Tag: drone

A Drone Too Long

I can’t remember exactly when I first became interested in musical drones, but I think it was around the time I discovered Charlemagne Palestine. I remember being terribly excited about his piano music, with its patient accumulations of plangent tremolo chords. I remember, too, that a lot of people I tried to share this music with seemed completely bewildered by my interest in it. Perhaps because it was so unlike the music I was writing at the time, or perhaps because there didn’t seem to be much apparent craft to his music—it was so simple, so obvious.

I don’t know what to call this kind of music, this music that lives on a different time scale than we’re used to. Pianist R. Andrew Lee has written eloquently about the boredom of minimalism, but not all music termed minimalist has this quality. And there’s plenty of non-minimalist music (e.g. Morton Feldman) that has this quality. It’s not really ambient music, which implies a background role. Instead, this music sticks in your brain in a way that is insistent, even obnoxious at times.

But there’s a therapeutic aspect to it, too. I recently made a pilgrimage to La Monte Young’s Dream House, a white room bathed in purple light where you’re bombarded with sound from four corners. What surprised me was how simultaneously soothing and agitating it was, in a completely non-contradictory way. My visit also happened at the end of a long, stressful day, so I may have been in an especially appropriate state to appreciate it.

The trouble comes when I try to integrate or incorporate this music into my usual modes of listening or composing. It seems to exist completely outside this realm, and the tenuous bridges I try to build between the two seem to collapse under the slightest weight. This is the struggle I faced when I tried to share this music as well, as those with both feet firmly in conventional musical time had no way to approach it. I don’t even think it’s a problem of education or awareness, since I can’t say what led me to this music in the first place. It was like a switch—one day I didn’t get it, the next I couldn’t get enough of it. Is it purely aesthetic preference? Is it neurological? I don’t know.

Sounds Heard: Common Eider, King Eider—Sense of Place

It was hard not to reflect on Andy Doe’s record industry analysis while sorting through CDs this week, particularly the suggestion that “if a record isn’t unique, it shouldn’t have been made.”

There are plenty of unique albums out there, of course, but San Francisco-based Common Eider, King Eider’s Sense of Place is a particular standout in this regard. The physical product is actually a paired DVD and CD, the audio tracks included on each designed to be played simultaneously while footage documenting the building of a small cabin in Alaska fills the screen. The set also includes a 56-page softcover book almost exclusively devoted to images from that same Alaskan construction project, but also including a poem by Ben Chasny that might be a meditation on the merits of building a hut of one’s own, an outline of the genesis of the album (it almost reads like a score for the piece), or perhaps an even broader reflection on place and dreaming. Regardless, its admonishment that “one should always have a well built hut to keep an eye on the horizon” neatly compliments the piece contained on the discs in the separate folded paper packet.

It’s also where the words end, though in a sense the entire bundle taken together could be taken as more of a short story spare on words than a straight-up album. The unusual packaging of the project lends an air of mystery to the proceedings, like receiving keys and a map to an adventure of unknown parameters ahead.

While this is the first piece by Common Eider, King Eider that I’ve experienced, a perusal of their back catalog on their new website shows a deep affection for spare orchestration, slow evolution, amplified quiet. In Sense of Place, the ensemble (Rob Fisk, Blaine Todd, and Vicky Fong) keeps to that aesthetic, mixing an ambient score of male and female wordless vocal tones and whispers over a bed of distant organ drone, the character more ancient and haunted than necessarily delicate. The voices echo, sometimes muffled—frozen spirits calling across the snow-covered landscape as the images capture three people erecting a shelter among the trees.

The dual tracks (each emphasizes and/or compliments different parts of the mix as the work ebbs and flows) must each be started by the listener, make the recording alive in some sense, the slight variation possible lending an impermanent quality to each performance.

