Drone music  

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"Until 2000 Éliane Radigue's work was almost exclusively created on a single synthesizer, the ARP 2500 modular system and tape."--Sholem Stein

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Drone music, also known as drone-based music, drone ambient or ambient drone, dronescape or dronology, and sometimes simply as drone, is a musical style that emphasizes the use of sustained sounds, notes, or tones-clusters – called drones. It is typically characterized by lengthy audio programs with relatively slight harmonic variations throughout each piece compared to other musics.

Pioneering explorers of drone music in the past 30 years have included Theater of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate), Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, Coil, Sonic Boom, and Phill Niblock.



Music which contains drones and is rhythmically still or very slow can be found in many parts of the world, including the Japanese gagaku classical tradition; Scottish pibroch piping; didgeridoo music in Australia, Hindustani classical music (which is accompanied almost invariably by the tambura, a four-string instrument which is only capable of playing a drone); and pre-polyphonic organum vocal music of late medieval Europe. Repetition of tones, as in Appalachian banjo music, supposed to be in imitation of bagpipes, is found in a wide variety of genres and musical forms. However, the lineage of stillness and long tones occurring in classical compositions during adagio movements, including, for instance, the third movement of Anton Webern's Five Small Pieces for Orchestra, as well as in Northern European folk musics in the form of "slow airs" has directly descended into modern popular and electronic music in a way which is directly derived from the milieu of La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Charlemagne Palestine and others in 1960s New York.

The modern genre of drone music (differentiated by some as "dronology") is most often applied to artists who have allied themselves closely with underground music and the post-rock or experimental music genres. Drone music also fit into the genres of found sound, minimal music, dark ambient, drone doom/drone metal, and noise music. Most often utilizing electronic instruments or electronic processing of acoustic instruments, they typically create dense and unmoving harmonies and a stilled or "hovering" sense of time. While the hallmarks of drone music are easy to recognize, the backgrounds and goals of the artists vary greatly.

The Influence of the Theater of Eternal Music

The Theater of Eternal Music is a multi-media performance group who, in its 60s-70s heyday included at various times La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, Terry Jennings, John Cale, Billy Name, Jon Hassell, Alex Dea and others, each from various backgrounds (classical composition and performance, painting, mathematics, poetry, jazz, etc.) and brought with them concepts of the meaning of the music they were involved with as well as audiences who might not have otherwise attended. Operating from the world of lofts and galleries in New York in the mid-60s to the mid-70s in particular, and tied to the aesthetics of Fluxus and the post-John Cage-continuum, the group gave performances on the East Coast of the United States as well as in Western Europe comprised long periods of sensory-innundation with combinations of harmonic relationships, which moved slowly from one to the next by means of "laws" laid out by Young regarding "allowable" sequencies and simultinaeities, perhaps in imitation of Hindustani classical music which he, Zazeela and the others either studied or at least admired. The group released nothing during their lifetime (although Young and Zazeela issued a collaborative LP in the early 70s and contributed to a flexi-disc accompanying Aspen magazine). The concerts themselves were influential on their own upon the art world including Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose Stimmung bears their influence most strikingly) and dozens of other composers many of whom made parallel innovations including Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Yoshi Wada, Phill Niblock and many others. However, the parallel work by several members of the group, particularly John Cale in the Velvet Underground along with songwriter Lou Reed, became one of the most influential projects of 1960s rock music.

The Influence of the Velvet Underground

It is, above all, the combination of Cale's grinding viola drone with Reed's two-chord guitar figure of the Velvet Underground's song "Heroin" on their first album (1967) which laid the foundation for drone music as a Rock music genre in close proximity to the art-world project of the Theatre of Eternal Music. In a time when garage bands bubbled up and receded with incredible long-term results, the Velvet Underground and few other peers shone brightly for a moment for their literacy and intelligence. And the lyrical brilliance of "Heroin" threw down a gauntlet which many others wish to touch over the next thirty years or more. Cale's departure from the group in 1968 blurred matters considerably, as Reed continued to play primitive figures (sometimes in reference to r&b), while Cale went quickly on to produce the Stooges' debut (1969), generally considered one of the prime antecedents to punk and including his viola drone on the track "We Will Fall" and Nico's The Marble Index (1969) which also included Cale's viola drone on "Frozen Warnings." Reed, meanwhile, issued a double LP of multi-tracked electric guitar feedback titled Metal Machine Music which credited Young as an antecedent in its notes.


