A higher calling: Why Bill Drummond swapped rave for choir practice

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He founded one of the Eighties' most anarchic bands, and famously burnt £1m in cash. But Bill Drummond's latest scheme is truly ground-breaking, as his diaries reveal...

This is about a choir... A choir that has existed inside my head for almost a score of years. About how the voices of this choir torment and inflame my imagination. How they provide my internal soundscapes with some of the most beautiful and terrifying music I have ever heard. And how over these past few months I've been dragging this choir out of my head and into some sort of shared reality and, with the grace of God, I will continue this dragging out over the coming months and years.

This choir is called The17.

Cause I'm Going To

9 March 2006

In spring 2002 I was in London walking down Oxford Street, passing the massive HMV record shop there. I strolled in, thought I would spend a few minutes flicking through the racks. Buy a couple of CDs maybe. No sooner was I through the doors than I could feel a dread start to grip me. In front of me, aisle after aisle, rack upon rack of CDs, a sea of choice. Every genre of music known to mankind on offer.

That evening while doing my emails, the dread began to grip me again. I began to feel that every piece of recorded music that had ever existed was behind the screen of the iMac taunting me. Each with the face of an evil little sprite. "Bill, Bill, we are here, don't you want us? We will make you happy. Just click your mouse a few times and I'll be on your hard drive in no time at all, enriching your life in so many ways."

But somehow it was the fact that – in theory at least – I could be listening to any piece of music that has ever been recorded within 60 seconds with just a few clicks of the mouse, that is any piece of music from the entire 110 years of recorded music history, left me with an empty feeling.

The next day, I wrote the following words on an A0-size sheet of white card using a big black felt tip: "Only listen to music written, recorded or released in the previous 12 months by composers, soloists or ensembles who have never released music in any format at any time previous to the last 12 months." I then stuck the card up on my workroom wall.

'That modern rubbish'

9 March 2006

A new plan was hatched. For the rest of that year I would only listen to music made by bands or composers or soloists whose names or surnames began with B, as in The Beach Boys and The Byrds. So for the rest of 2002 it was Bartok, Bach, Beefheart, Bassie, Broonzy, Belle and Sebastian, Black Box Recorder and hundreds of others that I had never listened to before, but who existed in the B racks in the CD section of our local lending library. I assumed I would work my way through the alphabet year by year, finishing off with A in 2028, the year that I would turn 75. It might seem a long time to wait to listen to the album Crossing the Red Sea by The Adverts but I had never heard it and I loved the title, so I was sure that the wait would be worth it.

By early December 2003 I was making a long list of C bands and artists that I could start listening to in the coming January. But then on Christmas Day I (again) thought "Fuck it" and had a change of plan. While the kids were squabbling and the turkey was roasting I wrote:

Tear up a sheet of paper into
26 pieces.
Write a different letter of the
alphabet on each of them.
Screw up the pieces of paper.
Put them in a carrier bag.
Draw one out.

Over twelve months,
The music you choose to
listen to
Must have been written or
recorded by composers,
soloists, or ensembles
Whose name begins with
the letter on the piece
of paper
Drawn from the bag.

Twelve months later,
Repeat the process
Minus the letter already used.
Repeat the process every 12
months
Until the alphabet has been
used up.

After I had done that I followed my instructions. The letter P came out. I was filled with relief. I was not going to have to listen to the collected works of The Cars. But I was mildly disappointed that I was not going to be able to play "On the Road Again" by Canned Heat.

It's Over

9 March 2006

Between the years 1977 and 1992 I had found myself involved in the making of pop music. It happened by accident but had taken over my life. In 1992 I found the strength of will to put a stop to it. Well, almost. I did have a couple of minor lapses. There were a lot of reasons for wanting to stop doing pop. One of the main reasons was there was all this other stuff I wanted to do.

But I kept thinking about music. I would find myself thinking about it more than listening to it. Like, what is music for? And why do we listen to it in the way that we do? And what would it be like if...? But the big questions seemed to be "Why am I so frustrated with it?" and "Why do I want it to be something other than it is?" and "Why do I want it to exist in some other sort of way than it already does?"

And on that sunny morning back in spring 2003 when I realised it was over and recorded music was a dead art form, as dead as silent films were within months of the talkies coming in, only fit for the museum, I wrote the following words:

All recorded music has run its
course.
It has all been consumed,
traded, downloaded,
Understood, heard before,
sampled, learned,
Revived, judged and found
wanting.
Dispense with all previous
forms of music and
Music-making and start again.
Year zero now.

A clarion call to myself, if no one else.

