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On drone music

Bret Schneider

Platypus Review 16 | October 2009


THE AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE OF DRONE MUSIC is not just aesthetically defined, but socially and historically located. The significance of this location is especially intriguing when concealed in a music legacy that aims exclusively at the pure presentation of sound, a music intent upon expelling all that is foreign to the aesthetic experience while underscoring a formal, perceptual physicality. As such, it is difficult to review an instance of drone music in isolation from either the widespread classification of the genre that increasingly defines the music listening experience or drone music’s historically accumulated predilection for spatial sound masses over temporal themes. The difficulty is further compounded by the lack of a definitive denotation of the term “drone” itself, which has come to be used as a catch-all for everything that loosely resembles any of drone’s preceding musical forms. Moreover, the motivations behind recent standardizations of drone music contrast sharply with the original impetus of its project, which in the 1960s aimed for the limits of listening.

The artificial grafting of a music aesthetic contextually relevant in the 1960s onto the current social situation results in a lapsed music production based on a nostalgia which can, at best, only accidentally evoke its original impulses and aspirations. Recent drone music does not stand alone in barely nudging along forms of music that are already standardized. It is a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon of repeating established norms because society has not grasped its history (even as it obsesses over it). Drone music intends to take seriously its own history, but fails in its intent by fixating on preservation, as though it could provide a museum-like envelope of the past. Through its dream of solidarity and identification with the original ideals of the form, recent drone music preserves the aesthetics of its forebearers while also exposing ideologies behind the aesthetic forms more starkly. Early minimalist drone music utilized accepted music aesthetics by exploring tonal possibilities latent in preceding historical forms, but only in order to expand the possibilities of what could be considered music. What concerns drone music artists and their audiences are chiefly aesthetic considerations, and most of what we perceive to be new in recent drone music is actually latent in earlier forms. The question is why those possibilities are manifesting now.

LaMont Young's studio

Drone music is expressly inspired by one branch of minimalist music from the 1960s, epitomized by La Monte Young’s ensemble, The Theater of Eternal Music, which included, among others, John Cale of the Velvet Underground, a considerable source of mainstream influence. The Theater of Eternal Music were the first to implement the exclusive use of long sustained tones that is so prevalent in much of today’s music. But what is particularly fascinating about La Monte Young’s music, listening to it forty years later, is not some sort of “ontological” or “eternal” condition of sound, nor its idealized timbral qualities, but rather its fleeting attempts at trying to capture those ideals materially, with the technology and techniques then available. Though it may not have been his intent at the time, Young was most successful not in preserving sound itself, but in capturing the Sisyphean task of trying to preserve sound. The now archaic sine waves in Young’s record Dream House display their artifice in ways they may not have done forty years ago. Recent drone music artists are in some ways repeating Young’s attempt to capture eternal dimensions of sound without regard for the fleeting nature of the physical and technical means they employ to do so. The result is that by certain techniques they gloss over the very means on which they depend, abandoning the attempt to alter the means themselves, and only exercising them. Baudelaire’s formula of the modernist aesthetic—that it captures the still and eternal through the fleeting nature of industrialism—is evident in Dream House: Sine wave generators, now comically dated, jeopardize any romance of an eternal aesthetic, and instead point towards the tension between the hope for eternal sound and the material means by which those hopes might be realized.

Today, drone artists attempt to display the transient qualities emanating from delay, reverb, distortion, and other sonic effects, but this is not the primary issue at hand, critically speaking. The problem is that a lack of clarity as to the intent of such attempts translates, in effect, into a reanimation of drone music’s initial romanticism, but in a more opaque and problematic form. The intentions of contemporary drone music remain unclear in ways La Monte Young’s music was not, and most drone music criticism today does little to problematize the aesthetic impasse. An ideological fixation on the physical, formal characteristics of sound has overridden critical attention to the question of what can constitute music material—a question taken up by, for instance, the work of La Monte Young, John Cage, and the Fluxus artists. Ironically, this trend in criticism traces its origin to these very artists who explored the limits of the materiality of music.


