MAY 10, 2021
THIS IS A BOOK about the history and cultural significance of the drone in music, although I think you could be forgiven if you didn’t glean that from the title. I’m well aware it’s none of my business, but I’ve been trying to think what might have been a better one.
I first considered something simple, direct, and not too po-faced: The Big Book of Drones, for instance. But I soon realized that potential readers might think it was a book about those airborne things that destroy people’s privacy at home and end people’s lives abroad. The same problem would apply to The Game of Drones, though that is a snappy title. I see on Twitter that Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire referred to the book as The Drone Tome, which is pretty good, though it doesn’t solve the basic problem. Inserting the word “music” into any of those titles somehow dilutes the impact: The Big Book of Musical Drones or The Musical Drone Tome just doesn’t cut it.
Titles are always hard, but even so I think I can safely say that, regardless of how long I thought about it, I would never have come up with Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion. It doesn’t even contain the word drone! We have to rely on a jacket quotation from Beck that calls the book “an inspired and intuitive navigation of the drone continuum,” which is fair enough, although there’s still no mention of music, and I’m not sure he’s being especially helpful when, in the same blurb, he tells us that the book has “a compass firmly set to new and enlightening psychedelic truths.”
Obviously, you can’t judge a book by its blurb, though in this case you can learn quite a bit from its cover, which looks like part of a lightshow from a Hawkwind gig. Harry Sword is evidently very fond of Hawkwind and their “dronal texture that both bedded down the sound and evoked the infinite expanse of space referenced in the lyrics.” He’s also taken by the rumor that the band’s synth guru, Dik Mik, could make audience members “soil themselves” if he summoned up the right frequencies on his mysterious black boxes.
So, what is a musical drone? I don’t think it’s an entirely superfluous question, because I suspect there are quite a few sophisticated and enthusiastic music listeners who might struggle to say exactly what a drone is, and they certainly might not know that there’s a genre of “drone music.” I suppose most of those people won’t be reading Harry Sword’s book, but even so it’s good that he takes the trouble to define what a drone is. “The word,” he says,
is myriad. In music, drone is an audio space where age-old markers such as verse, chorus, verse or complex progressions are rendered redundant. Sounds don’t (or, crucially, appear not to) change at all. Static, hiss, white noise, feedback — these are all drones. In essence, drone equals sustain. Sustained sustain, if you will.
I like that.
Drones can emanate from organs, didgeridoos, bagpipes, hurdy gurdies, Tuvan throat singers, sitars, and of course from electric guitars and synthesizers. In Sword’s account, they date back to at least Neolithic times, appearing in tribal and religious chants — Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian among them. We also, apparently, hear a drone when we’re in the womb. Latterly they appear, with greater or lesser emphasis, in mainstream and popular Western music, from Bach to the Beatles (via Ravi Shankar in the latter case), from Stockhausen to Spacemen 3, from William Basinski to David Bowie (especially when Robert Fripp was in the band).
Harry Sword’s narrative, sometimes formulated as a quest, extends from the sonic possibilities of caves in Malta all the way through to electronica and doom metal, with a special emphasis on what he calls “the twentieth century underground”: Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, and, above all, La Monte Young — “the daddy of us all,” according to Brian Eno.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humankind has lived with the apparently non-musical drone of machines, and since the early 20th century, composers and listeners have become increasingly aware that these sounds have rich sonic, and indeed musical, possibilities, a notion crystallized in Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises (L’Arte dei Rumori). And so, we find ourselves listening to the drone of machines: planes and boats and trains, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, central heating systems, and so on; even traffic.
Here is my favorite of all the many wonderful things said by John Cage: “When I hear what we call music,” he remarked during a 1991 interview,
it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings or about his ideas, of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on Sixth Avenue for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking, I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. […] I’m completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me.
Would he have considered that traffic sound to be a drone? Well, he didn’t use the word, but surely he’d have had no difficulty with the concept. Harry Sword reckons that Cage’s well-known, and occasionally contested, story about entering an anechoic chamber and hearing the sounds of his own blood and nervous system is an experience of “the bodily drone.”
I was surprised (to the extent that anything on the internet surprises me anymore) to find multiple YouTube videos with titles such as “City Traffic Sounds at Night,” “Highway Sounds: 1 Hour of Relaxing White Noise to De-Stress,” “City Traffic Sounds for Sleep, Highway Ambience at Night” — that last one comes from South Korea and lasts for 10 hours. There’s even a piece that claims to acclimatize your dog to traffic noise. These videos purport to be functional but they’re surprisingly (if you’re still surprised by anything on the internet) listenable and sometimes even compelling, and if you’d told me these were the work of some new, cutting-edge Japanese drone artist, I wouldn’t have argued with you.
Others would no doubt simply hear them as noise or, worse, as noise pollution, and this gives Harry Sword a problem that he struggles with from time to time in his book: trying to make a distinction between good drones and bad drones. “Noise pollution is the drone at its most dismal incarnation,” he says at one point, and elsewhere: “[T]he drone as noise, sonic backdrop to a life of servitude, is a potent symbol of capitalist overload.”
Sword goes to visit La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s “Dream House” in lower Manhattan where “[s]ub heavy drones judder out of two speakers at the back, shaking the walls,” and he finds these much preferable to the “psychic hum of the New York Streets,” though I suspect not everybody would. According to a recent New York Times article by M. H. Miller, the octogenarian Zazeela has now lost most of her hearing. I wonder how that happened. Sword finds early Sonic Youth albums “haunting and dronal” because they reveal New York as “a city that never sleeps in fitful slumber.”
