No drone unturned: tracing the sound that unites ancient and modern

From primitive instruments and sacred chants to today’s minimalist electronica and metal, drone music has a long and mystical history. A new book investigates

From the womb – where the rushing of maternal blood is heard loud and clear at 88 decibels – through myriad historical, spiritual and subcultural pathways, our connection to the drone runs deep. Many ancient instruments – didgeridoo, bullroarer, carnyx – produced sustained tones, while the ancient Greeks evoked the delirium of Dionysus with the drone of the Aulos pipes. Indeed, religious practice all over the world, from the sacred Buddhist Om to haunting Gregorian chant, continues, as it has done for centuries, to centre the drone as a sonic enabler of meditative transcendence.

The cover of Monolithic Undertow.
The cover of Monolithic Undertow. Photograph: PR Handout

In Monolithic Undertow, I trace the drone from those ancient beginnings through the 20th century, where it underpinned sounds of many divergent persuasions – not limited to the New York minimalist ley line that linked the Theatre of Eternal Music to the Velvet Underground; the vital influence of Ravi Shankar’s sitar drone on the ecstatic jazz of Alice Coltrane and the Beatles nascent psychedelic experiments; the punk axis that leads from the Stooges to Sonic Youth; and the physical metallic bass weight of Earth and Sunn O))).

In short, the drone has bewitched for millennia, exhorting us to succumb to the joy of hypnotic immersion. Take the following as starting points in a journey that can lead you any which way: turn on, tune in, drone out …

Éliane Radigue – Kyema

Éliane Radigue: Kyema – video

Has anybody ever produced music of such beauty, emotional depth and sheer mesmeric density from such sparse elements? Now in her 80s, Éliane Radigue has been at the forefront of avant-garde electronics since the 50s, when she worked as an engineer with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry at Paris’s Studio d’Essai, the epicentre of musique concrète. Yet her solo electronic works (starting with her hypnotic feedback works of the late 60s) were a world away from the busy field recording collages of her musique concrète apprenticeship.

Exclusively produced using the ARP 2500, a notoriously complex modular synthesiser, Radigue focused on pure drone pieces that unfurled at a glacial pace. A master of the process of creative reduction, she carves away any superfluous sound, noting frequency ratios on beautiful hand-drawn charts and arriving at an immersive sound sculpted to perfection. Kyema (Intermediate States) is the first movement of her Trilogie de la Mort – a three-hour epic informed by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, sonically mirroring the passage of the soul between life and death. Foreboding and beautiful.

Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka

Brian Jones: ... Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka – video

The Master Musicians of Joujouka, a group of Moroccan Sufi trance musicians from the foothills of the Rif mountains, make a joyous, hypnotic cacophony. Their sound dates back centuries, using techniques passed from father to son. Long associated with the beat poets, who gravitated to bohemian Tangier throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Master Musicians of Joujouka were introduced to writers Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin by Moroccan painter Mohamed Hamri, whose uncle was one of the bandleaders. Gysin, in particular, was captivated by the music, stating that it was the sound that he wanted to hear for the rest of his life. He later employed the Masters as house band in the 1001 Nights restaurant that he ran in Tangier with Hamri.

Hamri also introduced his friend, Rolling Stone Brian Jones, to the Masters. In 1968, Jones recorded this live album, capturing the sound of the annual Bou Jeloud festivities that celebrate the appearance in the 15th century of a Pan-like half-man, half-goat figure said to bestow fertility, a bountiful harvest and musical secrets. Each year a villager plays the Bou Jeloud: sewn into freshly slaughtered goat skins, he exhorts people to dance by whacking them with olive branches, while the music focuses on fever-pitch pipe drones, gruff call-and-response chants, ethereal flutes and frenetic handheld drums.

The Master Musicians of Joujouka strongly contest the notion that drone-based music is calming: theirs is an energetic, frenetic sound. Jones’s sensitive post-production dub effects (mainly echo and reverb) were subtle, but add to the head-twisting psychedelic density of the music.

Earth – Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine

Earth: Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine – video

Earth are ground zero for drone metal. Fusing the tortoise-slow crawlspace of La Monte Young-era minimalism with metallic textures, their debut album Earth 2 (1993) was released on Sub Pop during the heyday of grunge but, focusing as it did on slowly unfurling, percussion-less drones, was a million miles from the frenetic angst of labelmates Nirvana and Mudhoney.

Inspired by the churning sludge of Melvins – the ceremonial majesty of the Washington band’s 1992 album Lysol, in particular – Earth’s Dylan Carlson took slowness in the metal sphere to hitherto unimagined extremes. Down-tuning to oblivion, each ringing chord drawn out for as long as possible, he obsessed over vintage valve amps and obscure pedals, the grain of the sound taking precedence over melodic progression. Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine is the centrepiece of Earth 2 – an imperious half-hour of sheer drone power. With serious volume tempered by a distinct grace, the record paved the way for early Sunn O))) among many others on the underground, and is widely regarded the vital signpost in the drone metal underground.

Angus MacLise – Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda

Angus MacLise: Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda – video

The original drummer in the Velvet Underground, Angus MacLise was a true bohemian who led a life straight out of a Kerouac novel. A poet, publisher, occultist, calligrapher and producer of some of the strangest drone music ever made, he played for a number of years in La Monte Young’s group the Theatre of Eternal Music before joining – and leaving – the Velvets in 1965.

Operating within the underground of the New York underground, MacLise produced obscure soundtracks, narcotised sonic sketches and lo-fi field recording tapestries between the mid-60s and late-70s, the vast majority unreleased until his soundtrack to Ira Cohen’s 1968 underground art film Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda saw the light of day in 1999, followed by a sprawling compilation, The Cloud Doctrine, in 2002.

The soundtrack to Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda features all the beguiling hallmarks of MacLise’s sound: handheld drums, disembodied voices, field recordings of unknown provenance. Every sound source is obfuscated, covered in crackling layers of tape hiss and echo. The effect is truly psychedelic, an abyssal descent into a steaming, lotus-isle dreamscape. His discography is by some distance the least travelled of the wider Velvets oeuvre, but seriously magical.

Zonal – System Error

Zonal: System Error – video

Pairing the Bug (AKA Kevin Martin) and Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu) on production with apocalyptic vocals from experimental musician and poet Moor Mother, Zonal is an exercise in unbearable tension and cavernous bass weight. Between them, Martin and Broadrick have explored every possible permutation of bass culture, and Moor Mother produced one of the past decade’s most intense and powerful records in the shape of Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes.

Pivoting around enveloping drones and system-rattling sub-frequencies, System Error sums up all that was special about the group’s self-titled 2019 album in four concise minutes. Broadrick and Martin’s telepathic studio energy trades on their 30-year creative partnership, intertwining layers of rich, distorted tones, and Moor Mother’s powerful flow ties the whole bleak tableau together.

Sarah Davachi – Midlands

Sarah Davachi: Midlands – video

One of the most idiosyncratic electronic producers of recent years, the Canadian sound artist creates subtle drone pieces that fuse baroque atmospherics with the warm, idiosyncratic and sometimes unpredictable tonality of old analogue synths in combination with live instrumentation.

Inspired by sacred spaces, the minimalist aesthetics of La Monte Young and Éliane Radigue – and her early access to an enviable selection of instruments and synths while working at the National Music Centre in Calgary – Davachi works in the electroacoustic sphere, augmenting rich organ drones with subtle electronic post production. Much of her work has combined rich tones from machines such as the ARP and Buchla synthesiser with organ, harmonium and piano. Last year’s double album, Cantus, Descant, was her most ambitious record yet, featuring her vocals for the first time. Midlands layers reed organ drones against distant rumbles but is also Davachi at her most melodically progressive; as emotionally moving as it is immersive.

• Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion by Harry Sword is published by White Rabbit (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Harry Sword

The GuardianTramp

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