A Sprawling Kind of Thing

10 March 2006

For many years, decades in fact, I have been drawn to choral music. Any sort, from anywhere in the world, from Bach's St Matthew Passion to those women in Bulgaria, from some tribes people in New Guinea to the Red Army Choir. Before my voice broke I was in the school and church choirs, but what teenage lad wants to sing in a choir? As an adult it never crossed my mind to go back to it. Over the years I would hear bits of choral music and find myself instinctively drawn to it. It touched me in ways that the whole spectrum of pop music could never do.

The choral thing began to feature more and more in my thinking about music after I stopped being involved in music in 1992. I started to have fantasies about making choral music. It captured something of the soul of mankind, not just an individual man or woman's. It involved no one ego, no me, me, me but something of the collective spirit. The thing was, I didn't have a clue about how to go about doing this. I also knew it was typical of somebody who'd had a bit of pop success to think they can do whatever takes their fancy: become a racing car driver, compose symphonies, edit newspapers, save the world – anything.

I dealt with this by not letting on to anybody about my choral fantasies and telling myself that I would not attempt to do any of it until I was over 60. I hoped that at 60 I would be wise enough to know better, or if not, that everyone would have forgotten I had once been involved with pop music. This thinking but doing nothing about choral music ran in parallel with my frustrations with all recorded music. Neither thought-process troubled the other much. It was in 2004, when it was the letter P that had come out of the bag and I was listening to lots of Charlie Parker, Portishead and The Proclaimers, that I discovered the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. I fell in love with what he did, especially his choral stuff. Pärt is very much a living composer, had gone through the whole complex avant-garde thing in his younger years. Since the 1970s he has been making a far more stripped-back, less complex, choral music with a serious spiritual vibe to it. I loved it. Arvo Pärt's music in some way gave me confidence about doing choral music, or at least fed my fantasies about doing it.

Right from its inception the choir in my head had a name: The17. It wasn't until I started going public about it and people asked me what significance the name The17 had that I felt the need to come up with a reason.

If I ever tried to nail the sound that The17 made in my imagination, it was a sprawling kind of thing. There were big loud bits and long soft quiet bits. And there didn't seem to be any words, or at least not words that I could hear. No nice melodies or fancy chords and definitely no instruments. There was something uncontrollable about it. With the music of The17, nothing would ever get resolved. There'd be lots of overtones and strange harmonics at times almost bordering on the out of tune. They would make a sound that came right from the heart of the collective human subconscious. I got that pretentious. But I didn't care.

An Impossibility Maybe

10 March 2006

A few weeks after recording in Leicester in October 2004, I had an exhibition and series of performance lectures at a gallery in north London. I thought The17 should give a performance at the gallery during one of my talks. The members of this 17 were people who responded to an article in a local paper. I had invited men with voices who wanted to use them in some sort of primitive music-making to get in touch.

We did one rehearsal, 17 men who had never met each other. All sorts: city slickers, dolees, doctors, road diggers. The lot. And it worked, they all got it. I was convinced I was on to a winner and that The17 being any 17 men willing to sing and follow the score would work. Some of these men had been members of local choral societies, some were singers in local bands; others were just up for having a go.

A week later we did it for real, but it definitely didn't work. Having an audience changed the dynamic completely. It changed from being a purely communal experience where the joy was in opening our mouths and bringing forth sound to becoming some form of entertainment where audience satisfaction had to be taken into consideration. I was standing there with my mouth open making this noise, looking at members of the audience in front of me, and all I'm thinking is "What the fuck must they be thinking of this racket?"

On the drive home I got pulled over by the police for a faulty backlight. They arrested me for driving while banned. The rest of the night was spent in the cells at Hemel Hempstead police station. While lying on the bench in the cell, I came to the decision that not only should The17 never be recorded for posterity and have no fixed line-up, but also The17 should never do any kind of performance for any kind of audience. It should stand outside of all known recorded music and it should never be a mere entertainment for others to gawp at.

Digging Ditches

10 March 2006

I was let out at dawn. Next week I went to court. My brief warned me I could get a six-month jail sentence for driving while on a ban so I went to court prepared. In my bag I had a toothbrush, a pair of pyjamas and a copy of Moby Dick. I got let off with 60 hours' community service.

We moved house. Christmas came and went. Community service was digging ditches on the Norfolk Broads. It was a bunch of drug dealers, muggers, housebreakers and repeat-offending petty criminals and me. Not quite working on a chain gang like Cool Hand Luke but pretty cool anyway as it was January and the snow fell and the wind blew. The thing is though, I loved it.

I thought all these thoughts as I swung my pickaxe. Ideas started to develop about the nature of music; about where it's at and where it's going. I revelled in the romanticism of it all, like I was some Delta bluesman back in the 1920s working on Parchment Farm inventing the blues or something. On scraps of paper I would scribble ideas for other scores I wanted to do. I know that must sound like some desperate attempt at myth-building but hey, these are the facts. Me and Robert Johnson.