Cover for Sunn O)))'s Monoliths & Dimensions

When Frances Morgan, in Frieze magazine’s May review of critically acclaimed Sunn O)))’s doom-drone album Monoliths & Dimensions, proclaims that Sunn O))) should focus on the timbral properties of the sound, as opposed to the self-referential social position of Sunn O))) within art history, the original intentions of minimalism are as misunderstood as they are preserved.[1] Morgan’s advice seeks to replace one common theme, a historical situating, with another, the tonal dogma of minimal music. This misunderstands how both were necessary for La Monte Young, as his extremely original project would never have arisen were it not for an awareness of his own position within music history. In Young, the aesthetic and the historical character are intertwined completely. The timbral characteristics of Eternal Music’s compositions are not the only dimensions of their art. The timbral, tonal, physical characteristics were only relevant insofar as they could actually combine to stretch the possibility for what music could be, in light of what it had been. Focusing solely on the timbral properties is an attempt to deflect attention away from the social conditions to which Young’s aesthetic reacted. Sunn O))) is actually quite successful in heightening the discrepancies between material and romantic fantasy, but the reception in Frieze is more interested in the romance of the manifestation as such, not a reflection on why or how it manifests.

Music criticism in general has also failed to adequately grasp the resurgent character of contemporary drone minimalism, arguing instead that it has always existed, uninterrupted. This overlooks the question of what sets 1960s-style drone minimalism apart from its recent implementations. First, there is the obvious digression of music into an area motivated by technological and product-based advancement. An artist today who would perform a music composition like Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor #1, in which the pianist offers the piano a bale of hay to eat and a bucket of water to drink, is likely to be ignored in favor of a technologically advanced multi-channel set from artists like Ryoji Ikeda or Robert Henke, for example, or the romantically charged guitar compositions of Sunn O)))—a group, after all, that takes its name from a power amp. It is nearly impossible for musical experimentation to escape the net of new music templates and technologies and, judging from recent drone implementations, there is little desire to even try it. A renewed interest in drone music now, at precisely the point where music gear commodities swallow the maker, is curious, specifically because drone music does not need to rely on advanced technology—witness Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, for example, or his Island Song, in which he drives around an island on a motorcycle harmonizing his voice with its engine, an economy of aesthetics as elegant as it is complex. But most drone artists rely heavily on templated music production tools, be they guitars, effects, Ableton Live software, or hacked electronics. This dependency on generic means of production is one major distinction between early minimal music and its recent implementations, and keeps recent drone music in an aesthetic realm quarantined from an understanding of what drove the creation of minimalist music in the first place.

To what extent are drone artists today doing something new, as opposed to merely perpetuating the past? As Barnett Newman would ask, are drone artists today actually creating, or are they simply making? Of course, at one level there is something different in recent drone music, but to what extent this is significant, or even recognized, remains unclear. A principal reason for this is that drone artists and their audiences are interested in romantic and, generally speaking, countercultural ideologies—an interest often expressed in the form of an interest in their own musical tradition that overlaps with performance. But uncritical nostalgia for the historically countercultural roots of drone music can hinder actual innovation by drone artists today.

Drone music in the 1960s was masterful in its use of the material artifacts of sound. This emanated from a conceptual attempt to extend the socially accepted physical conditions of making art. Resurfaced drone music today, even if it has very different and fragmented concerns, points in an altogether different direction through its genrification, its aesthetics bordering on ambient home listening, its mimicries of previous drone forms. The arrows no longer align against the membrane of what is acceptable, nor does the music strive to involve outside support and social institutions. What drone artists today have in common is their misalignment and tacit recycling of previous efforts. Even though the kernel of a music history is retained aesthetically, it is often too unconscious in its motivation to sell itself as an ideology. When drone-influenced music can neatly fit into expected formats, whether performed live or recorded for labels that cater to a certain aesthetic, the new becomes naturalized, so that a great distance now separates current motivations and concerns from those of the music that supposedly inspires it. Recent drone artists look to the past, but only to mechanically rearticulate its styles and forms. This evasion of the task of interrogating the inherent implications of past forms and the stultifying weight of their history threatens to make drone music into a mere craft. A good drone artist today would not create drone music at all.

