The Noise are back in town
It’s taken Art of Noise more than three years to record their new album—
In a recording studio in deepest Notting Hill, there’s some decidedly unfrenzied activity. Anne Dudley, the Oscar-winning film-score writer and arranger, is sitting at the piano, playing a few drifting chords. She’s “trying out a few things” for the new concept album by Art of Noise (AON), the quirky experimental band with whom she first notched up hit singles back in the 80s.
Producer Trevor Horn and writer Paul Morley—
She is obviously so fond of the project that she can’t put it down. The band have been working on it—
Art of Noise always were an odd bunch. They evolved from the studio team used by ex-Buggles and ex-Yes man Trevor Horn back in his early-80s glory days when he was producing studio spectaculars like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes or Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock. Dudley had musical skill, JJ Jaczalic added programming and keyboard technique, Horn was an ace in the studio, and Morley later helped sell the package. His techniques included writing AON “manifestos” influenced by the ideas of the Italian Futurist movement of the 1910s and 1920s, or ensuring that the band were never revealed, using pictures of spanners or hammers in place of their portraits.
And it actually worked.
By 1990 they had packed it in, and Dudley went on to produce, arrange and write on her own. The new Art of Noise team got together because of Debussy. Horn and Dudley had been interested in a project on the composer for some time, and Sally Bradshaw remembers “walking in the Hollywood hills with Trevor and saying, ‘I want to do Debussy’”. One of Morley’s early manifestos was called Raiding the 20th Century, and he agreed they should “go right back to the beginning of the century”.
With the millennium approaching, it seemed right to revive interest in the man who proved to be such a seminal influence on 20th-century music. “After all,” says Dudley, “he was the first serious composer to take a real interest in jazz.” She begins to enthuse about “those beautiful major 7th chords, moved in a parallel fashion… That’s a jazz way of working that you can hear in Gil Evans or Miles Davis”.
Art of Noise was considered to be the right vehicle for the project “because it can be anything at any time, and no one knows who we are”. There were some legalities involved in wrestling the name back to ZTT, and then the new team set about constructing “not an album of Debussy music but an Art of Noise album with Debussy’s spirit”.
The process, according to Dudley, consists of her coming up with a theme “that then gets shaped and pulled about by everyone else. We start with a sound or an idea, and improvise around it, then toss it around in the way jazz musicians would do.” The band, once famous for the samples they used, have become the third most sampled act in pop history (after James Brown and Kraftwerk). But on this album, they say, they have used noises made by no one but themselves.
Anne Dudley began many of her compositions “with an original Debussy song or piano piece (but never from one of his greatest hits like Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) and then worked around his chord structures or added new chords to fragments of his melodies.” The resulting songs were then “recorded completely straight. I played the piano and Sally sang, so the source material was our own material to start with—
One other key ingredient of the album is the voice of John Hurt, who acts as narrator, first describing Debussy’s death in Paris in 1918, then his importance and his decidedly unsociable character, fascinated by colours and flowers, and preferring cats to people.
The album starts with Dudley’s gentle piano work punctuated by slow narrative phrases from Hurt, then in come Sally Bradshaw’s operatic vocals and there’s a gradual build-up as Crème’s guitar and synthesized percussion are added. It develops into a clever, subtle mood piece, with continual changes of pace, and hints of jazz, funk and sturdy bass lines balancing the more lyrical piano themes.
The best sections are the more audacious. There’s a description of Debussy at work, surrounded by flowers, with a reminder that he wrote settings for poems by Charles Baudelaire. “It would,” Hurt announces, “remind you of the line by Baudelaire ‘Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air.’” A piano theme gives way to percussion, and a thoughtful contribution from Rakim, with surely the first-ever rap rhyming of “Baudelaire” and “evening air”. Continue »
They think that Debussy would have approved—
And after that, it seems, the band who once revelled in anonymity may actually be going on tour, in an attempt to annoy and shake up the pop scene a little more. “When I used to imagine what a band would be like in the year 2000,” says Morley, “I thought they’d be a weird mixture of artists and scientists, not something like Ocean Colour Scene. We thought Kraftwerk were the godfathers of the future, and one reason we got together was the return of the guitar music that has saturated the 90s.” “And,” adds Anne Dudley, “we can actually play.”
The Seduction of Claude Debussy will be released on June 28.