I will concede that visually, I wasn’t much of a fan of the work at first. The shaky, home-movie character disappointed me initially. It wasn’t beautiful in the way I was expecting it to be beautiful. On subsequent viewings however, my opinion did a 180, the style adding a kind of visual timbre to the piece and carving an additional interesting facet into this unusual travelogue. While the music moans closely to the ear, visually the audience is kept at arm’s length, observing either the very practical and rough ordinariness of building or catching glimpses of the landscape, the sun reflecting across vast expanses of crisp snow bed, mountains visible in the distance. As the piece moves towards its conclusion, I experienced a nervous tension in the isolated landscape. It was a relief whenever a person would appear in the frame.

Yet in the end, there is a fire going, a finished cabin, a shelter made—and, ultimately, an album constructed that’s part postcard and part poetry.

The Education of Randy Gibson

Plenty of composers flourish within the halls and harbors offered by academia, developing their artistic voices and finding their professional footing; Randy Gibson understood pretty quickly that he wasn’t one of them. While his education now spans training in composition, electronic music, and percussion—including the study of Balinese gamelan, traditional Japanese music, and raga singing—only a portion of that instruction occurred within the confines of the typical classroom. After two years of part-time attendance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, his try at full-time composition study ended after two weeks.

“The university experience was not really for me,” Gibson admits with a shy laugh. A year later, he moved to New York and began studies with La Monte Young. “It was a much larger, more interesting education, I think, than I could have gotten at the school, and I’ve never regretted it.”

If the three-pages-and-growing list of compositions which now crowd his C.V. is any indication, it’s a path for which he need make no excuses. It is, however, one for which he offers a great portion of credit to the role Young has played in his development.

“As soon as I went to my first composition lesson with him, it really just opened my ears and my mind to what had already been present in my work,” Gibson recalls. “These repeated structures, these slow tempos, these longer statements—my studies with him really sort of freed me to be able to explore those and really take them as far as I could.”

The relationship proved to be “a perfect fit,” their first lesson beginning just after midnight and ending six hours later. Though Gibson began by studying composition with Young, that eventually expanded to include raga singing as well, providing additional revelations concerning the structure and the character of the music he wanted to write. He traces subsequent works such as his Aqua Madora (for just intonation piano and sine wave drones) firmly back to this study and the influence of Young, particularly the example provided by The Well-Tuned Piano.

While Gibson is careful not to simply co-opt the music that he’s encountered through his studies, the ritual of presentation in traditions such as raga singing speak to him deeply. Using lighting and incense, he surrounds his own audiences in an experience from the moment they enter the performance space. The compositions themselves explore form and tuning in a way that often leaves room for variation and further exploration with each performance. Out of just intonation, sine waves, extended durations, and close collaborations, Gibson is building a vocabulary for his work that has carried him deeply into a particular sound world alongside a special group of performers who are up for the challenge. This is particularly evident in the large-scale frameworks of pieces such as Doleo Æternus (for soloists, drone performers, and rhythmic performers [any variable pitched instruments] and computer; 90-120 minutes) and Apparitions of The Four Pillars (an evolving composition model for just intonation toy organs, variable pitched instruments, prime harmonic sine waves and harmonically related delay lines; variable durations). If these complexities mean the pieces are not destined to become part of the standard repertoire, that’s fine—that’s not Gibson’s goal. He’s looking, rather, to create a particular and immersive experience for his audience.

Yet even if the strategy of following “an all encompassing theory in which I can create new things” appeals to Gibson, he doesn’t need to yolk the audience with the details. “What I want to pursue is stuff that is beautiful and stuff that is powerful and emotional and is complex, but there’s a simplicity to it,” he explains. “The audience member doesn’t care if it’s the 81st harmonic or the 1331st harmonic. From the audience standpoint, it’s about how the music sounds.”

Admittedly, this may still not be for everyone. “But nothing is,” he acknowledges, “so why not just do the best that I can at what I really want to do.”

Additional video samples of Gibson’s work: