Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Bill Drummond and The17

Most people know Bill Drummond as the KLF guy who burnt £1 million on a Scottish island at some point in the early 1990. I can't remember why - bad art award or something? And he had a hit record about Dr Who. Anyway, he straddles that area of the art/music world that likes to challenge and subvert accepted wisdom. I really liked his No Music Day idea which was a kind of awareness campaign that questioned the role of music in a world that consumes it without much thought.

This has led to The17. It's a 'choir' that can be made up of 17 people chosen at random at any time and in any place. You don't have to be able to sing or read music. You perform a score which is a set of instructions. Have a look.

I've had a couple of discussions with Bill about turning The17 into a film. He explained everything to me but in the end I felt I had to join The17 to really get my head around the concept. It's basically this: we've become so saturated by recorded music that it has diminished the whole listening experience. The17 is all about reconnecting us to that thing that can make music a special, almost divine experience (my words not his).

So we 17, assembled by me, my friend Ros and Bill, find ourselves in the basement of a dingy pub off the City Road with only a computer screen and standard lamp for light (very MI5). Bill comes in, sits before us and tells us of his love affair with records that changed over the years to hostility, and about this imaginary choir he would hear in his head when driving that eventually became The17.

Then we sang an F# for five minutes. This was recorded. Bill talked some more. Then we sang a G# for five minutes. This was recorded. We did the same with A# C# D#, in other words the black notes on the piano or the pentatonic scale which, as Bill reminded us, is the basis of most Celtic and African music. We went off for a bit and came back to hear the results. It wasn't breathtaking but I certainly felt moved as our simple five note chord engulfed the room. Someone described it as a religious sound, I know what he means. And then Bill deleted the recording.

One of the most telling and poignant stories Bill told us was the time he witnessed his local pipe band march through his Scottish village when he was a kid. Being so close to this sudden and unexpected noise left a huge impression on him. It wasn't just the music that moved him (no one in their right mind would buy a bagpipe CD, he says) but also the location and the time he saw it that made this encounter so memorable.

So maybe this is what The17 is all about, his attempt at replicating those emotions for others to share. And I think it worked, at least according to those I canvased afterwards. This was music we had created and, crucially, we will never hear it again. That's what makes the occasion special.

I'm not sure you need to go to those lengths to get a musical hit - but overall I like what Bill's up to. The trouble is, if we make a film he's adamant we can't use any of The17's music - that runs against his whole recording shtick. So how do we get round that one? Any answers gratefully received. I won't delete them.

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