The17’s website exists to make available information concerning The17. This information deals with the choirs history; scores they perform; events – past, present and future; graffiti done in the The17’s name; and world tours undertaken. The remit of the website may change.
A BRIEF BUT EVOLVING HISTORY OF The17
by Bill Drummond
The voices in my head must have been there since childhood. It was not until some point in the 1990s that I started to recognise these voices as an internal choir.
As a boy I sang in both church and school choirs. I loved it. But with the onset of puberty the urge to make music strayed elsewhere – I bought an electric guitar. But always, down through the decades my interest in listening to choral music continued. This was an interest in all forms of choral music from around the globe and across the centuries.
The sound of this choir that existed inside my head was always very abstract, although continually evolving. There were no obvious melodies or rhythms and there was no additional instrumentation. If I tried to focus in on this sound, it was made up of huge sprawling and swirling chords of voices, some very deep like Russian Orthodox choirs, but others high and ethereal like Allegri's Miserere sung by an English cathedral choir. But it could also be angry and dissonant. There were never any words that I could hear. Or soloists – a choir works best when it is the collective soul of all those singing – so without lead singers.
This internal choir was most vivid – almost real – while driving alone in my Land Rover, without the radio or CD player on. It was as if the sound of the choir emerged from the deep rumble of the Land Rover’s diesel engine and the wind whistling through the wing mirror.
There were times during the 1990s when I was tempted to try and take the sound that I could hear in my head and turn it into a reality. This urge was always successfully thwarted. We all know very well that there is little worse than someone who has had a modicum of success in popular music thinking they can turn their hand to more ‘serious’ music, or indeed writing books, making art, editing national newspapers for the day or even saving the world.
I made a pact between me and myself. I would not attempt to turn these voices into a ‘real’ choir until I reached the age of 60 in 2013. By that time I assumed everyone would have forgotten I had ever been involved in popular music or I would have grown bored of the idea of making real the voices in my head.
At some point in the year 2000 I became aware of the infamous file-sharing site Napster. I loved the idea of Napster and I believed it was going to change all the rules of the music business. Although Napster was short-lived, nothing would ever be the same again. From now on music could only get freer. But something was unsettling me.
And then I read about the iPod. I was a sucker for Apple. As soon as it was out, I wanted one. The promise that I might have in my pocket every tune, song or recording I could ever want and be able to listen whenever, wherever, while doing whatever, seemed the ultimate for somebody who had grown up believing that recorded music was the most democratic and inspiring artform in the modern world. But within days of getting this iPod, I was having unforeseen problems – I found myself skipping through tracks. I would hear a few bars of one of my all-time favourites and then decide it was not what I wanted to listen to and skip to something else. Nothing seemed to satisfy, even though in theory I had every recording on it that I had ever wanted to listen to. Was this just part of the ageing process? Was my palette getting jaded? Then I noticed other people doing the same thing, people in their early teens, 20s, 30s, not just blokes like me who were fast approaching 50. The iPod was changing something in all of our relationships with music. I love it when things change.
I started to evolve a theory. A very compressed version of this theory goes like this:
Before the invention of the technology to record music, all music celebrated time, place and/or occasion. There was music that was only heard or performed in the home or workplace, or the Saturday night dance or in church on Sunday morning, or to mark the time of year, or even the march into war. Much of the time we were involved in the making of the music ourselves, however unmusical we were. As the technology to record music evolved throughout the 20th century it seduced all forms of music before it. All music wanted to be recorded so that it could be bought and sold. And we loved it. You didn’t have to be in La Scala or New Orleans or in the Cavern Club. You could be in your very own front room or even in your bedroom. Total democratisation is what I thought. Andy Warhol could not buy a better copy of Strawberry Fields by The Beatles than the copy I had – which was the basis of an essay that I wrote in art school back in 1973. And this recording technology was the inspiration for music to be dreamed up and turned into reality. Because the technology was there to do it. As we got deeper into the second half of the 20th century, recorded music became an art form in itself. What we might have thought of as classical or folk or jazz (or whatever), in reality had all morphed into one over-arching musical genre of the age - the genre of recorded music. This new genre had very little to do with time, place and occasion and nothing whatsoever to do with you or me taking part in the making of it. What defined this genre was that it was made by folk who were not like you. It could be bought and sold. It made people into stars and it came out of speakers.
