Some questions about drones were asked over at the Muffwiggler synth forum, and my answers reflected my view of music in general enough that I thought it a good opportunity to revive this blog by posting them here:

What is a good drone?

I’ve been thinking about this question since last night, and can’t come up with a straightforward answer. Drone is just one way to approach music, and the difficulty in answering what makes a good drone is the same that occurs when asking what makes a good song.

I think good music conveys, honestly and proficiently, the general ideas its built upon. To then describe what that means specifically, I always come up against an elusive I-know-it-when-I-hear-it quality because how those things are defined specifically depends on the circumstances that led to the result. But when creating music, ask yourself what you wish to accomplish, do what you can, and then ask yourself if you’ve accomplished it. There’s two sides to consider when asking that last question: honesty and proficiency. Sometimes your abilities keep you from reaching your goal, and sometimes it’s your sincerity. When it’s the first, the answer is practice, learn to become more skilled, keep trying and understand that these things take time and effort. The second is existential, and requires reflection.

How long is a good drone?

As long as it needs to be, or as long as you wish it to be.

Does the beginning have to be different of the middle and the ending?

I don’t believe there is only one way to approach it. Stasis can be a remarkably effective characteristic in music, but it can also result in boring shit. If your goal is to start from a point and move to another, then do that. Be aware of a listener’s interest and disinterest (even if that listener is just you), figure out how you wish to work between the two states.

Which modules are the most common in your process?

I’m less a fan of synth drones than I am of drones made from other sources. I’ve loved some synth-based drone music, but I’ve heard a lot that is lazy, bland, ham-fisted. Synths drone easily. I’m not overly interested in music that could generally be described as “I just turned this shit on and hit record, call me a superstar, mama.” Some people really dig that sort of thing, or at least some people seem to really dig making that sort of thing, but I’m not one of them. So don’t think of drones in terms of modules, think of it in terms of music and sound. Your understanding of how the modules help you realize your musical intent will dictate what modules to use. Never has the quality of music depended on which LFO you use.

What is your secret to make your drone?

Patience, listening, and a sense of timing.

Comments: (5)

  1. The core of what you’ve said here rests on “musical intent” and “ideas” being conveyed by the drone. Can you give a couple examples of what might be conveyed and how that is represented in specific qualities of the drone?

  2. Well, by general ideas, I’m not thinking that one might effectively tell a story or anything with a drone, but any base musical concept, starting from, for example, “a song,” would count as a general idea.

    With drones, a technical detail such as harmonic interplay and variation over time counts as something that one might try to implement and convey within the music. Stuff like Eliane Radigue’s synth-based music focuses a lot on the influence one oscillator has over another, and actively draws your attention to it. You might try to convey harmonic progressions slowly over time or drawing attention to the sound of an instrument taken out of context from its physical limitations, like a lot of what Phill Niblock has done with digital treatments of acoustic instruments. I think drones are effective at drawing attention to states , like stasis or calm, and details, like the passage of time or how sounds influence each other. If I think the stuff Chord does on a record like Flora, extending something simple, like an Am7 chord, draws attention to the musical possibilities of a single element in a way that that chord in a pop progression might not.

    For my own uses of drones, I often think of things I’ve picked up from literature, like Joseph Campbell’s description of the aum syllable, or similarly the circular device used in Finnegans Wake, or the explosion of the minute into the epic in Ulysses, or Tom Stoppard’s riff in The Real Thing on the eternity contained in the fade-outs of fluffy pop songs, or Keats’ progressions from the mundane to the celestial. There’s an idea of drawing attention for a period to an unending sound, an effort to depict something both plain and grand. I’ve often favoured big, heavy drones, drones that move from one place to another and maybe back again, to create an encompassing sound in an effort to touch on those sorts of things.

    I’ve received criticism about drones that follows the “I don’t get it, it’s just one note” line of attack. But the thing is, a drone, or what I’ve lately been thinking of as slow music, can draw attention to a specific characteristic of sound or music or existence in a way that lots of notes can’t. Or it can have an illusory quality, providing a bed for you to hear music that isn’t really there, in a way that other music doesn’t, in the same way maybe that mediation might influence thoughts. I think slowness, the absence of movement or progression or dynamics, challenges to endurance or memory or patience or assumptions are all worthy things to explore in music, and certain modes of music, like drones, are effective ways of doing so.

    Sorry to get all hippie mission statement-like.

  3. Hippie mission statement accepted. ;-)

    But I’m thinking more analogously to traditional music theory. For example, it is so well-known as to be trite that minor chords sounds sad and serious, major chords sound bold and bright, 7ths and 9ths sound jazzy. Or that certain progressions of chords form cadences that communicate finality or resolution while others progressions create tension.

    The idea is that when you work in traditional harmonic music, you have these basic theories to help you communicate your intent and content.

    I’m wondering if you have developed your own “music theory of drones” with similar techniques and approaches that produce similar reliable effects on the listener akin to my examples from harmonic theory.

  4. I resist the idea entirely that music can effectively communicate or elicit specific emotions. I think emotion goes and emotion comes out, but intent and result aren’t necessarily related. The routine ability of people to completely not understand specific meaning in plain-as-day words is enough to suggest to me that getting that meaning across accurately through a less direct means is nigh on impossible, even if one is given to ascribe primordial efficiency to music. Plus I can think of lots of times someone has tried to turn me on to the emotion or narrative in some tune or musical device and I just wasn’t buying it. I recently was subjected to an impassioned defence of the complexity and emotional impact of quartal harmonies in the music of Yes (something about gentle endings to previous tumult, or some bullshit), and all I could think was get over it man, it’s just fourths.

    But harmonic intervals, cadences, tensions, combinations, resolutions, etc, can all be applied directly to drones, just in a slow, singular, drawn out sort of way. There’s an interesting idea that harmony is the vertical manifestation of rhythm that I think is ripe for exploration, and I think is some that plays out in a lot of drone works, as it allows for exploration/isolation of harmonic beating.

    Otherwise, no, I haven’t really sat down to form any kind of theoretical framework unique to drones, nor can I remember reading any. Writings on La Monte Young and Tony Conrad might be the closest thing, but it’s often framed in the context of just intonation and American Minimalism.

  5. I also think that, in part, one is given to drones and noise and slowness and an exploded view of harmony due to one’s rejection of certain tenets held in the canon of musical theory. Ideas put forth in the last hundred years by Satie, Partch, Varèse, Cage, Feldman, Young, and so on seem to me to be at least partially born out of a generally ambivalence to the accepted wisdom.

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