Bill Drummond, that shaman, that Justified Ancient, postulated that there are four ages of man, and that by happy coincidence they can be compared to the rotational speed of different types of vinyl record. That is, 17, 33, 45 and 78. Youth, adulthood, wisdom, dotage. He’s writing his autobiography as separate volumes based on that idea. The world turns much more quickly than that, of course (although it’s disturbing to realise that the speed of the earth’s rotation varies depending on where you are on the globe. At the equator, it’s something around a thousand miles an hour. Up here in drear old Blighty, things go more slowly). The idea of mapping progress onto a circular path amuses me no end. We are cyclical in nature and habit, making the same mistakes, replaying the same songs over and over, dropping the needle back at the start after the music fades.
I was looking for an exit strategy all morning. Maybe I was ill in bed. Maybe an unexpected client attend had dropped on me. There had to be something. I was halfway through a sixty-hour crunch week at work, and the last thing I needed was the added stress of a filmed interview with an ex-member of the KLF.
Thing was, I’d made a promise. And this interview was a big deal. Bill Drummond, art-provocateur and Justified Ancient Of Mu-Mu, was the last interview we needed to get perspective on Gimpo and the whole M25 Spin. It didn’t matter how tired I was, or how many rings I’d have to jump through to square a four-hour lunch break with work. We’d chased Drummond for years, and for me to bow out at the key moment because I was a bit tired wasn’t going to play. Dom would forgive me, but I’d never be able to forgive myself.
Let’s begin with a few words from artist musician and cultural rabble-rouser Bill Drummond.
Drummond has always been about flipping the switch on baked-in ideas about art and music, but this is something else. Performance for the sake of performance, completely dissolving the boundaries between musician and audience, to the point where they become one and the same entity.
In his explanation of the concept found here Bill mentions influences as disparate as Yoko Ono and Steve Reich. I’d add the experiments David Byrne carried out in Brooklyn, turning an old warehouse into a musical instrument. I’m also thinking about Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a software instrument designed to play by itself for a thousand years without ever repeating. Or his Score For A Hole In The Ground, a tuned series of metal bowls that play a random melody when water is dripped onto them from above, hidden in a forest in Kent.
I find conceptual music deeply fascinating and satisfying, and the idea of a piece of music mutating and evolving beyond the reach of it’s composer is an amazing idea. The17 aren’t quite there yet – they are still organised by Drummond, and sing libretti that he has written. But this will change, I’m certain. And Drummond has stated his intention to set it free on his 60th birthday in 2013.
There is something so freeing and fresh in these ideas. I find it more and more difficult to connect with modern chart music, which has become shamelessly blatant in the way it cribs older songs, or have the sound and lyrical content of skipping rhymes. Yes, yes, I know, old git thinks music ain’t worrit used to be. Which is a rubbish argument, because there’s a lot of great new music out there. And let’s not lose the image of me bouncing up and down on the sofa cackling at Eurovision a couple of weeks back. I’m still not convinced about Drummond’s argument that all music has been heard to death, either. But a radical stance is the first move towards new way of thinking, and Bill has always been an innovator.
You could argue that performance by and for a small group is as ancient as gatherings around campfires. But then sometimes we need to see where we’ve been to understand where we’re going. I love the Spotify model of complete access to a vast range of music. I love discovering new and old music alike. (an example: this absolutely gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by… well, you’ll be surprised. Pleasantly.) The17 ties into that process of discovery and distills it down to a very pure, clear extract. A perfect circle, welcoming and enclosed all at once. Music for the initiated, performed in an open church.
The next The17 performance will be in Portugal on June 17th. For more details, or if you’re interested in participating, check the website.
On a slight deviation, Bill Drummond is the unheard voice in our conversations about the M25 Spin, following chats with Gimpo and Iain Sinclair. Dom is in contact with him, and it’s a dear wish of mine to be able to chat to Bill about the Spin, The17 and his other projects. We remain hopeful, and will update you as news becomes available.