Recent drone music often creates new work through mass-production techniques, and this possibly reveals how these products are bound up with far-flung ideals. This was always the case to an extent. La Monte Young was dependent upon sine wave generators that were quite advanced for the 1960s, but the generators were merely the tools used to advance the boundaries of the acceptable based on implications in the previous generation’s music. In its simplicity, it exaggerated the gap between the ideal of an eternal music and the alienating realm of the material. Young correctly identified the tonal tendency of western music and ran with it. In this way, his work negatively parallels the rebellion against tonality one sees in John Cage’s percussive experiments. For Young, previous musical forms and traditions were the foundation of innovation, rather than an obstacle to it.

Like most drone music created now, the work of _i is characterized by a technologically based, individually expressive aesthetics, albeit one that is quite distinctive in its style. Its rearticulation of past drone and ambient music is centered upon tone field build-up with guitars looping, reverberating, stretching, ultimately reaching a crescendo, together with the predominant e-bow sound so favored in much drone music today, mainly because of its scintillating and uniquely melancholy affect—an affectation that was intentionally absent in the more extreme forms of minimalist music in the past. In performance, _i has sound waves fill the room and reverberate, performing a wistful melancholy through distended melody. These repeat in undulations until swallowed by a field recording of what sounds like branches being stepped on, a surprisingly common motif in experimental music that can be heard, for instance, in the work of Mountains, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and Michael Vallera, among others.

Similar to _i’s work, a lot of the drone waves created by recent artists are affectively wistful. Adam Menzies, the man behind _i, says he likes sad music. Likewise with Michael Vallera. This is a new development in drone music and its cousin genres; not so long ago, Menzies cultivated rave music filled with euphoric dancing, which he took to be overtly “progressive” music, expressing an optimism that worked towards something full of social hope, promise, and complexity. This paradigm, which Menzies actively encouraged, proved fleeting; rave culture and the social hope vested therein have slipped away. As rave ran its course, Menzies changed with the times, allowing “emotional” music to gradually vaporize the previous form. Only the skeletal structure of rave music remains—minimal “clicks ’n’ cuts,” glitch music, and so on—all effects that would later be seen as progressive and cutting-edge in their own right as expressions of a “post-minimal” attitude.

But the emotive melancholy of Menzies’s most recent music marks not only a departure for him, but also a change that minimalist drone music has undergone in general. The rave culture of the 1990s was dynamic. It attracted artists globally, and found ways to stitch them all into a single fabric. From a production point of view, at least, it succeeded in fostering a massive consumption of recordings, as well as an efflorescence of music production hardware and software, a steadily growing economy still imbricated with cultural obsessions. This once-popular rave music was textural and complex, constantly unfolding and revealing different layers of sonic change within a larger machination. By contrast, the new drone music is slow, painstakingly so. Rather than in a dance and drug-induced fervor, people share the drone music experience in a dark daze, in isolation or private company. Sounds are arranged to suggest that electronic music hit a wall and exploded in slow motion. The beats blur into tonal confusion, creating a dense cloud of debris, a dystopic fog of sound.

Possibly the only catalyst for stylistic musical change is the attempted overcoming of previous failures. Today it is difficult to locate in music stores many CDs that were once the pinnacle of previous music genres. The music currently produced by drone artists, who were once passionately supportive of and involved with different music movements, are in many respects undergoing complete stylistic reversal. It is as if the emancipatory impulses of rave culture, ultimately unsatisfied and frustrated, drove the music scene to the diametrical opposite of rave: the plodding and apocalyptic ambience that characterizes much of experimental music today.

