What happens after all music that will ever be conceived has been written, performed, recorded, packaged, marketed, sold and downloaded for free? That question, posed by British artist and musician Bill Drummond, would be answered in a small artist's studio in Istanbul on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon.
Those few of us assembled were listening to what sounded very much like new-age chanting, without rhythm or melody. Five choirs, some just single voices, representing five different faiths in Istanbul were recorded singing the musical note C by Mark Love, an Istanbul-based collaborator of Drummond's. Love captured the sounds of a Sunni Muslim, a Jew, a couple of Roman Catholics, Sufis and Protestants, all amateur singers, in different locations around this city of mostly 13 million Muslims. On this day, the recordings were played back simultaneously to the participants, including my lapsed Catholic wife.
The performance was part of a project called The17, a global collective choir that is performing a long list of scores devised mainly by Drummond, one half of late-80s dance-music duo The KLF. It was one of 40 performances orchestrated by Drummond before his 60th birthday in April when his self-imposed end of the choirs begins.
Like many of his generation, Drummond grew up listening to records and watching live music. By the early 2000s, he became both excited and perturbed by changes in the music industry that would eventually result in what we have today: MP3 files, peer-to-peer music sharing and YouTube, where every song ever recorded is immediately available and free.
"Our relationship with music was changing fast. Now that we could have all the music we ever wanted with us all of the time and we didn't have to pay for it, it no longer meant the same thing to us," the musician-cum-artist told Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung in a rare interview. (Drummond declined to speak with me after his decision earlier this year to only give 25 interviews between now and age 72, the age at which his maternal grandfather died.)
Infinitely available, free music also spells the end of most musicians earning a living modest enough to dedicate themselves to music making full-time. No more money to burn. It meant the band I played in for a decade, Stereolab, bowed out nearly four years ago, mainly out of exhaustion from a grinding tour schedule necessitated to drive ever-declining record sales.
Drummond, who used to manage The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen, tried to imagine a time before recorded sound (about 1857), when most people's experience of music was at home or in church, learning and playing songs as part of a community. He began looking for a musical year zero that would de-commodify recorded sound.
Recording technology gave rise to pop music, but it also "seduced all forms of music before it," Drummond said. The result, he believes, was that music had lost its power.
And so The17 was born. Named after the original performance in Leicester in 2005 featuring a choir of 17 men including Drummond, it has led to a series of performances using sets of written instructions, which he calls scores. The idea was to reattach the audience with the activity of making music, in whatever form that took - usually lacking most of the elements that constitute good music.
The17 now has more than 5,600 members. Among the hundreds of scores are choirs of different age groups singing on five floors of the same building; homeless men given cans of lager, then asked to sing; and a ring of people around part of a city shouting "oi" in a Cockney version of Chinese whispers.
The score in which my wife participated, No. 11 "Combine," had unexpected emotional power. Those in attendance were moved, if not by the music itself then by the fact that the recording was about to be deleted forever. All that effort would evaporate. It was our detachment from music as a product that was so difficult to give up. We tried in vain to capture the moment by photographing Love as he hit the delete button.
Like the million pounds Drummond infamously destroyed on a Scottish island in 1994, the one-off performance of "Combine" was lost, never to be heard again and only to exist in the performers' memories.
As Drummond put it: "Even the most potent of art forms have numbered days."
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