Having experienced the efforts of the Isle of Wight students, we might compare it with the recording of Drinking and Hooting Machine on Machine Music (Obscure 8, 1978), performed by Brian Eno, Christopher Hobbs, Gavin Bryars, John White, and Susan Dorey. Those familiar with Terry Riley’s piece In C (1964) will see how similar its structure and ending is to Drinking and Hooting Machine. D & H uses bottles rather than ‘real’ instruments. It’s also slower than In C, but it has the same, easily-followed process, albeit through changes in pitch, rather than In C‘s motives. White wrote, ‘The effect of this piece has been compared to that of a large aviary of owls all practising very slow descending scales’ (liner notes to Drinking and Hooting Machine, Obscure 8). You can hear a bit of the Obscure version here:
Although we can’t see the performers on the Obscure recording, we can hear several distinct differences. The primary difference is how slowly the Obscure recording progresses. White asked performers to blow their bottles for a ‘whole breath’. What does this mean? One must empty one’s lungs, of course. The IoW students huff and puff like a jug band, but their short breaths are, in some way, ‘whole’. If their breaths were not at least mostly whole, the students would become hyperventilated as their lungs filled with unused air. But on the Obscure recording we can hear the players leisurely breathing in, then equally leisurely blowing long tones over their bottles. This brings us from score-reading to performance practice. Here the ‘whole breath’ means an intake of breath that results in a long (or longish) note that uses up the air with the end of the note.
Another feature of the Obscure recording we can hear is the professional approach to the piece. The players have practiced their ‘instruments’ enough to hold a clear and steady tone. They have worked out what constitutes the varying intensities of drinking that White has written (these include ‘SIP’, ‘SWIG’, ‘GULP’, and to leave the level ‘AS IS’), which lowers the pitch on each successive groups of hoots. There is no giggling. Whatever is funny about the piece — for instance, seeing competent performers playing on old bottles — is is interpreted as funny by the audience members themselves. There is a concern with the pace and placement of the notes to balance the texture of the music throughout (White writes that notes should be played without significant gaps, other than the intake of breath and the required drinking to change the pitch of the bottle). Of course, the students are students, and the Obscure players are professional. But all performers should approach their performance in a professional manner, no matter whether they play an old wine bottle or a Stradivarius violin.
The Obscure performers therefore avoid the coordinated pulse that the students achieve in their ‘rhythmic’ version (the instructions clearly state the ‘There is no rhythmical pulse other than that produced by the individual length of breath of each performer’). Lastly, although we cannot see the Obscure performers, we are confident that they did not put bottles on their heads when they finished their drink — at least not until after the piece had ended.* Why? The instructions clearly state that once each player finishes the required number of hoots, he or she enters the coda. Here the performers hoot on their empty bottle until all have finished their bottles and, at a signal, they end together.
One only wonders how the Isle of Wight students found this piece, whether they decided it to be ‘infamous’, and whether they decided on their performance strategy alone. They certainly couldn’t have been taught this by their teacher. Could they? I’m not trying to be a killjoy. Rather the reverse: all the fun in this piece comes from playing it as a piece; arse around with it, and it’s just arsing around.
*What the players do with the bottles after the performance is up to them, of course.