Last July, I finally came to terms with dying, after decades of being terrified of it. I have the overwhelming piano music of Ukrainian composer Lubomyr Melnyk, which I experienced in Chapel Performance Space during Substrata 1.5 festival, to thank.
For much of my life, I have sought refuge from thoughts of mortality in drone music and its seemingly infinite sustenance. I've come to think of this music as an impermeable womb that keeps all disturbing morbid ideation at bay. For some reason, though, Melnyk's swarming, repetitive tones—coupled with the vaulting arches of Chapel's old concert space—made me think I could handle nothingness, or, more optimistically, merging with the oneness. What a relief!
See the Drone Cinema Film Festival at Grand Illusion Cinema on Saturday, April 9.
Drone music has existed for centuries, of course: the Scottish bagpipe music known as pibroch, the tamboura-heavy Indian Carnatic music and Hindustani classical music, the Japanese court music gagaku, Australian didgeridoo music, organum or plainchant vocal music from medieval Europe. In the 1960s, composers like La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Terry Riley, and others intensified the exploration of minimalist drone architecture and favored long-duration compositions and concerts, the better to enhance the hypnotic effects of their music. A drone interacts with the human mind at a subconscious frequency, operating on the same principle as transcendental meditation, triggering contemplation of eternity. It is sonic spirituality at its purest and loftiest. It doesn't require faith. It is direct perception of something ingrained and profound.
The best drones leave you feeling invigorated after they end, but also bereft—as if someone's yanked away your security blanket during your REM sleep. The most engrossing drones make you want to bask in their sonorities forever. One of the great things about drones is that they are theoretically infinite; you can drop into or out of them whenever you wish and still access their essential gist. Like a refrigerator's soothing thrum, a powerful generator's whir, or the step-down transformers on telephone poles that so entranced La Monte Young as a child in Idaho, drones always have been and always will be. Unlike their creators and listeners.
It's a short step from this realization to the notion that drones have a transcendental element. That's why swathing your head in them can be, for the receptive listener, the ultimate back-to-the-womb, floating-in-deepest-space, escaping-the-space-time-continuum sensation.
If you immerse yourself in the highest echelon of drone music—e.g., Éliane Radigue's Trilogie de la Mort, Takehisa Kosugi's Catch-Wave, Laraaji's Essence/Universe, Pandit Pran Nath's Midnight, Folke Rabe's What??, Peter Michael Hamel's Colours of Time, Henry Flynt's You Are My Everlovin', Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music, Steve Hillage's Rainbow Dome Musick, the Gyuto Monks' Tibetan Tantric Choir, Vibracathedral Orchestra's collected works, to name but a handful—you can, at least temporarily, find existential solace in their enveloping oscillations and burrowing timbres. It requires focus—difficult in this age of a million distractions—but it's worth the effort.
Another manifestation of this principle is Kim Cascone's Drone Cinema Film Festival. Now in its second year (the first happened last year in the Netherlands), Drone Cinema doesn't exactly espouse John Lennon's dictum to "turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream," but it comes close. An elite ambient-music producer with several releases under his own name and Heavenly Music Corporation, and David Lynch's assistant music director on Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart, Cascone admits that the concept of "drone cinema" isn't new; Michael Snow's Wavelength nailed the idea in 1967. He's simply drawn inspiration from "the transcendental, avant-garde cinema of the 1960s and '70s" of directors like Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage, and Tony Conrad, and transferred his love of sonic drones to the visual realm.
"I wanted to seek out filmmakers who worked in non-narrative structures instead of improvised multilayer backdrops for laptop musicians," he said in an e-mail interview.
This year's Drone Cinema Film Festival will feature nine pieces, including AUME's Summoning the Resounding Waves of a Universe Exquisite, David Kwan's Waveshaper, Kris Force's Transmigration, and Duncan Chapman's Mode 5 Down the Mountain. I've not seen any of the works, but I have innate trust in Cascone's curatorial acumen. In the 1980s and '90s, his record label, Silent, stood as one of America's most interesting sources of ambient, experimental, and noise music. And, of course, his own explorations into microscopic sound design and transportive chill-out music merit deep respect.
As anyone who's listened to drone music can attest, there's a thin line between interesting drones and dull ones. What qualities does Cascone seek from drone-based music? "It's easy to create a stack of sonic material that undulates and has internal movement," he says. "It's much more difficult to give life to an organic sonic life form. That quality is missing in much music today, and drone is no exception. [But] the idea that a drone has to be 'interesting' is an intellectual construct that is not all that helpful when learning to create and listen to drones. There's a different place that both the creator and the listener need to get to in order to experience a drone fully."
It's fairly common to think that drones have spiritual dimensions. Why does Cascone think the mind makes these associations? "A lot has been written about the transcendental aspect of sonic drones," he says. "Throughout history, spiritual traditions have incorporated some aspect of a drone into their rituals. From Gregorian chants to the tampura used in Indian music, drones have been used to affect the spiritual aspect of human consciousness for a long time. Even cave-dwelling humans most likely used their voices and the reverberation of their environment to alter their consciousness. It's only in the past 50 years or so that the drone has become a caricature of new age spiritualism."
For some of us, the full experience of drones includes understanding them as a panacea for terminal dread, an aesthetic ceremony in which one can access eternity in a grain of sound and in a chip of silicon.