For many people, a drone wouldn't even be called music, just an irritating noise, like the buzzing of a refrigerator, the hum of traffic, the sound of bees in a hive. For others, it is OMMMM, the sound of the universe in Hindu cosmology, or, put in the language of modern physics, an expression of the fact that everything vibrates, everything is a wave. Yet a recent packaged-for-mainstream double CD compilation called Roots of Drone confirmed what I already suspected: that in the last decade or two, drone has become a musical genre. This may seem odd since after all, a drone is basically a tone, or set of tones that are sustained over time. And in a consumer marketplace driven by a craving for endless but often trivial kinds of novelty, making the same sound for a long time is a powerful gesture of refusal. Even so, there's now drone rock, drone metal, drone-based techno, drone within the classical tradition, drone-folk and so on. And now, the varieties of drone too are apparently inexhaustible. Here then is a sampling of drone's diversity...
• La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela: "Sound and Light Environment" (Church Street, NYC)
Whether or not he invented drones as a musical or artistic project, the work of New York based composer La Monte Young is still the best place to begin an exploration of drones, and the best place to hear his drone-music is not a recording (Young has been notoriously recalcitrant in issuing his recordings) but a visit to The Dream House, where his drone installation The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 ...has been resounding since 1991, accompanied by Marian Zazeela's shadow sculptures and light environment. As you enter the top floor loft on Church Street in New York's Tribeca, above the space where Young and Zazeela have lived for many years, you are hit by a wall of sound and a dense magenta visual field. It's loud, thick, and it immediately feels as though it's inside your skull, rather than outside. The dense sound is composed of a set of tones generated on a synthesizer that are tuned in just intonation according to certain ratios of prime numbers that are in accord with the natural harmonics of sound. Having said that, it is likely that the particular combination of tones that Young is working with have never been heard before, and if each tone combination in just intonation is also associated with a mood or feeling, Young can claim that his work is literally producing new states of feeling in those who listen. Some people sit and meditate in the room, focusing on particular tones which open up into further tone clusters as you focus; others move, exploring the way that different sets of overtones appear as you shift your head. It is like a sea of sound.
• The Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage: "Blues Dhkir Al-Salam (Blues Al Maqam)" from Live at the Grimm Museum Vol. 1 (Important)
Many of Young's proteges have developed their own varieties of drone sound. Jon Hassell and Terry Riley developed lush, sensuous forms of improvisation. His influence also echoes in drone masterworks like Eliane Radigue's Adnos, Pauline Oliveros' gorgeous accordion pieces, or Annea Lockwood's glittering compositions. More recently, Catherine Christer Hennix's 1976 drone masterpiece The Electric Harpsichord, a 25 minute pulsating sound field created on a Yamaha organ that is the equivalent of an abstract expressionist canvas, has finally been issued. Hennix, who lives in Berlin, now has a band called the Chora(s)san Time Court Mirage that plays remarkable four hour drone concerts that feature voice, brass and her mathematically composed computer drones. Hennix's work is uncanny and often profoundly disorienting: at times the tones stir up very deep, often barely recognizable feelings, at other times, the external world starts to melt around one. Philosophers in recent years have argued that Being itself is
• Ali Akbar Khan: "Raga Piloo" from Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas (Angel Records)
One of the key sources for Young's drone fascination (as well as others in the classical tradition who use drone-like structures such as Debussy, Bartok and Lou Harrison) was the world of traditional music. In 1957, Young bought the first long playing Indian classical record to be released in the West, Ali Akbar Khan's Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas and was struck not so much by Khan's virtuoso sarod playing but by the buzzing hum (almost buried in the mix) of the tambura that accompanied him. Tamburas provide a harmonic grid in which singers and musicians play -- you can hear something similar in Scottish bagpipe music or Laotian khaen or that other key traditional form, for the Japan obsessed US hipster of the late 1950s, the slow, stately court music called Gagaku.
