In 2018, drone is everywhere, from Twin Peaks to Whitney Houston.
The feeling of absolute suspension in time is one of the greatest achievable effects in beatless music. Recently, a gradual rise in the popularity of ambient has seen albums like The Hers’ Tough Cunt and Nate Schieble’s Fairfax create expansive aural architecture for listeners to wander round in without the tick-tock of percussion.
But hidden beyond – and often within – ambient’s balmy textures lies an even more timeless timbre that has lingered in music for centuries: the persistent hum of drone.
Watch this sickly clip from Twin Peaks: the Return, scored by Dean Hurley.
If you can stomach it, you’ll notice a fizzy, droning bed of sound undulating beneath Agent Cooper’s battle with his digestive tract. Twin Peaks suggests an imagined life outside not just this world, but this dimension, making Hurley’s drone-heavy sound design the perfect accompaniment.
Drone – that is, music emphasising the use of sustained tones – was given perhaps its most enlightening epithet when American composer Pauline Oliveros coined the term “deep listening,” shortly before recording a seminal album of the same name. That was 30 years ago, and ripples have been felt across music ever since. Now, a recent clutch of innovators are making drone seem more important than ever – here are just a few.
Stockholm-based Kali Malone issued an ode to Pauline Oliveros last year through her label XKatedral, covering her 1970 composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation as conductor of the Golden Offence Orchestra. Oliveros’s influence is clear, but Malone’s inspirations go back further than a few decades.
Working part-time tuning church organs in rural Sweden, Malone became fascinated by the different tuning systems she encountered, each of which seemed somehow to reflect the character of the surrounding community. She marvelled at how, due to strict rules imposed by the church, early modern musicians had found ways to hide messages and prophecies in their compositions.
Yet Malone’s music faces forward. As well as working with Caterina Barbieri (more coming on her) and ambient techno maestro Acronym (collaborative album coming soon), releases like her forthcoming collection of organ music on iDEAL and the soon-to-be-reissued Organ Dirges 2016-2017 are as emotionally wrought as drone can get. Catch one of her four European tour dates this autumn.
Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro, who played concertina on Malone’s Oliveros tribute, took drone’s time-stretching capabilities to new levels in writing a piece of music lasting for 26 days. Recent album, For Organ and Brass, meanwhile, was played on a pipe organ in northeastern Germany built in 1624 and written specifically for a historical tuning system known as meantone temperament.
Arkbro cites blues and jazz as inspirations , but clearest of all is the influence of La Monte Young, drone’s — and arguably all of minimalism’s — wise old grandfather. Young also experimented with tuning systems on 1964’s The Well-Tuned Piano and the ebb and flow of his five-hour masterwork is echoed in For Organ and Brass’s brilliant final track Mountain of Air.
Drone is an experimental form, but few can claim to be quite as experimental as Tomoko Sauvage. The Japanese artist’s inimitable style is inspired by the Indian instrument Jalatharangam, using porcelain bowls filled, or “tuned”, with water and amplified by underwater microphones, or “hydrophones”.
Sceptics of experimental music might question the need for such elaborate methods, but the magic of Sauvage’s music is in the listening. Last year’s wonderful Musique Hydromantique, a partly improvised composition adapted from live performances, has shades of Alice Coltrane and the recently-reissued Sonambience of Harry Bertoia. Its centrepiece, Fortune Biscuit, revolves around a quivering, sustained ringing, sculpted into a three-dimensional atmosphere evoking a post-apocalyptic rainforest. Keep an eye on her website for upcoming projects.
Caterina Barbieri’s jaw-dropping album Patterns of Consciousness is more modular than drone, but this year’s Born Again in the Voltage expresses the Italian’s fondness for sustain. Fusing cello and her own voice with her beloved Buchla 200 synth, the groaning, aching melancholy of tracks like Rendering Intuitions recall classic drone albums like Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement Of The Decline. (The Lid’s Adam Wiltzie recently scored Kevin MacDonald’s Whitney Houston documentary, pairing drone’s penchant for the melancholy with the late diva’s emotional power-pop.)
Perhaps even better than Voltage is Barbieri’s recent split LP with Eleh, released — like her previous three albums — on Important Records, a label that’s done more for drone in the last 20 years than just about any other. The two 15-minute suites are described on the record’s Bandcamp page as “electronic sound poems” and serve as proof that beatless music can still be bursting with rhythm. Bestie Infinite leans and lists, somehow both regular and unpredictable, like the movement of the sea before a storm. Like her friend and collaborator Kali Malone, Barbieri is as prolific as she is innovative, and also operates in a number of side projects — including impressive acid outfit Punctum.
Drone can sometimes feel like ambient’s scary evil twin, and that’s rarely truer than on Houndstooth’s In Death’s Dream Kingdom comp, released back in January. The 25-track collection features a number of names experimental fans should recognise and is as affecting, thrilling and bone-chilling as any horror film you’ll see this year. Among many highlights is the spine-tingling Komm Wieder Mit by Hazina Francia, a.k.a. Petit Singe.
Channeling droning overtones above elements of breakcore, industrial and the tabla sounds of her native India, Francia has positioned herself at the very edge of drone’s contemporary avant-garde. While the history of the form stretches back — beyond Oliveros and Young, beyond drone’s first recorded entry into the mainstream on The Beatles’ I Feel Fine, all the way into the Middle Ages — Petit Singe is an exponent of drone’s reach into the future. Or better yet: its reach through eternity.