Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bill Drummond Presents "The 17" @ Levontin 7

There was a palpable buzz in the air while sitting in our chairs in a packed Levontin 7 waiting for Bill Drummond to appear and ... to do what exactly?

After a brief introduction, Drummond walked swiftly down the centre aisle and to the front of the room. He carried a few poster rolls under his arm, set them down to the side, began pacing, and glared at the people in the first couple of rows in the audience. I was a little freaked out. I kept thinking to myself, "this guy burned a million quid. He threatened to cut up a live sheep onstage at the Brit awards during a live performance. Who the hell knows what he's got planned for us tonight?"

I respect the hell out of Bill Drummond, he had one of the most unlikely, most bizarre, most unbelievable (in either sense of the word, it was both "amazing, remarkable" and "totally not believable, you would never believe his story could be true" careers in the history of pop. I went to this show partly out of curiosity, partly because I wanted to see a legend in person, and I suspect that most people in attendance this past Monday night would say the same.

For most of the performance, we listened to Drummond as he told a number of stories -- stories about his love of "Strawberry Fields Forever", about his odd listening habits, and about his endless search for great music that would affect him as strongly as the music he heard as a teenager. He tried a number of odd listening experiments, such as listening only to debut albums from contemporary bands (foregoing hearing old records completely), and deciding to spend entire calendar years listening only to bands whose name starts with a single letter of the alphabet. How much of this was made up for comic effect is anyone's guess, but if I was placing a bet, I'd wager between zero and two percent. I doubt that anything is too weird for Bill Drummond.

He put us to work with some call and response singing, and an exercise in group humming (done with eyes closed, both standing and sitting) that produced some surprisingly rich harmonies and ended after only a couple of minutes -- I was hoping it'd continue for a while longer. Drummond explained how the idea of The 17 came from a cross-country drive spent listening to (and recording) the hum of his car, hung some posters explaining the principles behind The 17 (he's been promoting his work around the world and thus had these posters translated into eighteen languages), and asked us to sign the posters on the way out as a sign of our participation in the event.

At home later that night, of course I was curious about what I had just seen, and it was only then that I discovered that The 17 is already a few years old, and that Drummond has written a stack of performance scores (here's one I really like) that expand upon his concepts. Each performance takes place with whoever happens to show up to the venue, which on this night meant me and about one hundred other people. Nothing ever gets recorded and nothing ever will (at one point, he criticized two audience members for filming him and politely insisted that they erase whatever footage they had shot) so the only way to experience Drummond's art is to see him in person. That's a powerful concept for me, that is, the idea that music just happens and nothing ever gets recorded, and before you scoff at the notion, recall that this *was* the definition of music for all but the past one hundred years or so.

There's no doubt in my mind that Drummond believes strongly in his art. I also have a hunch that he knows that getting sponsored by arts councils and getting to fly around the world and serve as a "composer in residence" to write scores where strangers shout at each other on the street is a rock and roll swindle of the highest order. Either way, it's a worthwhile experience to catch a legend in action and to watch the wheels in his head spin.

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