A Drone Too Long

I can’t remember exactly when I first became interested in musical drones, but I think it was around the time I discovered Charlemagne Palestine. I remember being terribly excited about his piano music, with its patient accumulations of plangent tremolo chords. I remember, too, that a lot of people I tried to share this music with seemed completely bewildered by my interest in it. Perhaps because it was so unlike the music I was writing at the time, or perhaps because there didn’t seem to be much apparent craft to his music—it was so simple, so obvious.

I don’t know what to call this kind of music, this music that lives on a different time scale than we’re used to. Pianist R. Andrew Lee has written eloquently about the boredom of minimalism, but not all music termed minimalist has this quality. And there’s plenty of non-minimalist music (e.g. Morton Feldman) that has this quality. It’s not really ambient music, which implies a background role. Instead, this music sticks in your brain in a way that is insistent, even obnoxious at times.

But there’s a therapeutic aspect to it, too. I recently made a pilgrimage to La Monte Young’s Dream House, a white room bathed in purple light where you’re bombarded with sound from four corners. What surprised me was how simultaneously soothing and agitating it was, in a completely non-contradictory way. My visit also happened at the end of a long, stressful day, so I may have been in an especially appropriate state to appreciate it.

The trouble comes when I try to integrate or incorporate this music into my usual modes of listening or composing. It seems to exist completely outside this realm, and the tenuous bridges I try to build between the two seem to collapse under the slightest weight. This is the struggle I faced when I tried to share this music as well, as those with both feet firmly in conventional musical time had no way to approach it. I don’t even think it’s a problem of education or awareness, since I can’t say what led me to this music in the first place. It was like a switch—one day I didn’t get it, the next I couldn’t get enough of it. Is it purely aesthetic preference? Is it neurological? I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “A Drone Too Long

  1. Ray Kohn (@Tecchler)

    I have always suspected the “secret” (if it is really a secret) of ensuring minimalist (or drone) music sounds interesting is composing individual parts that are themselves non-repetitive. The overall effect can be maintained by creating interweaving lines, contrapuntal at times, so that the players ourselves do not get bored.

    Reply
  2. Liam Carey

    Could you describe your usual modes of composing? Is the music you’ve been writing previously characteristically different from these minimal drones? I’ve always found that seeming contradictions or incommensurables can be really useful in making new breakthroughs in my composing style, but in doing so neither side of the opposition comes out very similar to how it went in.

    Reply

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