On 17 May 2006, in a blacked-out room in Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery, a makeshift choir of 17 people sing their hearts out. According to the score, which was presented to them an hour or so earlier from a row of 17 hanging in the gallery, the performers are required to pretend they’re 70 years old and upwards, and make a non-verbal sound in some kind of unison, based on their own feelings of bitterness. In F sharp.
This is followed by another five-minute incantation, in which the performers become 45-to-69-year-olds, accentuating, in G sharp this time, an ‘acquired’ sense of bitterness. And so it goes, down the generations, moving through arrogance for ages 21 to 44, and boredom for the 13 to 20 age group, to conclude with a display of affected innocence from the under-12s.
Finally, a mix of all 85 recorded voices is played back to its creators, the full emotional swell of the on-and-off harmonies producing a glorious cacophony. And then this instant recording is deleted.
‘Documentation is evil!’ the choirmaster told his charges earlier. He’s said the same thing to every ad hoc grouping that has turned up over the past few nights, to ‘perform’ one of the 17 written scores that hang on a wall of the gallery.
The choirmaster is Bill Drummond, 53: adventurer, seeker, son of the manse, maker of myth, music-business provocateur and—perhaps most notoriously, in the ultimate act of Zen auto-destructive purging—burner of a million quid in banknotes. His latest project is an act of sabotage against the current obsession for archiving the minutiae of artistic activity. Ironically, though, Drummond’s long-term collaborator, Gimpo, is filming the entire event.
‘All music is written now to be recorded and to be heard over and over again,’ says Drummond. ‘When it was originally composed, it was for a wedding or a festival, but we don’t have that context now. Even most live music is just played as a facsimile of a record.’
When he was growing up in Newton Stewart, Galloway, Drummond and his mates would interrupt their football games to witness army recruitment drives. They’d hear the sound of bagpipes, and nip off to witness the martial pageantry. The context made it exciting, Drummond says, but, ‘Nobody in their right mind would want to listen to a CD of pipe-band music.’
For all his boyhood yarns, Drummond insists, ‘I’ve always had an inbuilt hatred of nostalgia. Most men, when they get to my age, are quite content to think that all modern music is rubbish, and prefer to listen to things that sound like things they listened to when they were younger.’
Drummond has been hatching The 17 project for some time. ‘I had this fantasy choir in my head,’ he says. ‘I wondered what would it be like to start music all over again. Wouldn’t it be great to wake up tomorrow and it’s all gone? And if it started over again, where would it go?
‘I wanted to open a new door in my head so I could hear something I’ve never heard before in a brand new way. But I also know that is impossible.’
There is a popular notion that the punk rock revolution of 1976 was a kind of Year Zero. In fact, says Drummond, ‘A lot of people my age knew punk was going to happen six years before it did. We knew it had to.’ Even then, punk ended up being about ‘the same guitars, the same drums, the same chords, the same idea of having a lead singer, the same drugs, the same girls being shagged …’
Still, the idea lodged in Drummond’s system. ‘I’d never heard of Cornelius Cardew until last autumn,’ he says of the English composer who introduced amateur players into his practice. ‘But when I was at art school, someone came in and got us playing instruments, and turned out to be from something called the Portsmouth Sinfonia. That was [avant garde composer] Gavin Bryars. Also, I can’t deny that when I was 16 and the whole John and Yoko thing was happening, I was affected, but I didn’t know a thing about Fluxus.’
But why the name The 17 ? Most of the explanations Drummond has put forward are rooted in his past. In 1963, he recalls, when The Beatles sang, ‘She was just 17/You know what I mean,’ he patently didn’t. Only later did the lyric resonate with hormonal intent. ‘Sixteen is sweet, sexy and a bit coy,’ says Drummond. ‘Eighteen is adulthood, when you’re old enough to vote, get married and kill people. But 17 always had darker connotations. It’s that in-between age.’ Drummond also has a well-known propensity for magic numbers—derived from Robert Anton Wilson’s conspiracy-theory classic ‘The Illuminatus ’—and an enthusiasm for prime numbers. But The 17 is also about one-upmanship.
‘There’s an early-music choir who are professional and who I’m a fan of,’ says Drummond. ‘They’re called The Sixteen. I wanted to go one better than them.’
In truth, The 17’s antecedents are many. See Carl Orff’s ‘Schulwerk’, written in the 1930s for performance by young children; The Langley School Music Project of the 1960s; the ‘holy minimalism’ of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in the 1970s; the puerile agit-a cappella of Furious Pig in the 1980s; and more recently, western Europe’s discovery of the nape-hair-prickling beauty of the Bulgarian women’s choirs.
Looking back further, there’s the celebrated motet, ‘Spem In Alium’ by 16th-century English church composer Thomas Tallis, in which 40 voices are broken down into eight five-piece choirs. There’s even ‘The Singing Estate’, Five’s television series which honed 14,000 residents of an Oxford housing scheme into a choir that ultimately performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
The 17 is actually akin to a community singing workshop, participatory and experiential rather than passive and consumerist. But most importantly, The 17 will never make a record.
That’s what I wanted to do with Echo and the Bunnymen,’ says Drummond, suddenly nostalgic for the band he managed in the 1980s. ‘After the first album, I said to them they should never release anything again, but that idea appalled them. They were like, ‘What are you on about?’ and I knew then it was never going to work.’
After more than a decade apart, Echo and the Bunnymen re-formed in the late 1990s and have recently released an album of new material. Whether Gimpo’s documentary footage of The 17 will ever see the light of day remains unknown.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic
Scores and information at www.the17.org