• Earth: "Like Gold and Faceted" from Earth II (Sub Pop)
John Cale, who played in the Theater of Eternal Music with Young in the 1960s, famously brought his viola drone to the Velvet Underground and rock songs like "Heroin." Certain versions of the Blues, notably the north Mississippi style associated with Mississippi Fred McDowell and more recently Fat Possum Records, involve rapid repetitions of single chords or notes that effectively form a drone. From the Velvets through Krautrock favorites such as Can, to shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine, drones have been an important part of rock. Probably the heaviest rock drone can be found on Earth's classic Earth II. The thirty minute "Like Gold and Faceted" is pure, surging, barely contained but almost static electric power, the ur-drone or doom metal sound par excellence. Earth gave birth to giving birth to monstrous, progeny like Sunn O))), who have developed the raw blast of sustained metal guitar tones into something new and strange.
• Sarah Peebles: "Bumble Domicile" from an installation at *new* Gallery, Toronto, 2008
Toronto based composer Sarah Peebles began exploring drones by studying, playing and composing for the Japanese sho, a just intonation tuned pipe, often using Max/MSP to process recordings of the pipes, producing warm, resonant pieces collected on two important CDs, Suspended In Amber and Insect Groove and her beautiful installation piece, "Music for Incandescent Events: Sunset" which uses light sensitive triggers to choreograph blocks of drone sound to the setting sun. Her recent work has focused increasingly on bee culture installations, that she sets up in galleries and other spaces, amplifying their sound, and transforming it digitally on occasion. The natural world is of course alive with drones, and there's an important history of sound art that engages and amplifies this hum, from Walter De Maria's recordings of insect sound, to Annea Lockwood's rivers, to various acoustic ecologists' explorations of seismic activity,.
• Clams Casino: "Waterfalls" from Rainforest (Tri Angle)
Digital technologies have transformed the production of drones. All kinds of looping software offers the ability to sustain a sound indefinitely, allowing the exploration of almost any combination of tones. Hiphop was a key laboratory of looping and one way to make a drone is simply to slow down a sound and stretch it out -- a practice perfected by Houston's late and lamented master of "chopped and screwed" beats, DJ Screw. In the last few years, New York's Tri Angle Records has emerged as key purveyors of dreamy drone pop, matching hip-hop style beats, subsonic bass with hazy synth drones and pitch-shifted heliumized female vocal samples, in a style similar to witch house. Again, even within this style, the moody ambient sound of Balam Acab's "See Birds", is different from the punchy hiphop drone combinations of Evian Christ's "Fuck It, None Of Y'all Don't Rap" or the remarkable Clams Casino, celebrated for providing the beats and sounds behind Lil B's classic "I'm God." Clams' "Waterfalls" has an incredibly melancholy punch to it. Some might argue that an endlessly looped melody is not a drone, even if it's slowed down, but a drone is after all nothing but sustained tones, and the gap between the end of a loop and its return doesn't change that, it just introduces the possibility of rhythmic breaks as an endless variable within the sustained tones.
• Phill Niblock: "The Movement of People Working" (Extreme)
While drones are a sonic staple in horror movies where they instantly evoke an atmosphere of brooding menace, there's an interesting history to be written about sonic drones and the cinematic avant garde. Michael Snow's beautiful single shot 45 minute film Wavelength is accompanied by a very slowly rising glissando. Another Theater of Eternal Music participant, Tony Conrad's film The Flicker is also built around a more abrasive shifting electronic drone sound. Phill Niblock has been composing and performing drones for decades: he has no grand tuning theory and prefers to experiment with pitch. The Movement of People Working is his masterpiece: a collection of films of ordinary people around the world, working at mostly physical tasks, juxtaposed with Niblock's drones. Often multiple films are shown at once while Niblock improvises particular tone clusters. The tension between the repetitive, meditative everyday movements of bodies, often close up, with the surging, ocean deep sound is enigmatic, going against the often Orientalist spirituality associated with drones, yet still evoking a profound sense of mystery concerning what work, time, the body are.