Derek Hatton Does Fluxus

22 April 2006

The day is Saturday. The place is the offices of the Hatton Gallery on the campus of the University of Newcastle. The next four weeks are going to be spent here, working in schools in County Durham and Sunderland, working with MA Composition (music) students at the University and doing 10 Introductions to The17 with Bill Drummond performances at the Hatton.

I had arranged to use the office to check my email. Logged on, password keyed in, inbox clicked. Met with the usual assortment of emails: penis enlargements, knock-down price Viagra, degrees for the asking and money-for-nothing scams. And finally there may be one or two that might make me feel that what I'm up to is worth doing.

There was one – I could tell before I even opened it – that fell into that last category. I clicked the mouse to open it.

Subject: The17 Contact
Date: Saturday, April 22, 2006
12:43
From: Paul Ilek blahblah@yablah.co.uk
Conversation: The17 Contact.

Below is the result of your feedback form. It was submitted by Paul Ilek (blahblah@yablah.co.uk) on Saturday, April 22, 2006 at 06:43:58.

I've puzzled over your work for years. Various options which I've narrowed down to:

1. Conceptualism lite
2. Smug bastard with money
3. Derek Hatton does Fluxus
4. Suburban radicalism

But all these are preliminaries, the real descriptor is Raving Narcissism. P.1. xxx

submit: Send

I read it again. Then looked out of the window for some time before I noticed my ageing reflection staring back at me from a window pane. Then I read it for a third and fourth time.

This Paul Ilek was sharp, knew how to put words together, knew the references to make, the buttons to push.

"Conceptualism lite". Guilty. It's hardly Art and Language at its most hardcore. Those were the days when conceptualism was conceptualism before it went tabloid.

"Smug bastard with money". Not as good as "suburban radicalism". But "raving narcissism"? Well, I suppose it is all about me.

Communication Breakdown

26 April 2006

John Hirst [Drummond's sound assistant] and I are taken down to the school hall where we are supposed to be doing our stuff. John McCabe turns up. A pleasant and eager-looking man in his mid-30s with a neatly pressed shirt. He tells us how the kids are so excited about working with me. He tells us he has no idea what we are going to be doing but is sure it will be great.

I don't tell him I haven't got a clue and I'm sure that the children would rather be putting together a musical that they could perform for the rest of the school and their families. What they don't need is some bloke turning up and telling them that all recorded music has been done, it's rubbish and by the way I want you to stand around and make a noise with your mouth for the next seven minutes.

The children, all 29 of them, are sat in two rows in front of me looking up at my face expectantly. "Good morning. My name is Bill Drummond and his name is John Hirst and we are artists. But we are not the sort of artists who paint pictures. Although sometimes I do. Sometimes the art I do involves going on a journey. And sometimes it involves me asking people questions. And sometimes it involves me writing books. And sometimes it involves me making music or at least thinking about how music is made and why."

I'm losing my way already and I can see their minds beginning to wander.

"Do any of you have any questions before we start recording?"

Some hands go up.

"Yes, you." I'm pointing at the kid with the specs.

"Do we get to make a video?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Next? Yes, you." I'm pointing at the girl with the frizzy ginger hair.

"Do we get to go on Top of the Pops?"

What do they think I'm doing with them here? What have they been told? I'd better try and explain before the mind-wandering begins again. "We are not making pop music today. This has nothing to do with pop music. In fact, it is as far from any kind of pop music as you can get."

"But, sir, we were told you used to be a pop star and that you wanted to make a song with us."

Now, nobody actually spoke that last sentence, it's just what I thought might be going on in their minds.

We then get down to the business of recording them for seven minutes going "Aaaaaaaaahhhh" on the note of C. There is one of those school pianos on hand for me to get them to pitch to. We have a few short trial runs for them to get the idea and we are off. It must be the longest seven minutes of their lives. It's certainly one of the longest of mine. But they get there and most of them hold the note pretty well all the way through.

After we had done the seven minutes we discuss things a bit further and then we get packed. You could tell some of them are getting more out of helping us take things back out to the Land Rover than they had from what we had been doing in the hall. The plan is that we will come back in a couple of weeks to try something else with them.

The night train to Moscow

30 September 2006

We were at a festival called Appozicia. It all took place in one big old lecture theatre, stretched over the weekend. The promoter of the festival had no real idea what The17 was about, could not believe that no more than 17 people were allowed into the performance. He was a big, tough-looking bloke sporting a Jethro Tull Russia 2002 tour T-shirt.

