Electronic Drone Music
My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.
In a recent episode of my podcast, I explored the use of silence as a compositional tool in electronic music. I thought it would be equally worthwhile to explore the other end of the spectrum—continuous, uninterrupted sound energy. So, the current program is assembled around the use of drones in electronic music.
What is a drone and how should we define it for the purposes of this podcast? Are there really great examples of such music found on vintage recordings, or is drone music more of a live performance phenomenon? To answer the second question first, there are some great examples of drone music found on vintage recordings from the sixties to the present. But they are somewhat rare, and one needs to seek them out. Fortunately, the Archive has many of these examples and I will feature them here, arranged in chronological order for a little perspective on the evolving nature of the art of drones.
As for a definition of sorts, drones are certainly long, continuous, tones. Music created around drones can include a basic tone that is continuous and recurs while other sounds come and go. The drone can consist of a single sustained tone or chord but there are many variations that incorporate gradual shifts to the harmonics, textures, and core sounds that can go unnoticed until you listen back to different sections of an extended work.
I would add that the most common trait of all drone music is a suspension of tension or motion in the sound. This sense of oneness or balance gives the impression that a work is not moving in the musical sense, that it’s suspended in time, in a meditative state of mind. Not to say that a piece of drone music never changes, but in effect, the changes may evolve so slowly that they go largely unnoticed while you are listening.
Each composer, of course, sets the course for a drone piece by defining a process that will be explored—going from soft to loud, adding a spare note from time to time, changing textures over the course of a piece, or adding elements that contrast with the drone, emphasizing that the core of the work is stable and unwavering.
Drones generally have a consistent energy level. This could be low and slow, or high and kinetic. We’ll hear examples of the full range in this program.
Composers interested in producing slowly changing textures and drones have an affinity with electronic music because it can provide an uninterrupted sound stream that the composer can fine-tune with exactness. Any attribute of sound may become an element of a drone if treated in a sustained or gradual way.
The format for this program is a little unique for the Archive of Electronic Music. Normally, we play every work in its entirely, only occasionally using excerpts. But that approach isn’t practical when the average length of the works is around 20-30 minutes each, sometimes up to an hour. So, for this podcast, I am going to feature the first 12 minutes of each drone piece. I think that’s long enough to get a real sense for a work while still allowing some variety by moving on to other works.
We’ll start with a special case from 1948. It’s Yves Klein‘s Monotone-Silence Symphony. This work fascinated me because I have never really seen it mentioned as an influence and there are no recordings of it that I know of other than a recently made short video performance. Klein was a French visual and performance artist. In 1965, working with photographer Charles Wilp, he released an LP called Musik der Leere (or “Music of emptiness”) that had no recorded sound to listen to, just the surface noise of the phonograph needle. I should have included that in my Silent episode! In any event, back in 1947, Klein conceived a performance piece in which an orchestra would only play a single note, continuously, for 20 minutes followed by another 20 minutes of silence. I’ve examined the score and can see that Klein also intended that the same note could be played in different octaves. The playing would have been staged so that one group of musicians could overlap another, both for reasons of fatigue but also to allow smooth transitions for the wind instruments because players would need to take a breath. Having no real recordings to go by, I realized my own version for electronic instruments and will play a short segment here just to give you a sense for what this artist was thinking back in 1947. Like Cage’s 4”33” from 1952, the Monotone-Silence Symphony could certainly be interpreted as a work of performance art, intended to prepare the audience for the experience of room silence following a long period of continuous sound. My version includes electronic instruments for multiple parts, each part playing the same note, although in different octaves. The introduction of instrumental groups was planned in stages, each overlapping the previous grouping, gradually shortening in duration as the piece goes on.
Then we will hear the works of some true titans of drone music from vintage recordings. Please examine our playlist on the podcast website for the complete details about each recording. Collectively, we will hear works ranging from
There are a group of artists who have aspired to reflect the work of minimalist and drone composer LaMonte Young. We will not only hear an original recording from Young in 1969, but subsequent works by Tony Conrad, Yoshi Wada, and Lou Reed, all of whom pledged some allegiance to the influence of Young. Reed’s work in particular—Metal Machine Music—is wholly on the other end of the meditative spectrum, a noisy continuous bombardment of feedback and distortion. We will hear several landmark works by women composers, Pauline Oliveros, Teresa Rampazzi, and Eliane Radigue. Radigue in particular fashioned many drone works with the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer, exploring the microtonal possibilities of making minor shifts in the tonal spectrum using a synthesizer. We’ll hear a live performance from 1972 of the Taj Mahal Travelers from Japan. We will also hear an interpretation of a John Cage work, Organ2/ASLSP” that can be stretched out to any desired length by the interpretator. Then we will hear an example of an electric work by Phill Niblock, one of the long-standing practitioners of a particular brand of drone music in which he records instrumental parts and then mixes them post-production to provide a drone blend.
