The Art of Noise
Do You Dream in Color?
Avant garde pioneers Art of Noise, have always been about making bold statements; both musically and visually. They left an indelible first impression on America in 1984, via the playfully surrealistic image of a seven year-old punk girl attacking a piano with a chainsaw in the ground-breaking video for “Close (to the Edit).” Two years later, In Visible Silence featured talking-head pop culture icon, Max Headroom, pondering his insomnia problem on the single, “Paranoimia,” and also resurrected guitar legend Duane “Twangin'” Eddy, for a surfsonic remake of the “Peter Gunn” theme. After the 1986 release of their brilliantly retooled Prince classic “Kiss,” with vocals by legendary sex-symbol, Tom Jones, the Art of Noise fell into a state of dormancy. They watched the world around them, and waited for the right time to resurface.
The individual members of Art of Noise enjoy prolific solo careers — Paul Morley as a rock journalist, Trevor Horn as a much-sought-after producer, and Anne Dudley with film soundtrack projects that have earned her an Academy Award for scoring the 1998 film, The Full Monty . But these multi-media artists took a nine-year hiatus from working together as Art of Noise before regrouping in 1997 — this time with 10cc founding guitarist, Lol Creme — to begin work on their pre-millennial masterpiece, The Seduction of Claude Debussy (Universal Records, released June 29, 1999).
Though grounded in the life and work of the 19th century, French baroque-classical composer, The Seduction of Claude Debussy is a wildly ambitious conceptual work that, on a greater level, provides a universal artistic and musical metaphor. Successfully hybridizing such diverse musical styles as classical, jazz, pop, rap, and ambient soundscapes, the first step to creating this multi-textured album required research into the life of Debussy and “a gathering of source material,” says Dudley. “The research involved me and Sally Bradshaw (a classically trained opera singer whose vocals appear throughout the record) plowing through the book of Debussy’s songs, finding some that we liked, and recording them.” All piano parts on the record are exclusively from original Debussy compositions. “It was almost deliberate that we wouldn’t pick pieces like “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” because we didn’t want it to be like Debussy’s greatest hits.” Having recorded Debussy’s music, Dudley continues, “We tried to find interesting contexts to weave these musical fragments into.” Adding other elements such as a recurrent, ten-note piano theme, narration by actor John Hurt, vocals by both Bradshaw and pop singer Donna Lewis, and a bit of stunning “modern poetry” from old-school rapper MC Rakim, Art of Noise then focused on “putting it all together in a coherent, flowing way.”
For this interview, Anne Dudley and Paul Morley met with me in the New York City offices of Universal Records to discuss the many facets involved in the conceptualization and recording of their long-awaited comeback album; how The Seduction of Claude Debussy speaks for the creative spirit of any artist or dreamer; and how they feel the record relates to the dawning of the new millennium. They also reveal how modern artists such as Brian Eno were heavily influenced by Debussy, and expound on the state of pop music in the ’90s. It’s not just an interview: it’s an adventure!
The different artists you brought in to work on the record, like John Hurt and Rakim, are so integral to the finished piece and the way it impacts the listener. How did you get them involved in this project? Did you always have them in mind?
Paul Morley : I think when you make this kind of [record], you get to stages where you need certain people to do certain things. As we were putting it together, we thought, “Oh, it would be good if we had a narrator that told a kind of story, or a metaphor for a story, about Claude Debussy. It’d be great if we had a modern kind of poet doing a poem about Debussy, because he was so inspired by poets.” When you get to that stage, you want the best you can get in the particular world that you’re interested in. We couldn’t get Orson Welles, because he’s dead, the bastard. So, John Hurt [has] that voice, we hope, that even when you know the words, it doesn’t bore you — thinking “Aw, here he comes again” — because it just becomes part of the texture. It’s just such a great presence [that] he’s got. He seemed to be the finest example of that kind of modern poetry that, at its best, that kind of thing can be. These people kind of leapt to mind, so to speak. And they were a phone call away, ’cause it’s the modern world.