The music of _i, as one representative of cutting-edge experimental music, is not just void of all defining characteristics of rave culture and its subgenres that were so prominent in the 1990s, but represents its polar opposite. The densely layered mechanized beats, overt raw sounds of technology, happy drugs, laser light shows, monumental voids of space, and large collections of people acting out (or seeking to act out) some richly imagined drama of freedom—these have all vanished. Instead, recent drone artists cull from a different tool box: petit acoustic instrumentation; electronics taken to the point where they are scarcely recognizable; slowly evolving, glacial soundscapes; sad, wistful tones; mopey sub-bass drones; and small, local, and intimate social arenas where listeners retreat.

The melancholy affectation of much recent drone music stands in contrast not only to the 1990s, but also to similar music genres of previous decades. Originally, the impetus for drone was a non-deterministic experiment that explored what could happen if the inherent, inescapable tonal elements of sound were exaggerated beyond the expected scope of listening. Drone music, with its immense breadths of time and an unprecedented spatial density presented as simply and objectively as possible, completely distended the rules of what was possible at the time, and considerable outside economic and social institutions were necessary to bring that about; Dream House, like Walter De Maria’s long-term installation The Broken Kilometer, was made possible only by generous donations from art sponsors.

The current retreat into idealized sites of music presentation that so dominates contemporary music understands itself as a romantic throwback to 1960s projects like La Monte Young’s Dream House, itself a throwback to Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth. The return to minimalism, albeit in a different stylistic vein expressed in “clicks and cuts,” had already started in the late 1990s. A return to it in the form of La Monte Young-influenced psychedelic drone at this moment represents, at worst, a collective disappointment embraced through nostalgia and, at best, a profound but obscure disappointment preserved in its sublimation. Either way, the new “static” drone music is confounding—a thick, expressive, ambiguous fog in which, at the moment, one enjoys wallowing. But a question remains: To what extent can this rediscovered interest in drone music locate the ideological shadow that lurks behind the nostalgia? Can drone music identify the original artistic impetus beyond the aesthetic? Recent drone music seems to reach toward this goal—but, if achieved, perhaps drone music would no longer need to exist.

Although aesthetically pleasing, what is most fascinating about drone is not the music itself. Producers of this music are unavoidably ideological, even and especially in the face of the preceding history of minimal music. The aspiration is always to expel everything that is not pure and objective sound, especially ideology. But the aspiration to expel ideology is itself ideological. That music being made today is overtly influenced by the history of minimal music takes on added significance in light of the various interpretations of that history, as these serve to fragment and complicate the form. In light of art history, bound up as it is now with the increasingly unoriginal idea that there is nothing original to say, artists seem resigned to an imitation of the past, either ironically or in earnest. While this is very much an explicit and already noted phenomenon in the visual arts, recent experimental music takes a less ironic and more earnest approach to respecting its history and, indeed, to the act of artistic creation in general. However, the small world of experimental music perhaps works against itself insofar as it yields to a complacent acceptance of the past, devoid of critical interest in its legacy, even as aesthetic forms that link us to the past are embraced and endlessly celebrated. Irony often characterizes how we relate to each other socially. To this, music stands as a poignant counterpoint, a singular area where ideology nearly runs wild. Although it is commendable that the many fascinating aspects of minimalism are more fully explored in recent experimental music (as in the work of Greg Davis, Bernhard GĂĽnter, and Carsten Nicolai, to name a few), the social significance it once had has now become obscure. Minimalism allows itself to be driven into more fragmented situations cut off from a sense of possibility. It meanders along, creating monuments to earlier cultural territories without ever really understanding its historical place or its destination. |P

[1]. Frances Morgan, review of Monoliths & Dimensions, by Sunn O))) (Southern Lord Records, 2009), Frieze 123 (May 2009).