Voices In My Head
As our East Tower residencies come to an end, here at White Noise we're musing on the potential of destruction as a platform for creation. In a piece originally published in The Guardian, musician and artist Bill Drummond discusses The 17 – an exploration of exactly what music might become if the limiting structures that traditionally define it are destroyed in favour of a new sense of freedom.
Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and all music had disappeared. All musical instruments and all forms of recorded music, gone. A world without music. What is more, you cannot even remember what music sounded like or how it was made. You can only remember that it had existed and that it had been important to you and your civilisation. And you long to hear it once more.
I have written variations of this statement in notebooks and diaries on numerous occasions over the past 13 years. Recently, I have taken to adding this: then imagine people coming together to make music with nothing but their voices, but with no knowledge of what music should sound like.
I'm sure we all have recurring clean-slate fantasies, where the baggage of our past life can be deleted and we can start afresh.
When I was a teenager and trying to learn the guitar, none of my friends were interested in forming bands, so instead I put together fantasy groups. I would daydream about the songs these bands would write, how they would be performed, what the album sleeves would look like, what we would say in interviews and how we would change the cultural landscape of western civilisation in the process. These daydreams would take place mostly when I was supposed to be doing my homework.
I was always in at least three of these fantasy bands at any one time, and their careers carried on for years. I was still in one of them in the early 1990s when I was in a real band (The KLF) that was having global success. In fact, the real band was far more commercially successful than the fantasy one, which by that time had been soldiering on for over 25 years.
By 1992, these fantasy bands seemed to have faded from my imagination and I thought I was cured from this somewhat juvenile pastime. For a few years, I was left to ponder on more mature topics. But then, in 1998, it all started up again. This time it was not a band, but a choir.
As a lad, before my voice broke, I had sung in church and school choirs; after it broke, my voice was useless - I couldn't hold a note. But all that time, I had a thing for choral music. My tastes were broad: it could be Bulgarian women's choirs, Bach's St Matthew's Passion, Avro Part and, of course, the Red Army Choir - it all worked for me. I reckon part of what drew me to choral music - and maybe it is what draws any of us - was that you are not confronted by the individual ego. Instead, you get the shared soul of mankind.
The fantasies about the choir would happen mainly when I was driving my Land Rover, all these voices in my head singing along with the rumble of the diesel engine, the wind through the wing mirrors and the various rattles and hums. It was a wild and uncontrollable sound. It was huge and sprawling. There was never any melody as such and definitely no words, but I loved it. This choir had a name: The17.
The trouble with this fantasy was that it wanted to become a reality - the urge was too strong to resist. But we all know there is nowt so risible as someone who has had a bit of success in popular music thinking they can turn their hand to classical music, or poetry, or painting, or saving the world, or even editing a national newspaper for the day. A deal had to be done with The17 in my head. The deal went something like this: they would have to wait until I was 60 years old before I would attempt to make it a reality.
My hope was that by the time I reached 60, I would be wise enough to know better; or if I wasn't, nobody would remember that I had ever been involved with popular music. But in the summer of 2004, I reneged on the deal. I was working on this art film that included footage of the Land Rover being driven from one end of the M62 to the other. I needed this choir in my head on the soundtrack. I couldn't stop myself: I went public and told people about The17.
Friend and colleague Kev Reverb and I got together in his studio in Leicester 17 blokes who could sing, and I read them this statement.
The17 is a choir.
Their music has no history, follows no traditions, recognises no contemporaries.
The17 has many voices.
They use no libretto, lyrics or words; no time signatures, rhythm or beats;
And have no knowledge of melody, counterpoint or harmony.
The17 struggle with the dark and respond to the light.
Luckily for me, they seemed to understand what I was on about, and we got to work. What we did that night sounded as huge and sprawling, as wild and uncontrollable as anything I had ever heard in my head when driving the Land Rover. But then ideas started to evolve, from thinking that these 17 blokes in Leicester would form the basis of The17, to thinking that The17 could be any 17 people brought together to perform one of the simple text scores that I had started to write.
I attempted one short public performance, but it felt completely wrong. The very act of The17 performing to an audience undermined something central to what made it work when it was only 17 people singing together for no one but themselves. An extension to this idea that I liked meant The17 would never be recorded for posterity; no CDs, downloads or broadcasts. You have to be part of it to hear it.
Since the beginning of this year, I've been exploring ways in which The17 can work. This has been done in various cities across Europe, including Stockholm, Vienna, Moscow and St Petersburg. Only 17 tickets are made available for each performance and each one begins with me saying: "Good evening, my name is Bill Drummond and you are The17."
I won't tell you any more about how the evening works, but each time it has worked better than I could ever have expected. One time only, it was a disaster. It doesn't matter whether those taking part have not sung since they mumbled along in school assemblies, or whether they are opera divas. The music The17 make is always the fulfillment of my desire for music to be starting all over again. This is a contradiction in terms, I know, but it is one that I am willing to live with.
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