A trace of drone runs through disco and its various permutations, beginning with the synthesized hums of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", the "chicken-scratch" single chord guitar runs of James Brown's guitarist Jimmy Nolen, and Kraftwerk's minimalist synth excursions, feeding into electro, house, techno and other styles. The latest intensifications of the drone-disco continuum are coming from musicians associated with labels like Los Angeles' 100% Silk (and it's elder sister label Not Not Fun) and some of the proteges of Brooklyn based ambient noise drone master Oneohtrix Point Never, notably the amazing Laurel Halo. Ital, who has also recorded under the name Sex Worker, produces slowish, drawn out, hypnotic proto-house music , notably on his recent Hive Mind. It's sexy, throbbing in a non-gender specific kind of way, and harks back to Moroder and Sylvester producer Patrick Cowley . It's sensual, the drone here the drone of sexual energy, mental energy, building up to peaks, falling back and building again. Or, like a lot of drone music, it is facilitated, both for performer and listener, by the use of various psychoactive substances that facilitate state of sustained attention. Halo is something else again. Like Oneohtrix, she is fascinated by sounds that are half-noise, half recognizable pitch, and on Hour Logic and the newer Quarantine, she builds dance music out of these sounds, creating drones out of plateau-like blocks of sound and noise that lock into each other for varying periods of time and giving a startling experience of sonic density.
• Windy and Carl: "The Dream House/Dedications to Flea" (Kranky)
There's a lineage of drone music that comes out of punk (the minimalism of New York no wave and Wire's post-punk riffing) and runs through the alternative and independent music scenes to today. Sonic Youth's Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore played with Glenn Branca, who mixed minimalist composition practices, including the use of sustained tones with rock guitar amplification. Groups like New Zealand's Dead C pioneered cavernous walls of improvised sonic sea-like squall in the 1990s. For the last decade, Chicago's Kranky Records has been the home of indie drone rock, from Tim Hecker's glacial samples on Ravedeath 1972, to Deerhunter's drone pop, to Keith Fullerton Whitman's stunning assemblages of analog and digital on tracks like the 41 minute Lisbon. Windy and Carl take a lofi approach, basically a keyboard and a guitar, weaving shimmering layers of warm, almost pastoral sound, accompanied on "Dedications to Flea", by recordings of the breath and movement of a departed pet.
• Chandra X-ray Observatory: "Sound Waves from a Black Hole" (NASA)
A press release from NASA dated Sept. 9, 2003 announces:
NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory detected sound waves, for the first time, from a supermassive black hole. The "note" is the deepest ever detected from any object in our Universe. ... The black hole resides in the Perseus cluster of galaxies located 250 million light years from Earth. In 2002, astronomers obtained a deep Chandra observation that shows ripples in the gas filling the cluster. These ripples are evidence for sound waves that have traveled hundreds of thousands of light years away from the cluster's central black hole ... In musical terms, the pitch of the sound generated by the black hole translates into the note of B flat. But, a human would have no chance of hearing this cosmic performance because the note is 57 octaves lower than middle-C ... At a frequency over a million billion times deeper than the limits of human hearing, this is the deepest note ever detected from an object in the Universe."
What does such a drone do? Given that sonic vibrations generate heat, the sound waves emanating from the Perseus black hole potentially contain "the combined energy from 100 million supernovas", enough, astrophysicists believe, to stop the gaseous matter around black holes from cooling and forming stars. It is thought that this sound wave has "remained roughly constant for about 2.5 billion years."
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Marcus Boon is the author of In Praise of Copying (Harvard, 2010) and The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard, 2002). He writes about music for The Wire, blogs, and teaches contemporary literature and cultural theory at York University in Toronto. He is currently working on a book on the politics of vibration. Follow him on Twitter @mbb3001.