Did Rakim write his own raps?
Paul : Yeah! Oh absolutely, yeah!
Anne Dudley : He was very interested in it — in the whole idea of what we were doing…
Did he know about Debussy and Baudelaire?
Paul : We sent him this big raft of stuff about Charles Baudelaire, who’s one of my favorite poets. It was kind of interesting because one of the thrills of the whole thing was that he totally got inside the spirit of the record and didn’t lop anything on top of it that came from his world. [He] went inside what we were trying to do with the record and gave it something that then inspired us to cover other areas as well. It was a fabulous thing that he did. There’s some great images in there.
Yes, it really does feel like he literally went down into this and came up through it, rather than just going “Okay I’m going to rap over this classical music.”
Paul : Yeah, it was a wonderful moment, when we realized he’d gotten inside the spirit of the project. It’s like [his words], “Splatter my wisdom in a design,” is a great way to describe painting. We were absolutely thrilled.
The narrative parts that John Hurt does, is that something that was taken from existing text or biographical text, or was it created or embellished based on Debussy’s history?
Paul : It’s kind of based on things that were said [about Debussy]. Somebody described him, [wondering] whether he was a sensitive sort or was [he so eccentric] because he was a genius? It was a fantasy based around truth, so to speak, that enabled us to tell a story that isn’t necessarily about Debussy per se; it could be about any kind of artist and dreamer. [There] was also some text [where] we did deliver biographical points about Debussy, just in case anybody would say, “Why Debussy?” [Because of] the fact that we admired him for both his musicianship and his rebellious tendencies and his theories, we needed to put that in there as a marker throughout the record.
It’s really cool in “The Holy Egoism of Genius,” when John Hurt comes in and just says so matter-of-factly, “Debussy didn’t believe in God…” and it really chokes me up, it’s such a powerful statement. I know there’s a lot of metaphor that is going on throughout this work. Would you say it’s more musical metaphor or artistic metaphor?
Paul : All of that and above. In a way, we’re very keen to point out [that] this isn’t a Debussy record. Debussy’s used as a metaphor for the Art of Noise, for an artist, for a musician, for a dreamer…the whole process of making a work in itself. Hopefully, people won’t go on too much about Debussy as such but will see that we’ve used [him] as a way in to tell a story about certain things. In a way, we’ve done a soundtrack to that idea of what it is to make something out of nothing.
Anne : To be an artist in the 20th Century.
Do you have any aspirations to perform this record live?
Anne : Yes we do. We’re aware that any Art of Noise event has to be something really special, and so we’re working on it now. We’ve got a couple of ideas. There may be a showing in New York. We know we can play it, we can play a version of it. Whether we can make the visual aspect of it to our satisfaction, I don’t know yet.
Paul : We need to create an experience. I think when the budget for the one show goes to a million dollars, we’ll know we’ve achieved what we need to do it [laughs]. Somebody could spend that much and we’ll do it.
Hey, Laurie Anderson does that kind of thing and has quite a bit of success with it.
Paul : Yeah, exactly. Well, she’s a good market for that kind of thing because her shows, they’re so wonderfully put together and so suggestive. If she can do it, I’m sure we can. I mean, we can artistically, it’s financially [that’s] the bugger.
What gives this record such a dynamic or bold artistic impact is how you are — as the Art of Noise — revisiting your roots, say what you were doing in the early ’80s with the ambient pieces — and bringing it back with modern ideas and sounds from artists who maybe you’ve even influenced. Like the sampling and dance beats and classical pieces all coming together.
Anne : Hmmm, Like we’ve come back to finish what we started…
Evolutionary and revolutionary at the same time. Looking at the finished work, does it give you an almost surreal feeling? I mean, it’s innovative and yet familiar at the same time?
