The democratic drone

Recent sociological research has supported the idea that cultural tolerance is closely associated with political tolerance, while cultural homogeneity links to parochialism and, at the extreme, symbolic racism. Ambiguous and multifaceted, criss-crossing a host of styles from classical to ambient to metal, drone or ‘dronology’ is a prime example of a contemporary, globalised musical category which connects to a culturally omnivorous, politically broad-minded audience.

To extol drone, one must be prepared to embrace contradiction, because as a concept it is riddled with them. To begin with, there are various complications of meaning. The word ‘drone’ commonly evokes the pejorative idea of extended monotony – for instance, we complain when politicians drone on and on. Lately, it has taken on a more nefarious meaning as a type of unpiloted aircraft often used for objectionable military purposes.

As a form of music, drone is no less indefinite; it serves as a rough classification primarily because there is no better term to use. It has only more recently come to describe a specific class of rock-inflected sound based around notions of sustain and repetition. Like most genres, however, by the time drone began to be formally identified it had already broken off into innumerable tributaries.

Historically, drone connects back to ethnically specific instrumentation such as the tanpura (India), the bagpipes (Scotland/Eastern Europe) and the didgeridoo (Indigenous Australian), and to sound worlds as diverse as Tibetan Buddhist liturgies and Moroccan Jajouka music. In the 1960s, the early minimalism of Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Charlemagne Palestine, and the associated evolution of New York band the Velvet Underground, were harbingers of drone’s movement into rock. At around the same time, liaisons between the Beatles, Timothy Leary and Ravi Shankar helped inspire the former’s initial foray into modal-based drone, via the drifting, reverberating Revolver track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

A key release of the following decade was the 1973 album No Pussyfooting by ostensible rock performers Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. Here, King Crimson leader Fripp and ex-Roxy Music ‘non-musician’ Eno collaborated in the construction of two beguiling guitar manipulations with underlying tape-loop-driven drones. As alluded to by the infinite mirror room seen on the record cover, the side-long tracks on No Pussyfooting created what Eno biographer David Sheppard aptly calls a ‘self-reflecting and boundless’ musical domain.

Simultaneously, the Krautrock/Kosmische styles of German groups like Neu!, Faust, Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh were important precursors to what would later come to be understood as drone. Lou Reed’s much maligned Metal Machine Music (1975) and the unique sound design to David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead stand out, too, as forerunners of the type.

A crucial moment in the development of modern drone was the 1994 release of the Virgin Records compilation CD Isolationism: Ambient 4. The liner notes of composer-compiler Kevin Martin describe a music that ‘sounds as paranoiac as it does panoramic’, neatly capturing the dichotomy at the core of the nineties ‘post-rock’ movement being championed. Among the significant artists featured on Isolationism were Labradford (US), Lull (UK) and Thomas Koner (Germany). Others from the period who were, intentionally or otherwise, responsible for infusing drone into the disintegrating rock sphere included Swans, Coil, Bristol’s Flying Saucer Attack, Texas duo Stars of the Lid, and a host of New Zealanders from the Clean to Roy Montgomery and the Dead C.

At around the same time, a space-drone sub-genre was also gaining a foothold. The sounds of Arecibo (a side project of British electronic musician Lustmord, named for the Puerto Rican town which houses the world’s largest radio telescope), Savvas Ysatis and Taylor Deupree’s SETI (short for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and the impossibly obscure but brilliant German dark ambient progenitor Thorn Hoedh all seemed to lock in on the hums and murmurs beaming earthwards from faraway galaxies.

In the new century, drone morphed into a more specific label for the work of artists including Dick Serries (Vidna Obmana and Fear Falls Burning), Rachel Evans (Motion Sickness of Time Travel), Richard Skelton, Marcia Bassett, Nicholas Szczepanik and Snow Beard. Others have operated in such drone-related micro-genres as new Kosmische (Expo ’70, Emeralds, Daniel Lopatin), experimental metal (Earth, Corrupted, Birchville Cat Motel) and new folk (Pelt, Charalambides, Six Organs of Admittance). Meanwhile, nominally classical composers like Gloria Coates, Phil Niblock and Elaine Radigue continue to occupy their own little crannies of the drone realm.

The mesmeric extended drone work ‘Dysnytaxis’ – a track created by Sunn O))) and remixed by Nurse with Wound – is emblematic of the qualities inherent of the best recorded examples of the form. What might at first appear as background music only gradually reveals itself, unfurling complex gradations of sound. Over its nineteen-plus minutes ‘Dysnytaxis’ builds a palpable sense of mounting tension which never quite comes to be released.

Musicians can flirt with dronology or embrace it fully, and sounds approximating drones can be either electronically or acoustically generated, scored or improvised, fundamental to a piece of music or form just one part of the whole. In a 2011 article in the Journal of Popular Music, Joanna Demers argues that drone remains ‘utterly free because it is utterly empty of significance’. This kind of academic take – Demmers goes on to propose an overly-rigid definition of drone and implies that it is interchangeable from one example to the next – limits a multifarious concept to stereotypically meditative, inward-thinking (or, indeed, non-thinking) states. This discounts the vast array of possible experiences and emotions associated with the projects of the various musicians cited here, which range from tranquillity to introspection, anticipation to exhilaration, apprehension to dread.

A present-day innovator whose work in this sphere matches anyone’s is the Australian sound artist and curator Lawrence English. His sublime ‘Organs Lost at Sea’ is exemplary of his layered, painterly approach to sound, one that aligns closely with both impressionism and abstract expressionism by emphasising looking over seeing and contemplation over comprehension – an evocation through music of Claude Monet’s famed lament: ‘Poor blind idiots. They want to see everything clearly, even through the fog!’(The connection between drone and art also extends to Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony of 1960, a musical rendering of his renowned minimal painting style.)

Alongside his enthusiastic advocating of countless underground musicians – chiefly through his Room 40 record label – English’s work connects to an extraordinarily wide range of interests and influences in film, literature and art, a perfect case of the artist-critic creating what Richard Rorty terms a ‘beautiful mosaic’. This kind of inclusiveness, underpinned by a strong interest in the culturally and aesthetically peripheral, informs a philosophy of significant value in the current geopolitical climate of crisis-driven fear and isolationism.

When the tangled, oblique world of drone is educed, received musical wisdom melts away, strictly arranged canons become obsolete, claimed origins dissolve into one another. It is a musical concept for the twenty-first century: progressive; egalitarian; coalescing at that precise moment when all that is solid melts into air. If it can be argued that there is a strong relationship between a knowledge of and tolerance for ‘other’ music and ‘otherness’ more generally, then drone is the kind of elusive, fringe genre that can unsettle the monotone cultural purview extreme capitalism imposes.


Image: Josean Prado/Flickr

Dean Biron

Dean Biron holds a PhD from the University of New England and teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology.

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  1. Ah,the sustained tone branch of minimalism. Very interestingly conceived and executed article. Must admit, Tomorrow Never Knows sounds great still! (Kevin Parker would’ve been proud of that!!) What about The Drones themselves? Does the name / the band have any connection to drone music, I wonder? Gotta draw the line on drone music somewhere though – Indian and folk music – GREAT – but Bagpipes???

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