Monthly Playlists

Drone in American Minimalist Music

Posted on Friday, August 01, 2008

Contributed by Nate Wooley

Drone, a continuous sound, sometimes subtly changing, sometimes not, has been one of the primary building blocks of music since ancient times. Religious ceremonial music of Asia has held the drone as a part of meditative practice, and many folk instruments, highland bagpipes, hurdy gurdy, etc., were created towards generating a drone as a base musical function. 

Starting in the late 1950s, drone started to make its way into American classical music, tied in neatly with the beginnings of the minimalist movement of the same era. Starting with the music of Lamonte Young, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise and John Cale of the Theater of Eternal Music, drone, and especially using slow changes in microtonal tunings, became fertile ground for composition, separate from the treatment of silence and repetition by Morton Feldman, or the rhythmic propulsion of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.  

Because of a long and storied battle between Young and the rest of the Theater of Eternal Music, very few recordings of this era have been released. Those that have seen the light of day at all have been somewhat shoddily recorded “bootleg” tapes, and even those are difficult to find. It is unfortunate that the direct results of the Theater’s work may not be available to listeners until all the contentious members of the Theatre are deceased. Still, Young and his followers have had a profound effect on a new generation of American composers who took drone and the potential for slow and subtle change as a basis for a broad range of phenomenal work. All of the composers and performers featured in this playlist are still very active, and many of them are heavily involved in training new generations of composers and improvisers. Beyond the artists represented here, there is a new generation of composers and improvisers like John Wiese, Jason Lescaleet, C. Spencer Yeh , Mike Shiflet , and Bryan Eubanks taking up the drone mantle and combining drone with punk energy, homemade electronics, and harsh noise aesthetics. 

Each of the artists featured here are dealing with single or multiple sounds that are continuous and static, relative to “normal” or traditional Western composed music. Each artist uses different devices to create or sustain a sense of musical form or forward motion to the piece. Microtonal tuning is also a tool consistently utilized to create interest in an otherwise monotonous drone. By presenting two identical tones and varying one in small increments either sharp or flat, the resulting dissonance creates a rhythmic beating pattern. The pattern speeds up or slows down depending upon how close or far off the tuning is from a unison. When multiple pitches (often in the same overtone series, sometimes in a more dissonant harmony) are used and the same system of microtonal tuning is employed, the result can be the amplification of certain portions of the overtone series; thereby sounding pitches not actively being played. All of the artists here have used their command of these concepts to create highly personal and widely differing music. 

In general, drone music tends to take place over a longer duration than a piece of chamber music or a jazz improvisation. The average listener’s attention needs time to focus on the sounds being presented in such a way that they can be open to hearing the subtle shifts in sound. Although not necessarily a conscious intention of the composer, drone music tends to have a relaxing or meditative quality to it.


1)     Pauline Oliveros, “Crone Music: A Woman Sees How the World Goes with No Eyes”
from Lovely Music CD, Crone Music 


This relatively short drone piece, a portion of the larger suite Crone Music, is almost aggressive in how quickly it introduces new musical ideas over the drone. The drone changes throughout the piece, though somewhat imperceptibly, changing from a large, impressionist harmony to a mid range unison, to a consonant triad in the same tessitura or pitch range, to a bass unison, back to the larger harmony and again to the mid-range unison. Throughout the work, played on accordion with some electronic processing, Oliveros uses sweeping harmonies over the drone to provide changes in color and a constant feeling of change. More subtle devices include the spatialization of these colors, having them appear from different points in the aural space and move from front to back, etc. and some very slow beating patterns. 

Besides drone music, Oliveros is the founder of “Deep Listening.” This is a way of listening to music and reacting, especially in improvised settings, in such a way as to hear on a more engaged level, cultivating “appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one's environment, technology and performance with others in music and related arts.”


2)     Alvin Lucier, “On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon”
from Lovely Music CD, Still Lives


Lucier’s On the Carpet of Leaves… is a beautiful example of the simplicity and richness of drone music when microtones are introduced. In this work, a single pure wave is produced via an oscillator. A koto string is then intoned in a repeating pattern, but subtly shifting its intonation in relation to the pure wave pitch. The result is a striking array of different colors produced by the interplay between the “in-tune” oscillator and the “out of tune” koto notes. 

Lucier is known for his different approaches to the drone. Also on Still Lives there are a number of pieces for piano and slow sweep oscillator in which the drone is constantly moving in pitch up and down while the piano (fixed pitch instrument) is placing notes in the sound field creating different beating patterns. Most notably, his approach to repetition and drone is found in his work, “I am Sitting in a Room,” during which he performs a short speech, which becomes the drone, and is repeated back into the room multiple times and re-recorded. As a result of the natural acoustics of the room acting upon the playback and recording, the short speech (describing the whole recording process) metamorphoses from a clear and dry vocal track to a static piece of sound more akin to early analog electronic music. The speech is the drone and it is changed through repetition and addition of acoustic “dissonance” from the room to transform the drone.