"What? You mean people cannot watch The17 perform? This is crazy. People have bought tickets to see all the artists perform and you say you won't perform for them."

"Well, it is experimental and part of the experiment is that there is no audience, just the 17 people who want to take part."

"How long does your performance take?"

"About two hours."

"Two hours?! Look, I want your performance to happen as you want to do it, but can you do it in 40 minutes?"

"Yes."

"Great. We let in the first 17 people who arrive this evening and you can have them for 40 minutes."

"Thanks. Can we have them all on stage with us and all the lights in the theatre switched off except one, and nobody else watching, not even staff, or you or journalists."

"Yes. As long as it does not take more than 40 minutes and you start at 6.30 exactly."

The performance happened as agreed. I didn't bother with all the rambling chitchat at the beginning. I just read out the proposed score that I had written on the plane on the way over, the one about imagining waking up tomorrow morning and all music had disappeared.

We and all of The17 were on stage gathered around the grand piano. It turned out to be one of the best performances so far.

After it was done I watched another couple of performers, then had a shit meal in a café that had four of those tacky framed electric waterfall light pictures on the wall. I do not know how else to describe them. In London they would be hung for their ultimate kitsch-chic value but here I guess the café owner thought they looked modern and sophisticated. We saw nothing of St Petersburg other than the 100 yards between the hotel and the theatre. The café was between those two destinations.

After the meal and waterfalls and a drink in a bar with pictures on the wall of jazz greats, it was a lift back to the station to get this midnight train to Moscow. I am now back up in my bunk making these notes and thinking about a score for the street drinkers that hang around Russian train stations. Or any street drinkers. Based on some notes I scribbled down earlier, this is my proposed newest score.

Corral a group of four street
drinkers willing to hum a note
for one minute in exchange for
four cans of strong lager.
Indicate the note of D for them
to hum in unison with.
Record them humming this
note for one minute. Give
them the promised cans
of strong lager.

Corral a second group of four
street drinkers willing to ooh
a note for one minute in
exchange for four cans of
strong lager.
Indicate the note of F for them
to ooh in unison with. Record
them oohing this note for
one minute.
Give them the promised cans
of strong lager.

Corral a third group of four
street drinkers willing to aah
a note for one minute in
exchange for four cans of
strong lager.
Indicate the note of A for them
to aah in unison with.
Record them aahing this note
for one minute.
Give them the promised cans
of strong lager.

Corral a group of five street
drinkers willing to howl a note
for one minute in exchange for
five cans of strong lager.
Indicate the note of D, an
octave above the D hummed
by the first group, for them to
howl in unison with.
Record them howling this note
for one minute. Give them the
promised cans of strong lager.

Combine and balance the
recordings so they can be
played simultaneously.

Gather 17 people together.
This may include the various
street drinkers.
Explain what you have done.
Play them the four recordings
simultaneously.

Delete recordings.

This is an edited extract from '17', by Bill Drummond (£12.99), published in hardback by Beautiful Books on 31 July. To order a copy for the special price of £11.69, with free P&P, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.

See Bill Drummond's website at www.the17.org

BILL DRUMMOND: A LIFE ON THE EDGE

1955 – Born in the Transkei, South Africa, on 29 April, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian missionary and mission school teacher.

1978 – Co-founds the Zoo Music label with Dave Balfe and releases records by bands made up of friends and rivals on the Zoo label, including Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. A year later he becomes the manager for these bands.

1985 to 1987 – Meets the artist and designer James (Jimmy) Cauty, with whom he forms The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (JAMs).

1988 – Resolves to become a one-hit wonder and releases the novelty single 'Doctorin' the Tardis', under the guise of The Timelords. It goes to No 1.

1990 – Caulty and Drummond form KLF and release 'What Time Is Love', '3AM Eternal' and 'Last Train to Transcentral'. The singles become worldwide hits.

1991 to 1993 – Enlists Tammy Wynette to provide vocals for the single "Justified and Ancient". It makes No 2 on Christmas Day. The KLF are the biggest-selling singles act in the world for 1991. Nominated for four BRITs, they fire machine-gun blanks and slaughter a sheep at the award ceremony. They then retire, deleting their entire back catalogue.

1994 – On 28 August, the duo burn £1m on the Scottish island of Jura. The resultant film, 'Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid', tours the UK.

1998 – Turns down an invitation to write the official song for Scotland's 1998 World Cup campaign.

2002 – Drummond is one the artists, who also include Tracey Emin, involved in a controversial exhibition at the deconsecrated St Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool. His contribution is a guestbook which asks visitors "Is God a C***?".

2003 – Decides to form a choir called The17.

2008 – Publishes a journal, '17', detailing the project.

Ben Walsh

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