Anne : One of the interesting things that’s happened to us, as people over the last fifteen years, is that we’ve continued to work as individuals in the pop arena, as it were. Whereas a lot of groups just stagnate in the period in which they happen to come to prominence and never develop musically. And, further, I mean, we’ve all — Trevor and me and Lol (Creme) and Paul — continued to do things. We’ve come to this not as musicians who were once successful in the ’80s, but as musicians who are still currently considered to be “happening” musicians, in one way or another. I think it’s a very modern record but, of course, we bring to it all our individual histories and, as a group, something new comes out of it. I think it’s the combination of us that makes it an interesting, modern record.
How did Lol Creme become involved?
Anne : Which story should we tell about Lol Creme? [Paul laughs]
I’m such a huge 10cc fan, since I was a kid.
Anne : Oh, so were we, and Lol’s been involved in all those wonderful records which were so far ahead of their time. Well, Lol’s a mate of Trevor, to start with, and he’s also a very innovative artist in [that] he’s a video artist and he’s an actual painter as well. Lol brings to this a great artistic tendency. He thinks, lives and breathes as an artist, which makes him quite an interesting person to have about. Of all of us, I think the Debussy angle was the newest to Lol. Lol wasn’t very familiar with Debussy’s music until he started to do this, so Lol would always have this very fresh viewpoint and always brought a sense of objectivity to it. He also plays guitar, and obviously, is involved with the whole sound of the record.
Paul : He played great guitar on the album.
The song “Dreaming in Color,” just as an example, has so many layers, with Donna Lewis’ vocals and the narrative and the various combative rhythms. When you’re creating something so multi-textural, is everyone in the studio at one time? What I mean is, is it more of a group effort, or does it become more of studio piece?
Paul : It’s a bit of both actually. The process of making this record is interesting but also quite… not interesting. To us, it just seemed entirely natural, the way the record is made. It’s made in a series of [sequences]… we’re together as a group in a lot more ways than people realize, to an extent, in the studio. A lot of the things happen spontaneously because the three or four of us are there at the same time. [These spontaneous moments] are the things that are the main factors of the record. The rest is just adjustments. The accidents are the beauty of it.
Anne : None of it’s pre-determined, that’s the answer.
Paul : The writing sort of happens later, funny enough, and within [the process]. Then that trips something else and then something goes on top of that. Maybe the first set of writing will [be discarded]. It’s like ‘survival of the fittest idea.’ One of the things I really like about “Metaforce” is that wonderful moment when John Hurt just pops up to say “Surrounded by flowers,” for not any reason that you could ever really understand except, originally, that [phrase] was part of something else. But that point was cut away and what was left was him saying “Surrounded by flowers,” which we kind of liked.
Anne : If people think that we have predetermined ideas and are a very technologically-minded band, they’re completely wrong. We’re more like a jazz group, really. We just improvise with stuff, but it’s sometimes big stuff and sometimes little stuff…and sometimes whole songs get chucked around.
Paul : And then we try and work out what the meaning is [at that moment], and make that the meaning.
Anne : Paul’s very good at finding out what the meaning was and telling us.
Paul : Yes, I’m the king of hindsight.
Anne : He is, and then, when he’s told us, we think, “yeah, right, now we know what to do.” Then we proceed on to the next level.
Paul : And thus, meaning is created. But everything is like that, in the sense [that] it’s all interpretation. We do our own interpretation within the process.
“Out of this World,” put in the context of the rest of the album, is very sparse and ambient, it actually reminded me of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports …
Anne : For us as well.
And also there’s this subtle beat running under it that’s like a heartbeat, so it made me think of a ‘womb-like’ environment. So, the question is following that line, is this piece meant to represent a space where ideas formulate, like a womb?
Paul : Abso-fucking-lutely. We [resequenced the final version to] put it at the end now, for just that reason. Why we decided — after putting it where we had it — to put it at the end [pause] — I’m just creating the meaning here [laughs] — is because of that. After there’s all these rich levels of things to interpret, we thought it was really good then to just [go] “Ladies and Gentlemen, Art of Noise.” And then, instead of it being “Bang! Bong!” it creates this kind of blank canvas for your own imagination to fill in. We actually put it at the end of the record, so that it’s as if it carries on forever.