3)    Phill Niblock, “PK”
from the XI Records CD, Four Full Flutes


“PK” is an example of the use of acoustic instruments and live musicians to achieve the subtle intonation effects, usually achieved through the use of pure wave oscillators or other electronic means. The work combines flute, alto flute, and bass flute, starting in unison and moving slowly away to form different harmonies. As the flautists change their intonation and harmonies, the beating patterns and overtones become very pronounced and dense. Niblock’s sense of pacing in “PK” is brilliant, moving seamlessly from unison with microtones to dense harmonies in such a way that the listener’s focus on the microlevel (microtones and unison) is overwhelmed by the new, large and somewhat dissonant harmonies. Especially take note of the difference between unison drone and drone in octaves about 2 minutes in, when the flute breaks from the alto flute and bass flute to add a higher octave.

Niblock is known primarily for his work with acoustic musicians,as in “PK.” He often takes a recording of a musician playing pitches while watching an oscilloscope to maintain the subtle microtonal tuning. He will then combine these pitches into a recording. In performance, the live musician will move around the acoustic space, playing another set of pitches on top of the recorded drone. Niblock demands that his work be listened to without headphones and very, very loud. It is a rewarding experience to follow these instructions.


4)     Charlemagne Palestine, “Schlingen-Blangen”
from the New World Records CD, Schlingen-Blangen


One of the most eccentric and theatrical performer-composers of drone music is Charlemagne Palestine. Usually known for long pieces involving his man-handling of a Bösendorfer Grand Imperial piano, hammering at different portions of the keyboard (usually the lower 1/3) to create shimmering upper harmonics over the long form solos. Though on an organ rather than a piano, this piece is representative of a frequent Palestinian idea, that of extreme stasis over an extreme duration. “Schlingen-Blangen” clocks in at over an hour of subtle changes to a single organ chord manipulated through the slow changing of the organ’s pipestops. The changes in timbre result in a “filtering” of the harmonic series, producing new sets of dominant overtones. Over the course of the piece, the listener’s focus softens and a very clear and fast shimmering of the upper harmonics takes place, giving the aural illusion that Palestine is playing high scales very softly and quickly over the drone.

More recently, Palestine has shown himself as interesting in his stage presence as he is in his compositions. In performance, he sits comfortably behind his Bösendorfer with a large snifter of cognac, pack of clove cigarettes and hundreds of stuffed animals surrounding him as part of an elaborate ritual, the center of which is his highly physical attack on the piano, sometimes accompanied by his countertenor voice (he was trained as a cantor in his youth)


5)     Ellen Fullman, “Work for 4”
from the XI Records CD, Body Music


In the tradition of the highland bagpipes or hurdy gurdy, Fullman has created an original instrument made with the drone as its basis. The “long string instrument” is aptly named as it is just that, a long metal wire or wires, in this case over 145 feet long, that is bowed or vibrated to create a pitch. The string may be combined with other sympathetic strings or dampened in certain proportions to create chords. Work for 4 is an early representation of her work. The opening sound is very transparent and relatively consonant, but by the middle of the piece, the texture becomes very dense with different pitch sets and overtones becoming prominent. Fullman’s description of the piece could be used to sum up drone music in general. She says: “The goal in performing and listening to this is to shift one’s attention from the apparent constancy, and focus on the continual change occuring in the overtones produced. The music flows, riverlike, always moving, but superficially remaining the same.”

Fullman is not the only drone composer to create music using long wires. One of Alvin Lucier’s most famous works is called “Music for a Long Thin Wire,” music created by exciting long metal wires with magnets and amplifying the results. 


6)    Eliane Radigue, “Songs of Milarepa: Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream”
from Lovely Records CD Song of Milarepa



Though Radigue is French, many of her significant advancements in electronic drone music were made while working in the United States. After a thorough education with tape composer, Pierre Henry, in Paris, Radigue moved to New York where she created her first synthesizer music under the tutelage of Morton Subotnick. Although she has used the ARP 2500 synthesizer for the past 30 years to create her large, physical drones, she has recently eschewed all electronics in favor of writing for acoustic instruments. Her first work of this type, “Naldjorlak,” was premiered and toured throughout the US in 2006 by cellist Charles Curtis.

“Songs of Milarepa” visits a familiar theme for Radigue, Tibetan Buddhism. The piece tells the story of Milarepa, a Tibetan yogi, through chant as well as a relatively monotone English translation. All of this sits atop a thick, pulsating bass drone. The changes and narrative here come from the unfolding vocal parts, while the drone holds the music together and supplies a surprising amount of forward motion to the long form piece.

This playlist is only a small overview of what is a very large and active musical community. Besides deeper study of the composer’s highlighted here and the younger generation discussed in the introduction, there are composer/performers such as Tony Conrad and Lamont Young, who can be investigated as well. Visit here for an interesting interview with Tony Conrad about his early minimalism project. Visit here for more information on Lamonte Young’s live performance space, still in operation in New York City.

***It should be noted that, with the possible exceptions of Lucier and Radigue, all of these composers actively tour throughout the world performing their own work. Drone based music offers a rich and visceral listening experience, hearing it performed live can provide an enlightening addendum to listening to recorded works alone.