The17 is a choir. Anyone can join, regardless of skills or experience. The compositions it performs don't use any traditional form of notation; instead, its scores are written down as a set of instructions anyone can follow (and anyone can write). Usually there are 17 members. When they perform, they do so only for themselves and not for the benefit of any audience.
However, the sharp eyed among you will have noticed by now that the photograph on the left is of a book, not a company of singers. And this is true. A music review this may be, but it is one examining a choir that has no fixed line-up, makes no permanent recordings, and that I've never actually heard. Therefore, 17, a book by Bill Drummond about the origins and development of the choir, plus my imagination, will have to act as stand-ins for now.
The founding principle of The17 is the idea that all recorded music is dead, destroyed by the ease and carelessness with which we now access and consume it. The17 is an attempt to wipe the slate clean and return to a musical Year Zero; Pol Pot wins a prominent mention among the many people Drummond credits as influences. It is his attempt to reimagine music as if no music has gone before.
As for Drummond himself, he is probably best known as one half of The KLF, acid-house anarchists who became the world's biggest-selling singles act in 1991 with hits such as "Last Train to Trancentral" and "3am Eternal." Drummond's involvement in the music industry began much earlier than this though, as a member of Seventies punk act Big in Japan. He later started his own label, became manager of Echo & The Bunnymen, and even ended up as a major label A&R man for a spell in the early eighties.
However, his involvement in the music business had been fairly minimal after The KLF retired from the industry in a riot of machine-gun fire and dead sheep in 1992. Drummond has since become known principally as an author and provocative artist, achieving notoriety in 1995 when he and KLF collaborator Jimmy Cauty burned a million pounds of their own money for a video piece titled "The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid." Regardless of whether you like his work or not, he is rarely dull.
In common with most of Drummond's previous books, 17 is mainly auto-biographical, serving both as a diary covering two years of him organizing friends, skeptical schoolkids, and random members of the public into new versions of The17, and as a memoir of the events in Drummond's eventful life that led to the choir's formation. It is also an in-your-face musical manifesto, by turns romantic, angry, exciting, provocative, and even a little dull in places (when Drummond's obsessions get the better of his self-restraint). But most of all, the book is a manual. It is a guide not just to forming your own version of The17, but also to the creative process, detailing Drummond's successes, failures, doubts, and triumphs as he pursues his art and ideas.
And Drummond rarely finds it easy. After all, there is an inherent problem in trying to perform music as if no music exists: it's impossible. It's like trying to uninvent the atomic bomb or pretend the world is flat. But both Drummond and The17 wear this contradiction on their sleeves, and carry on regardless.
When Drummond isn't being his own fiercest critic (something that provides a healthy balance to both his polemics and rock-star myth making), there is an army of other characters in the book doing the questioning for him. These range from friends who dismiss the whole idea out of hand, to interviewers who point out the artists and composers who have done similar projects in the past (often decades ago). He even quotes schoolchildren who he has recruited to become members of the The17 when they tell him that his ideas are boring and that they do similar improvised performances "all the time" in drama class.
But Drummond records their criticisms, adjusts accordingly (or not), and moves on regardless. And this is where both the book and the choir work best: Not just as a comment on the state of modern music, but as a reminder that given a bit of guts and chutzpah, anyone can create.