All this may simply be to say that not all drones are created equal — that they’re fine when you wanted to hear them, not so fine when they’re forced upon you, though no doubt this could be applied to all music. Maybe it’s all a matter of getting the right drugs.
There’s plenty of internal evidence that Harry Sword is, shall we say, seriously interested in drugs, and not only psychedelics. Sometimes this interest is perfectly literal, and sometimes it’s metaphorical, as when he uses drug vocabulary to describe music. Thus, Manuel Göttsching’s 1984 album E2-E4 “is propulsive and confident yet dreamlike and ethereal: cocaine and Quaaludes, essentially.” Late-’60s/early-’70s bands such as Budgie and Atomic Rooster, we’re told, provided “a bong-water scented portal to fuzzy oblivion.”
But it’s psychedelics that interest him most. The Incredible String Band’s oeuvre included “acid-inflected jamborees.” In Leyland Kirby’s The Death of Rave (2006), “drone is cast out not as celebration but techno’s death knell, a lysergic memorial device.” In fact, says Sword, an LSD experience creates its own drone, but this raises an obvious question: if LSD is providing the drone, then isn’t the musical drone largely irrelevant? Yes, drones sound great when you’re tripping, but then so do lots of other things. I’m sure somebody somewhere has dropped acid, listened to the theme tune from Miami Vice (it does actually contain some drone), and seen God, but I’m not sure that necessarily makes it a work of great spiritual import.
Religion is the other much-used metaphor in the book: there’s a fair bit of talk about communion, epiphany, catharsis, ritual, shamanism, and so on. In the prologue, Sword asks, “What of the cosmic infinity?” “What of the godhead?” Well, what indeed? Most of us at one time or another have listened to music, drone and otherwise, “sacred” and otherwise, and experienced feelings of transcendence, perhaps even bliss. But what if you don’t believe in a godhead, or even a god? Does that change and/or negate the way we hear the music? Are these religious drones only for believers, or are the drones meant to convert us?
As you can see, this is a book that will have you arguing, at least mentally, with its author, which I think is a very great thing. For example, I find it hard to believe that Sword (or anybody, for that matter) thinks that “Diamanda Galas has one of the world’s great voices,” though I cheered when I read his opinion that Lee Ranaldo is “one of the most innovative guitarists of all time.” Equally I’m right there with him in his championing of the Pretty Things’ 1968 album S.F. Sorrow, and I do wish I found Sunn 0))) even half as interesting as Sword does, but he didn’t convince me. I did come to realize, however, that their 2009 album Monoliths & Dimensions was surely an inspiration for this book’s title. I was also amused (and in agreement with) Sword’s dismissal of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) as “karaoke Cale” (as in John, not the leafy green), and he makes a good case that Nico, with her harmonium and that voice, was the one who really took the drone forward from the Velvet Underground.
Sword is also surely right to celebrate the drone as the antithesis of “virtuosity,” especially in rock music. Fewer and fewer people want to see some guy get down the front of the stage with a Fender Strat and “express himself,” and that’s surely a very good thing. Today’s electric guitarist might well have an Electro-Harmonix Infinite Sustain pedal in their armory, or even an Electro-Faustus “Drone Thing.”
The most interesting parts of the book, for me, deal with the least familiar aspects of drone. There’s some fascinating information about ancient drone instruments: Paleolithic bone pipes, playable mammoth tusks, bullroarers. And there’s some great stuff, emanating from UCLA researchers, about changes in the architecture of Greek churches in the 14th century: the churches became shorter and were given domes, and these new spaces vastly intensified the reverberation of the music sung there.
Inevitably, some well-known stories do get retold in the book. I don’t know that I really needed a recap of Warhol’s movie-making exploits, the history of Fluxus, or the disputable joys of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, but perhaps these things will be news to some readers. There is, however, one great story about Paul Bowles that I’d never heard before, though many probably have. Bowles was in Tangier, on a project to record the last muezzin who didn’t use amplification when calling the faithful to prayer. Allen Ginsberg tagged along. Bowles set up his tape recorder in a nearby café and waited for the call to begin. Sword writes, “Ginsberg became animated and started a rambling commentary about the immensity of the occasion. […] Listening back to the tapes, the muezzin was inaudible — Ginsberg’s monologue [was] loud and clear.” It seems to me this story tells you pretty much all you need to know about Allen Ginsberg.
When a good friend of mine was dying of cancer a couple of years back, he had enough time to decide what music he wanted played at his funeral. One of the songs he chose was the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which rang out through the tinny speakers as the coffin was carried out of the chapel. It was certainly lo-fi, but nevertheless very moving, and afterward at the wake a few of us stood around discussing what music we’d want played at our own funerals. Of course, one wag suggested Metal Machine Music, another suggested something by Napalm Death (Harry Sword is a fan). Not wanting to come across as a show-off, I resisted suggesting John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP (1987), a piece of variable and unspecified length that is even now being played on the organ of the St. Berchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance started in 2001 and is scheduled to last 639 years. Sandbags are stacked on the organ pedals to ensure the continuation of sound. It is, I think, the ultimate funeral music, and certainly the ultimate drone piece. I’m well aware it’s none of my business, but I think I’d have mentioned that if I’d been writing a book about musical drones.
A LARB contributing editor, Geoff Nicholson is the author of several books, including Big Noises (1991), a book about rock guitarists. He occasionally plays with the noise band Slime Divas. His next book, The Suburbanist, will be published later this year.