Tuesday, 30 September 2008


If I’m being slow to respond here, that quite possibly suits the subject matter. Pete Ashton wrote Loving The Drone back (yes, really) on Dec 17th. This response has since been slowly maturing all that time, like a fine wine, and not at all because it got stuck under something else and forgotten about.

Peter wrote how he was listening to Sunn O))) (pictured) and “like a blast of dark light, I suddenly got it.” Though there wasn’t such a single cinematic moment where I got drone, I’m delighted to hear this. However, Pete then goes on to quote Paul Morley as an articulation of his experience. To which I ask, what is “the drone of meaning and no meaning” supposed to mean? WTF has “life on Mars” got to do with any of this? But the worst thing about Morley’s nonsense is Morley’s sense, that he manages to mix so much meaning up with his blather. Reading this, some might come to dismiss all drone music as emperor’s new clothes stuff. (Disclaimer: If you say my comments are no more substantiable than Morley’s I will not argue. If you claim they’re equally pretentious I will sulk terribly but not actually respond.)

In writing this rejoinder I find I’ve stumbled into writing a trilogy on musical forms. I asked here ‘Is Impro the Primal Musical Mode?’, then here the related question of whether folk music constitutes our identity? The fact that I answered ‘no’ in both cases may be considered a clue as to what I will say about drone.

However, while I might deny that folk is the music to we’re biologically programmed to respond, a fuller response might be that folk is itself born in the drone. This might have largely been quite accidental - folk instruments tended to produce drone effects only as a byproduct, like the tape hum or disc crackle of its day. But I can’t see why this should change anything. Accident is always the mother of discovery. To me this just adds weight to my contention that drone is not a genre of music. To me drone is music, with all the other forms the offshoots and sidelines.

Drone is the music we first played to ourselves. It was a ritualised use, where the music itself wasn’t the focus but a means towards the effect it had upon the participants. It’s widely believed so many ancient rituals were held in caves, stone circles or similar places in order to echo and maintain the sustained tones. Its likely mantras are more individualised attempts to simulate the same effects.

Of course you can’t listen to drone the way you can other music. You tend to listen to music at a meta level, not to the instruments so much as the interplay between them. In popular music, this comes out like a conversation between a ‘group’. In classical music, it’s like words or phrases strung together by the composer. Listening can become almost like watching a film, as you start to sense things like the climax coming in. Popular music in particular seems keen to approximate a sense of forward momentum; how many songs contain words like “let’s go”, “here we go” or similar?

Drone dispels all that by immediately pulping all the separate instruments down into a kind of primordial soup. All our conventional descriptive terms, such as ‘allegro’ or ‘fortissimo’, are designed to explain how fast or slow music is progressing. But drone music doesn’t progress, it’s just maintained. Notes don’t get replaced by other notes in a string, sounds just merge with sounds that arrive after them. This often leads to the complaint that drone music is monotonous and (inevitably) boring. However if is endless that doesn’t mean it is static. It merely means people are listening to the music in the wrong way.

Though drone is not precisely analogous with minimalism, it does exhibit why the term ‘mininmalist’ can be such a misnomer. Through extended duration, apparently simple textures reveal greater and greater levels of complexity. It’s like looking into the grain of wood, or following the falling of a waterfall; the more you look, the more there is to see. It’s like looking into a cave. First your daylight-tuned eyes make out only murk, but the longer they look the more emerges. In many ways I can’t think of a more maximalist music than the immersive world of drone.

Of course it’s quite possible that the sub-tones and variations to be found in drone appear quite accidentally. To me that’s even part of the point, the essence of drone’s ‘sameyness’ is that nothing is ever the same. Indeed, much drone music tries to minimise the player’s role by enabling rather than playing the sustained tones. (‘Drone’ is after all also used as a term for unwilled or unmanned.) This is different to impro music, where the musician tries to let his consciousness surrender to his subconscious. In drone the musician must surrender altogether, like a medium becoming a mere conduit of communication. In Sound Projector 8, Ed Pinsent enthused of drone-merchant Jilat that he “has done his level best to efface the traces of playing.”

Sometimes this was achieved by preparing instruments to be permanently held down, sometimes by exploiting and amplifying imperfections in equipment. The guitars on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music were ‘played’ only by force from their own amps, in a complete feedback loop without human involvement. Disinformation boiled things down further by creating performances from nothing other than the mains electricity used to power them, sometimes for up to six weeks at a time.

There’s also a strong overlap with electro-acoustic music and field recordings, for example Chris Watson recording wind blowing or ice cracking. Drone is about the elemental – it’s not so much composed and then performed but captured and set up to run. (In this way, and however name-defying it may sound, drone isn’t even reliant on sound. After his tenure in Eternal Music, Tony Conrad made films via, for example, hitting the film-stock with a hammer so fault and fracture-lines appear.)

In one of the best comments I’ve heard about music, David Byrne said a function of it was to give us a sense of time outside clock time. In our linear, deadline-driven, time-poor culture, I’m sure he’s right. But drone doesn’t just contend clock-time, it suspends it. The Theatre of Eternal Music would always start their performances before the audience were allowed in the venue then make them leave again before it was finished, to give them a sense of a music not bound and formed by duration but (you guessed it) eternal. We only experience a segment of the music, just like our lifespans permit us only a segment of time. Head honcho La Monte Young went on to construct a ‘dream house’, where the drones were perpetual and visitors could stay as long as they chose.

Over Metal Machine Music (long dismissed as a mere wind-up), Lou Reed dismissed accusations it was unchanging by insisting it was ever changing, and was in fact the sound of the universe. Similarly there’s a (quite possibly apocryphal) story that La Monte Young discovered drone from the sounds his fridge made when it went on the blink! While the Slits recorded ‘In the Beginning there Was Rhythm’, I would counter it all starts with a drone. One of the Jilat pieces mentioned earlier is titled “a long drone-like pieces of muisc which attempts in its minimalism to be a thing in itself without external reference, having an analogue in certain states of consciousness where being is experienced also as a thing in itself and not contingent upon meaning or purpose.” (Though of course I’m kidding about that being the title of the piece. The full title is longer.)

While drone is sometimes dismissed as bliss-out and escapist, it doesn’t have to refer out to anything else in the universe because it already encompasses the universe. It doesn’t merely encompass the sound of the big and the small, it denies the distinction between those sounds. “As above, so below” is an important concept in drone. Blake’s conception of “infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour” is just up drone’s street. Once the sounds are isolated, can we tell the grand scheme of the universe from electricity passing in a wire?

Typically of drone, it sounds at once like the universe and at the same time like the womb. Morley is surely right to say it’s “the sound inside the womb, the sound of your thoughts before words became your thoughts”. Charlemagne Palestine has insisted “I was born in the drone!” Experiments have suggested that maybe everything did sound like that then, but I’d go further and suggest that everything felt like that then too. Ed Pinsent has commented “loud intensive drone music [lets me] retrieve some deeply personal memories I thought were long buried.” Drone music draws it’s effect from enveloping you in sound, like a womb state. (Conversely, when I first heard the cacophonous rush of Tomorrow Never Knows the first it made me think of was the rupture of being born.)

However, drone reaches back further than the deepest personal memories. Morley is also right to describe drone as strangely comforting. But I’ve often felt a paradox within drone, its sheer eeriness can at the same time be unsettling. Some ‘dark’ or ‘doom’ drone leans more to one and some ‘ambient drone’ to the other, but it’s an important factor that it contains both. Drone ultimately reaches back to ancient conception of the Wyrd:

“Our tribal ancestors and mystics of ancient Europe lived out a view of life called Wyrd: a way of being which transcends our conventional notions of free will and determinism. All aspects of the world were seen as being in constant flux and motion…Following on from the concept of Wyrd was a vision of the cosmos as being connected by an enormous, all-reaching system of fibres rather like a three-dimensional spider’s web. Everything was connected by strands of fire to the all-encompassing web. Any event, anywhere, resulted in reverberations and repercussions throughout the web.”
Brian Bates, the Wisdom of the Wyrd, Rider Books, 1996

My contention is that we respond to drone music not simply because we genetically recognise something ancient, but because we respond to this non-linear anti-causal conception of reality which it embodies. It is quite simply humans playing not only in harmony with each other but with everything else. And it’s unsettling quality is partly because of its unfamiliarity to our modern sensibilities but more because it is unsettling – it presents a view of the universe which is never settled. True drone music is a world away from the soothing soundscapes that accompany New Age utopias. Drone was, is and will forever be something savage.

See also:
Lucid Frenzy on Tony Conrad’s Tate performance this summer
Wikipedia’s entry on drone music
A reasonable starter’s guide to drone musicians

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