapeline who made the tapes, they sent me an email saying, ‘Sorry but the cassette was empty, please send a new one.’ Ha! I sent an email back, ‘The tape is not empty, just silent, please proceed with the duplication!’ I think they raised their eyebrows a lot!”
Johansson acknowledges that there is some tape hiss on the reissue, which means it’s not entirely blank. It’s the magnetic equivalent to the pops and cracks that appear on the surface of silent records – reminders of the medium itself.
|Epater Les Bourgois, tape (Frux, 1985). Later reissued on CDR (Kubitsuri Tapes, 2009) and tape (Obskyr Records, 2017). The original release was a blank tape.|
|“Seinsart,” track on Born Out of Dreams compilation LP (Frux, 1985)|
|Simphonie In Ø Minor, tape (Hypnagogia, 1991). Later reissued on LP (Harbinger Sound, 2009) and included on a 4-CD boxset, Gesamtnichtswerk: 20th Antiversary Antiology (Hypnagogia, 2003). The original release was a blank tape. Soon to be reissued on Menstrual Recordings, along with Simphonie in X Minor, described in Sound Projector magazine as “a full panoply of wild sounds: junkyard percussion, racing cars and industrial power tools, all providing a sense of unstoppable forward motion.”|
|“Null Bei Ohr,” track on Gesamtnichtswerk: 20th Antiversary Antiology 4-CD boxset (Hypnagogia, 2003). The audio, according to Rupenus, is “pure digital silence.”|