And so I viewed the advent of the iPod and all the file-sharing as the curtain coming down on the greatest art form of the 20th century – recorded music. Some art forms die, overnight, like the silent movie with the advent of the talkies. Others take a few decades. People with vested interests do not want to see their business model crumble and fall, so they keep trying to patch it up. But it is over, well and truly over. And I wanted to dance on its grave. A new dawn. Music could be free and once again be able to celebrate time, place and occasion and have nothing to do with something trapped in the iPod in your pocket. But the new music would not be going back to the music of the prerecorded music age, it would be looking to the future and using everything at its disposal.
That is the not-so-compressed theory done with. Time to get back to this choir in my head.
This choir was now clambering for my attention, stamping its collective feet and demanding I take notice of it. But I refused to listen to its protestations about wanting to become a real, out-there physical thing. But bit by bit I was weakening. At some point in 2003 it (or should it be they?) took on the name The17. I have no idea why it was called The17, although I have since come up with some half-baked theories to satisfy people’s questions. What I could hear in my head often seemed to have a lot more than just 17 people singing at any one time. The next compromise that I made in acknowledging the existence of The17 was an attempt to distill into less than 100 words what I was feeling about music and the part The17 might play in this. I got the wordcount down to 90. These I then had printed as the ALL RECORDED MUSIC poster.
My resolve completely crumbled. I could no longer wait until I was 60. I welshed on the deal I had done with myself for various reasons and began the process of dragging The17 out of my imagination into some sort of shared reality.
The first time this happened was in September 2004, in a small recording studio in Leicester, England. There were 17 of us, all blokes, all with some aptitude for singing.
As well as having the ALL RECORDED MUSIC poster with me, I had a rough text-based score that over time has evolved into the fully fledged text score DRIVE. On listening back to what we had recorded, it sounded so much greater in all respects than what I had imagined it would sound like. On the two-hour drive home from Leicester to where I was then living my imagination got a bit carried away. I ditched my ideals about recorded music being a thing of the past. My vanity had the better of me. I started to envisage what we had recorded as the basis of a CD, and that it would be a freak international hit. And that the blokes in Leicester and me would tour the world as The17, packing out concert halls wherever we went. That night I also got pulled up for speeding. The three points that I was given took me over the limit and I was banned for six months. I ignored the ban.
The next morning I had changed my mind again. If The17 worked with this bunch of blokes in Leicester, why should it not work with any 17 folk willing to embrace the idea and open their mouths to sing? So I tried it again with 17 different people in October at the Artsdepot in Finchley. We did one rehearsal, then a performance a couple of days later. This performance I deemed to be a total and utter disaster. Musically it had worked as well as it had in rehearsal and as well as it had in Leicester, but doing it in front of an audience destroyed something that I then realised was integral to The17. That entity – The17 – should never perform for an audience other than those taking part. The music of The17 should never be mere entertainment.
This was a dark year for me. The highlights were digging ditches in the Norfolk Broads as part of my Community Service, this being the punishment for being caught driving while banned. While the ditches got dug, I imagined what The17 could be in this new dawn where recorded music belonged to a bygone era. The17 may be restricted to using only the untrained human voice but in another sense it is totally free to make music anywhere, with anybody.
Everyone who wants to could be in The17. Throughout this year I evolved simple text-based scores to be performed by The17. There was one to celebrate the birth of a newborn, another the completion of a life, yet another to be done at the top of a mountain, another with a bunch of prisoners. Some of the scores got a bit conceptual like the IMAGINE one that I gave prime position as Score number one. And yes, there were contradictions and my influences began to show – Yoko Ono, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich have all figured as heroes of mine at various times down through the years. I got the first version of this website up and running too. Come the autumn the year was brightening. I launched No Music Day on the 21 November.