Anne : And I like the idea that it’s like an embryo developing….like the genesis of an idea.
So it’s nice when that comes across and people get it.
Paul : Yeah. And the reason it sounds Eno-esque is because Brian Eno would be one of the first to say that he was quite influenced by Debussy as well, in the way [that] he would create a sort of “Scape” — landscape, mindscape, whatever.
Do you think that this record might spawn an interest in the public for Claude Debussy’s work?
Anne : Well, that would be fine by us, but it’s not didactic in any way. It’s not intended to be a sort of learning treatise on Claude Debussy. It’s supposed to be an Art of Noise album, so that if you know nothing about Claude Debussy you’d still enjoy the album as a piece of work. Sometimes I fear that people’s perceptions of music are too narrow anyway and Claude Debussy is hardly an obscure figure. Everybody should be aware of the music of Claude Debussy. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t teach anybody anything except for music. Let’s have the history of music and then add culture.
Paul : Well, the reason I love intelligent music is ’cause you’re really hearing, in the most abstract way possible, people thinking. [It’s] the minds of people expressing themselves, in the most abstract manner, in a way that people [did] before language. Because language is an artificial way to create reality, really. Music is probably the purest way of communicating. Language is not necessarily reality. [It’s] the way we’ve controlled reality and music has to go underneath that, right to the very heart of our instincts and our impulses. So I kind of love that idea. It’s pre-language and it’s so elemental. When I hear crap pop, it really pisses me off because it’s just stupidity, really.
I really think you’ve made an amazing record and you’ve done a great service, especially in light of what you said about all this bad pop music that’s so brain-dead.
Paul : That’s pretty interesting because Anne gets asked to do things and therefore makes discriminations all the time. Trevor [is] the same, and I used to be — and still am to a certain extent — a rock critic. We’ve got very high standards on that sense and know very much about the crap that goes out in the world continually. It was important, when we did this, that we would only put something out that had, we hoped, the beauty and the integrity all on its own, and that didn’t just join in the clutter and the acute pretension that goes on. That it had its own merits in the way that the great pop music always has.
The real problem with the quality of music being on the decline is that there’s just so much…
Anne : Yeah, there’s just so much. Paul said he went into Virgin Megastore last night and was overwhelmed.
Paul : I had to walk out. And a lot of it’s all corporately controlled, as well, therefore it’s quite soulless. It’s ruthlessly efficient.
A band sells their soul to the Devil and they get to make a record.
Paul : That sums it up I think.
Anne : But we never did, you see. I don’t think we compromised our standards. We haven’t made a record that you could put into a category really, which is why it’s been a bit difficult with record companies saying “Well, what is this? Where do we file it?”
Because this is such a profound and important record, do you think it’s at all synchronous that it’s being released close to the new millennium?
Anne : Absolutely.
Paul : Can I just blush?
Anne : Paul is now blushing.
Paul : Well, we thought that 1999 was such a great space-age year that we couldn’t just put something [ordinary] out. The first Art of Noise album came out in 1984, which George Orwell made into such a great year of the future. You know, fifteen years ago, 1999 sounded so far away. Debussy was a good choice, because he was [making music] from one century to another as well. We are in that moment now, nothing can stop it: We are going to go into the future, and the future will be different. Even though there’s the corny side of the millennial celebrations, I think there’s also something quite moving about it and quite spiritual. It seemed interesting and even important to create a quite beautiful soundtrack to that feeling of apprehension about the future, rather than going in with all the nonsense feel. A lot of people are terrified about the future, whereas the Art of Noise have always wanted to embrace it and change it for the better.
Anne : Well said.
Amen, right on!
Paul : Get me on that fucking pulpit.