Disappearance Acts

Bill Drummond lectures on Has the iPod changed our relationship with music?
Bill Drummond lectures on Has the iPod changed our relationship with music?

Bill Drummond paints this slogan in big bold capitals on walls all around the world, preferably underneath bridges: ‘IMAGINE WAKING TOMORROW AND ALL MUSIC HAS DISAPPEARED’ The charismatic Scottish artist and musician, who once emptied a machine gun (full of blanks but loud nevertheless) from the stage of the Brit Awards, now travels far and wide as a facilitator for simple aesthetic attention, his audience whoever happens to bear witness.

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The stimuli for this attentiveness are the basic instructions he communicates, either verbally or in plain text on posters, boards and canvases. Today these are paintings that prompt performance art, but between 2004 and 2013 these activities coalesced around The17, his name for a choir that would be composed of whoever had been drawn by Drummond into a collective vocal performance at any given time or place (not to be confused with another choir, The Sixteen, numerically lesser by one and with a more fixed membership). The project led to a book, 17, chronicling these performances and the ‘scores’ – typically verbal instructions printed up on A0 paper – that gave rise to them. The first of these (available here) reads:

‘Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and all music has 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. Then imagine people coming together to make music with nothing but their voices, and with no knowledge of what music should sound like.

The music they would make is that of The17.’

Music, of course, does disappear, and always has done – at the end of a performance. But given that we have over a century’s worth of shelves stacked with recorded music, and many centuries more of musical scores, you would be forgiven for feeling otherwise. Drummond reports that the advent of the iPod prompted his epiphany that the entirety of recorded music itself was merely one ‘genre’ of music, one that the iPod encouraged listeners to dip into all too casually. Long before that, in 1992, Drummond had deleted the entire back catalogue of his critically acclaimed and financially successful pop music duo with Jimmy Cauty, which was known by a number of monikers, most famously The KLF. This coincided with the group’s extravagant exit from the British music industry in a hail of bullets. To this day, The KLF’s releases remain unavailable, even on Apple Music or Spotify. Drummond and Cauty are perhaps most notorious, however, for another act of destruction – the burning of a million pounds cash on the Inner Hebridean island of Jura in 1994.

The music of The17 has also disappeared. Founded upon the principle, stated in a foundational Notice, that ‘ALL RECORDED MUSIC HAS RUN ITS COURSE’ – a statement both metaphorically and literally meaningful – the choir regularly operated under the instruction that any recordings, once mixed and edited, were to be deleted immediately after they were played to the performers, never to be heard again. Only the single-page prose scores that gave rise to them remain, each numbered and headlined with whatever word the local language uses for ‘score’. There’s also a recent feature-length documentary by Swiss filmmaker Stefan Schwietert, Imagine Waking Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared.

Drummond forces listeners to confront music as process, as event, rather than its pseudo-material decoys

I saw the film earlier this year at a festival in Athens – ‘The Death of Recorded Music’ – that, as its name suggests, had been heavily inspired by Drummond’s philosophy. Alongside its general documentary interest in Drummond, Schwietert’s film follows the artist as he performs Score 318: CONSIDER, in which he travels across the Atlantic Archipelago along the line of latitude 53.07 degrees North. He begins in Skegness and travels westward, recording the voices of untrained members of the public as he goes, in this case marshalling them into an often incredulous and embarrassed chorus of drones and staccato yelps. The performers are handed invitations to the work’s première, for which all the recordings are edited and mixed together, to be played back at the Atlantic-facing cliffs of Dún Aonghasa, Western Ireland, using what the score specifies as ‘a substantial public address system’. At the film’s conclusion, it is only Drummond, Schwietert and Drummond’s sound engineer who actually show up at the cliff tops. Schwietert and Drummond listen raptly, but of course the film’s audiences are not permitted to hear the results. Drummond then supervises the deletion of all digital files, and the valuable fruits of another long, creative journey disappear into the ether.

Bill Drummond: Score 318, CONSIDER
Bill Drummond: Score 318, CONSIDER

Drummond’s acts of destruction feel like tragic wastes, but they are also violent, scandalous negations. In a context where access to documentation of culture is routinely said to be increasing exponentially, for better or worse, he forces listeners to confront music as process, as event, rather than its pseudo-material decoys in recordings or deterministic works, which can always be performed a second time. He is also standing against inflation in the economy of musical value by music’s ubiquity. To this end, he has promoted a ‘No Music Day’ on 21 November, the day before the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, and inscribed it in his Score 10: OBSERVE. Cities and radio stations have observed this day-long moratorium, the better to appreciate music’s value, as feast follows fast.

The scores for The17, all freely archived online, are not merely remnants, mementos or guarantors of the precious yet ephemeral musical events they would ultimately be subordinate to. Many of them do, indeed, serve as a quasi-autobiographical record of The17’s activities with their reference to tellingly specific ages, people or locations (such as the Sheffield Novotel in number 389). But more than that, taken together the scores are – like the most provocative indeterminate scores of verbal or graphic nature – tributes to musical possibility itself. In The17’s case this possibility is not just sonic, but social and political too.