Electronic Drone Music
1. Yves Klein, “Monotone-Silence Symphony” written in 1947. I could not find any recorded versions of this piece, so I produced this realization of my own to capture the feel and nature of this drone work. Klein conceived this as performance art in which an orchestra would only play a single note, continuously, for 20 minutes followed by another 20 minutes of silence. I’ve examined the score and can see that Klein also intended that the same note could be played in different octaves. The playing would have been staged so that one group of musicians could overlap another, both for reasons of fatigue but also to allow smooth transitions for the wind instruments because players would need to take a breath. My version includes electronic instruments for multiple parts, each part playing the same note, often in different octaves. The introduction of instrumental groups was planned in stages, each overlapping the previous grouping, gradually shortening in duration as the piece goes on.
2. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, “31 VII 69 10:26 - 10:49 PM” from 31 VII 69 10:26 - 10:49 PM / 23 VIII 64 2:50:45 - 3:11 AM The Volga Delta (1969 Edition X). Eponymous untitled album popularly known as "The Black Record" or "The Black Album" Mine is an original copy. The cover is black gloss print on matt black and very hard to read. Numbered edition limited to 2800 copies of which numbers 1-98 are dated and signed by the artists. This work “was recorded at the date and time indicated in the title, at Galerie Heiner Friedrich, München. The work “31 VII 69 10:26-10:49 PM” is a section of the longer work: Map Of 49's Dream The Two Systems Of Eleven Sets Of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery. Play this side at 33 1/3 rpm only.” Early work employing electronic drones. By the mid-sixties, Young and his partner Marian Zazeela were creating music for electronic drones as an extension of their group, The Theatre of Eternal Music. Using a Heathkit sine wave oscillator and later Moog modules as sources, they created drone pieces that employed “extended duration time signatures” and “long sustained tones, intervals, triads and chords to create the musical texture.” A reissue has now occurred on the label Super Viaduct.
3. Tony Conrad, “Process Four of Fantastic Glissando” from Fantastic Glissando (2006 Table of The Elements). Dating from 1969, this recording contains various versions of the same sound piece, each processed slightly differently. “Process Four” accumulates the processed applied to the previous three processes. The first glissando recording was made using a sine wave oscillator processed through pump counter with a stereo-phase glissando. Recorded December 12, 1969, on a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder set at 3¾ ips. Conrad was in LaMonte Young’s circle of friends and performers and joined him on many productions of The Theatre of Eternal Music.
4. Teresa Rampazzi , “Duodeno normale” and “Duodeno Patologico” from Musica Endoscopica (1972). Here we have two short electronic works from this remarkable women composer that emphasize the drone. The pulsing tones and textures were played manually using audio oscillators. Music produced by the N.P.S. (Nuove Proposte Sonore) group for the documentary entitled "Gastroscopia" (Gastroscopy) realized in 1972 by Prof. Domenico Oselladore, University of Padova, in collaboration with Istituto De Angeli s.p.a., Milan. This documentary was presented at the Scientific Film Festival, Policlinico Universitario di Padova, 1972. “Duodeno Normale” begins with a drone consisting of two continuous tones: a low-pitched buzz from a sawtooth wave accompanied by a pulsating higher-pitched tone. The drone is joined at the 11-second mark by a high-pitched ringing tone played on a third oscillator. This ringing tone is repeated every 5–8 seconds and sustained for two or more seconds each time. The irregular timing of the tone suggests that Rampazzi was manually playing it by turning the dial of an oscillators. The ringing tone is sustained for the duration of the piece, creating a three-part drone. The drones fade out, beginning with the lower buzzing tone. “Duodeno Patologico” uses a similar process.
5. The Taj-Mahal Travelers, “The Taj-Mahal Travelers Between 6:20~6:46P.M.” from July 15, 1972 (1972 CBS/Sony). Released in Japan. Early album by the group founded by experimental electronic musician and violinist Takehisa Kosugi. Electronic Contrabass, Suntool, Harmonica, Performer Sheet Iron, Ryo Koike; Guitar Electronic Quiter, Percussion, Michihiro Kimura; Electronic Trumpet, Harmonica, Castanets, Seiji Nagai; Vibraphone, Santoor Suntool, Yukio Tsuchiya; Electronic Violin, Electronics, Radio Oscillators, Voice, Takehisa Kosugi; Vocals, Tokio Hasegawa. This album was recorded live at Sohgetsu Hall, Tokyo, Japan, July, 1972. Originally released using Sony's SQ quadraphonic system.