Come March 2006, The17 was getting out into the big wide world. The first performance of what became The17’s year-long but sporadic European Tour was at Fylkingen, in Stockholm. Each time the choir performed only 17 tickets were available. The audience became the choir. They had no idea before it started what was going to happen. The first part of the evening would be taken up with me attempting to seduce the members of the audience into becoming lifetime members of The17. The rest of the evening would then be given over to putting the performance together. Moscow, Vienna, Oslo, St Petersburg and as many stations inbetween as we could stop at. And every one was a success. Well, almost. Sadly but understandably, most of these performances took place within the safety of contemporary classical music or performance art festivals. An exhibition evolved too, made up of large framed posters of the individual scores, which toured with us. Throughout 2006 The17 performed 54 times. Things were moving.
Although in 2007 The17 performed on only 23 different occasions, most of my time and energy was going into writing and rewriting the 151,826 words that were to form the basis of a book. A book that I hoped would explore many of the ideas about where we were at with music and how we got there and where we should be going.
And although I have wanted The17 to exist completely outside of the consumer culture, it has been crucially important to me that anybody who comes across, or is confronted by The17 can take part. No cultural elitism - whatever your age, sex, class, religion, subculture or intellect, you will get more than something from performing as one of The17.
17 by Bill Drummond was published in June 2008. The blurb on the back cover reads:
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT
Music, uncertainty, sitting on a ledge, night trains across Russia, Bill Drummond, drunken mercenaries on the North Sea, starting over again, a classroom of 13-year-olds, getting everything done before death, art, a river full of headless eels, girl pop, waking up to find all music has disappeared and a choir called The17
AND CONTAINS THE WORDS
‘The very urge to make recorded music is a redundant and creative dead-end, not even an interesting option, fit only for the makers of advertising jingles, ring-tones and motion picture soundtracks. The sheer availability and ubiquity of recorded music will inspire forward-looking music-makers to explore different ways of creating music, away from something that can be captured on a CD, downloaded from the internet, consumed on an MP3 player; and the very making of recorded music will seem an entirely two-dimensional 20th-century aspiration to the creative music-makers of the next few decades. They will want to make music that celebrates time, place, occasion. There may be those that want to keep the craft of recorded music alive but we will think of them in the same way as we now think of those who work with bygone art forms, irrelevant in tomorrow’s world.
I can’t wait to hear the music that is being made in 100 years from now. These notions keep me awake at night with excitement’
2008 – 2012
2008 also saw the beginning of The17’s Coast-to-Coast world tour. The tour will take up to five years to unfold. During this time there will be performances in 20 different locations throughout the British Isles. Each of these performances will consist of different scores. Some of these performances will be large scale, almost epic, others small and compact. And each performance within these islands will be twinned with a performance of the same score somewhere else in the world.
The tour began in May 2008 in Derby, England. This was a large-scale performance entitled REPEAT that involved 100 groups of 17 (or there about). Each of those 100 17s were made up of a different definable groupings – so maybe 17 taxi drivers, 17 fish-n-chip shop owners, 17 street sweepers, 17 punk rockers, 17 bell ringers, 17 mothers … This performance of REPEAT took over three months to put together but in the end involved a complete cross-section of the citizens of the city. To view the 100 17s that took part, click here. The performance of REPEAT in Derby is to be twinned with a performance of the same score at the end of the tour in 2012 in Jerusalem.
On 14 March 2009 a performance of the score SURROUND took place in Northampton, England. This performance involved 100 members of The17 from Northampton standing at 50-metre intervals on the five-kilometre circumference of a circle around the centre of Northampton. This performance was twinned with one of the same score in Beijing on 14 August. This time the members of The17 were made up of 100 stallholders of a large Beijing market. To read more about this performance in Beijing click here, or to view the 100 17s that took part, click here.
Between January and April 2013 there will be numerous performances by The17 across London, an exhibition in London that documents the Coast-to-Coast tour, and a book published, also entitled Coast-to-Coast, that does the same job. This text may act as the introduction. And there will be a film of the same name, based on the score CONSIDER performed in the USA.
God willing, on 29 April 2013 I will turn 60 and on that day I will stop being actively involved with The17. The choir will then be old enough to look after itself and I will get down to writing the book 1963. Between now and then there is much work to be done.