Many scores enact rituals of human togetherness: there are scores for a birth (9), a marriage (13), a funeral (16), a football match (325) and for before meals (360). This togetherness is often practised within the dimension of place. Score 7: COLLABORATE and Score 11: COMBINE invite the performer to draw a circle on a map that must enclose, respectively, ‘seven schools’ or ‘five buildings, each where a different faith is practised’, with each one of these places the location from which a choir is formed, which then sings a particular note of the scale. Once they have all been combined, balanced and played back to the singers, all recordings are deleted. In 328: SURROUND, a note is passed through a city around a five kilometre circle of performers, each standing 50 metres from the next, and then ‘many years later The17 are to listen to the memory of this performance in their head’. And one score, Score 392: LOB directs the performer to throw a Molotov cocktail at the site in Sheffield’s Spital Hill where a new Tesco is being built. The17’s politics are democratic, and in fact most of the scores produced for them are not by Drummond at all. They were written by members of The17, many of them schoolchildren Drummond has visited. For example:

 

  1. HEAR

Take 17 people to a fairground
Hear the people screaming on the Rollercoaster
and the people splashing in the swimming pool.

 

  1. HONK

Get The17 to make honk honk
sounds as they walk in front
of a car.

 

  1. DIE

Take 17 people to the sun.
Ask them to listen to themselves
die in the flames.

 

Drummond’s poetics of sound, open-armed yet always self-destructing, are not just a challenge to pop music’s recording industry and its libraries of products, they have become a challenge to the new music community, who have hitherto laid claim to non-traditional scores and performance tactics. Drummond does appear in Jennie Gottschalk’s recent Experimental Music since 1970, and one of his scores features in John Lely and James Saunder’s Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, alongside which Drummond writes that he had ‘never seen Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit or Stockhausen’s The Seven Days’ before making scores for The17, but had nevertheless been ‘influenced by osmosis’, perhaps as a result of the art-school training he and many other avant-garde pop musicians of his generation had had (among them Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, David Byrne and Linder Sterling). So Drummond’s work is not ‘new’ in that respect. Nor is the scores’ osmotic blend of Cagean and Schaferian aesthetics evident in their frequent attention to sounds themselves. What is ‘new’ is – perhaps more importantly – that these scores and their values are performed with and for the public, trained or otherwise, even to the point of providing them for free online, or distributing the bulk of creative agency to children. Or, put another way, Drummond finally synthesises the two halves of Cornelius Cardew’s career in offering experimental music than can also rouse the people.

The scores for The17 are tributes to musical possibility itself

Drummond loudly echoes the basic tenets of so many century-old modernist musical statements when he says of The17 in his Notice. ‘THEIR MUSIC HAS NO HISTORY, FOLLOWS NO TRADITIONS, RECOGNISES NO CONTEMPORARIES. THE17 … USE NO LIBRETTO, LYRICS OR WORDS; NO TIME SIGNATURES, RHYTHM OR BEATS; AND HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF MELODY, COUNTERPOINT OR HARMONY.’ Familiar, then, gauche, perhaps; but to what extent can today’s modernist composers, at festivals, universities and conservatoires, say the same? In order to be regarded as a composer, must Drummond supply more of the substantive musical material he has always emphatically rejected? He faced these sorts of issues when he was invited to the Mittersill Composers’ Forum in Austria in 2010. He later described his experience in a lecture (‘Has the iPod changed our relationship with music’, raising all the clichés of ‘the composer’ and saying,

‘Now for whatever reason, within Europe, I’m now considered a composer. Serious music. But y’know … that’s the last thing I am … There’s six other composers there. And they’re these heavyweight European serious Germans and, y’know, proper people. And I just feel like I’m a fraud. Why have I been invited here? … And we’ve got this ensemble … and the conductor’s saying to me “So Herr Drummond, when will we be expecting the manuscript for the piece that’s to be played?”’

There is no piece, and even if there were, Drummond would destroy it, by fire if necessary. It is not easy to imagine him being awarded a degree in composition with tactics such as those. Fortunately the recent conceptual turn in modern composition and its wider sympathisers (Johannes Kreidler, Jennifer Walshe, Andy Ingamells and others) has brought what art critics of the 1970s called conceptual art’s ‘death of the object’ greater recognition among those who are more traditionally trained and self-identify as ‘composers’, and often with a light heart too. Perhaps, then, modern composition can now meet Drummond halfway towards the latter’s art-school pop background. It must be noted, though, that this ‘death of the object’ moment took place much later in the field of composition than it did in fine art, despite the obviously ephemeral nature of sound as a medium, which ought to have long before promoted a shift of attention to the socio-political contexts of sound-making rather than its generation of stable, ostensibly ahistorical ‘objects’.

The music of The17 does not reject continuity into the future, however. On the contrary, its own fragility is something it poignantly comes to terms with, and that understanding is then passed on. Apparently appreciating that birthdays become more bittersweet the older one gets, Score 398: AT THE AGE OF 59 instructs the performer to play themselves 59 tracks once they have reached that age, one from each year of their life, and then to ‘consider what they meant to you and what they may still mean to you. Then consider music yet to come, and what it will mean to your children and your grand children and maybe even you’. The score closes with a ‘nota bene’ from Robert Burns’s 1790 poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’:

 

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever

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