6. Yoshi Wada, “Earth Horns with Electronic Drone”(1974) from Earth Horns with Electronic Drone (2009 EM Records). Recorded at Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, February 24, 1974. Electronics, Liz Phillips; Pipehorn Players, Barbara Stewart, Garrett List, Jim Burton, Yoshi Wada; Electronic equipment designed by, Liz Phillips, Yoshi Wada; Pipehorns constructed by, composed by, recorded by, Yoshi Wada. Combining four of Wada's self-made "pipehorns" (constructed of plumbing materials, over three meters in length), with an electronic drone tuned to the electrical current of the performance space, this is a lost masterpiece of early drone/minimalism. The performance filled the space with complex overtones generated by the ever-shifting interplay of the breathing horns and the constant electronic drone.
7. Lou Reed, “Metal Machine Music” (1975 RCA). All music and electronics by Lou Reed. Inspired by LaMonte Young, this is what I would call a noise drone! Reed himself points to the influence of Young in his lean liner notes. "SPECIFICATIONS: No Synthesizers, No ARP, No Instruments?” Sony 1/2 track; Uher 1/4 track; Pioneer 1/4 track; 5 piggyback Marshall Tube Amps in series; Arbitor distortor (Jimi's); Marantz Preamps; Marantz Amps; Altec Voice of America Monitor Speakers; Sennheiser Headphones; Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young's Dream Music; Rock orientation, melodically disguised, i.e. drag; Avoidance of any type of atonality.; Electro-Voice high filter microphones; Fender Tremolo Unit; Sunn Tremolo Unit; Ring Modulator/Octave Relay Jump; Fender Dual Showman Bass Amp with Reverb Unit (Pre-Columbia) white.
8. Eliane Radigue, “Triptypch” Part 2” (1978). (2009 Important Records). Electronic Instrumentation: ARP 2500 modular synthesizer and analog, multitrack tape composition. The piece uses real-time ARP programming, tape loops, and recorded acoustic sounds. This piece is characteristic of Radigue’s fervent exploration of gradually changing layers of harmonically intersecting tones. It is the kind of drone work that can easily dip the listener into a pool of trance and is one of the composer’s many works grounded by her dedication to Tibetan Buddhism. Note the overall slowly evolving changes formed by overlapping sustained tones presented without any clearly articulated beginnings and endings.
9. John Cage, Gary Verkade, “Organ2/ASLSP” from The Works for Organ (2013 Mode). John Cage composed “Organ2/ASLSP” in 1987 for solo organ. This piece has been realized at a variety of lengths, from about 30 minutes, to 8 hours, and what is arguably the longest interpretation of music ever played, now 23 years into its projected run of 639-years being performed now in Halberstadt Cathedral, Germany where a special organ was created to perform the piece unattended until a chord change is called for. This work is not electronic, although the pipe organ may be thought of by some, including me, as the first synthesizer. Although I won’t be playing this work except in the background of this introduction, I needed to mention it because of its significance in the canon of drone music. “This composition consists, like Cage’s ASLSP, of 8 pieces. Unlike ASLSP, however, all pieces here should be played. Any of the 8 pieces may be repeated, and these repetitions may be played subsequent to any of the other pieces. The published score consists of a title page, brief instructions, and 4 leaves with music. Each page contains 2 pieces.”
10.Phill Niblock, “Guitar, too, for four—The Massed Version” from G2,44+/x2 (2002 Moikai). 24-track mix of guitar samples from Rafael Toral, Robert Poss, Susan Stenger, David First. Guitarists adding 2 live parts each to the 24 track mix version: Kevin Drumm, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Robert Poss, Alan Licht. Niblock’s usually works with acoustic instruments, so this venture with electric guitar is somewhat unique in his body of work. He asks musicians to play parts that are first recorded and then reworked in the mixing and editing process, largely to eradicate pauses and silences so that the sounds can be blended without such interruptions.
11.Pauline Oliveros and Reynols, "Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires" (1999) (2022 Smalltown Supersound). Reynols is an Argentinian experimental band that began in 1993 as Burt Reynols Ensamble. Band member Alan Courtis wrote to me, saying, “First of all, thanks a lot for mentioning our Pauline Oliveros in the arms of Reynols collaboration in your book Electronic & Experimental Music. She was a great musician/composer and friend.” After which he pointed me to a “recent release of an old project we made with Pauline back in 1999.” This is it!
Opening background music: Tony Conrad, Arnold Dreyblatt, Jim O'Rourke, “Side 1” from Tonic 19-01-2001 (2023 Black Truffle). Performers, Arnold Dreyblatt, Jim O'Rourke, Tony Conrad. Recorded January 19,2001 at Tonic, New York City.
Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.
Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.
See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.