In the late 60s and early 70s German rock musicians including Can, Neu and Faust drew from the heritage of experimental 60s rock like the Beatles at their most collagic and jamming as well as from composers like Stockhausen and La Monte Young. These groups became influential on art-rock contemporaries in their own day and punk-rock and post-punk players subsequetly. Tony Conrad, of the Theater of Eternal Music, notably made a collaborative LP with Faust which included nothing but two sides of complex violin drones accompanied only by a single note on bass guitar and a bloody-minded percussion accompaniment. Single-note bass-lines were also featured on Can's "Mother Sky" (Monster Movie, 1969) and the entirety of Die Krupp's first album (1979).

New Age, Cosmic and Ambient Music

Parallel to Krautrock's rockist impulses, across North America and Europe, some musicians sought to reconsile Asian classicalism, austere minimalism and folk music's consonant aspects in the service of spiritualism. Among them was Theater of Eternal Music alumnus Terry Riley whose 1964 In C had refuted Western classical music's insistence against atonalism and who had become a disciple, along with Young and Zazeela, of the Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. In parallel, Klaus Schulze, for example, formerly of the Krautrock groups Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream moved toward a more contemplative and consonant harmonic music. Meanwhile, as increasingly elaborate studio technology was born during the 70s, Brian Eno, an alumn of the glam/art-rock band Roxy Music postulated ambient music (drawing, in part from John Cage and his antecedent Erik Satie's 1910s concept of furniture music) as "able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting". While his late 70s ambient tape-music recordings are not drone music, his acrediation of Young ("the daddy of us all") and his influence on later drone music made him an undeniable link in the chain.

Shoegaze and Indie-Drone

In the UK a crop of 80s rock bands appeared who who greater or lesser debts to the Velvet Underground, Krautrock and subsequent droning trends (although many would be as likely to credit Phil Spector's music as La Monte Young's as an influence). The Cocteau Twins, Coil, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Loop (who covered Can's "Mother Sky") and Spacemen 3, (who used a text by Young as text for the liner notes to one of their records), for instance reasserted the influence of the Velvet Underground and its antecedents in their use of overwhelming volume and hovering sounds, even as they asserted rockist and propulsive rhythms. Sonic Youth uses a large amount of guitars with alternate tunings to emphasise the drone in almost all of their songs. They also quite often prolong notes in their song structures to add more droning in their song. In New Zealand the Dead C. expanded the pure-drone passages between songs further, while in the US Pelt and Charalambides expanded them further still while referring to 80s and 90s noise music, Metal Machine Music-derived performers like Merzbow, C.C.C.C. and KK Null.

Electronics and Metal

In the late 90s and early 00s, drone music would be intermixed with rock, ambient, dark ambient, electronic and new age music. Many drone music originators, including Phill Niblock, Eliane Radigue and La Monte Young are still active and continute to work exclusively in long, sustained tones. Meanwhile, however, younger musicians tied to electronic composition like Jliat and Ian Nagoski remain dedicated almost exclusively to drone music, while improvisors like Hototogisu and Sunroof! play nothing but sustained fields which are close to drones. Sunn O))), a drone metal band, exclusively plays sustained tone pieces, and their peers Merzbow and Boris released a collaborative 62-minute drone piece called Sun Baked Snow Cave in 2005.


Some notable examples include, chronologically:

  • La Monte Young's 1960s drone-based pieces, solo and with John Cale, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Angus MacLise, Terry Jennings and/or Billy Name in the Theater of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate). Young has claimed that his 1958 "Trio for Strings" is the first piece to have ever been created using nothing but long, sustained sounds.
  • Giacinto Scelsi's 1959 piece Quattro Pezzi Su Una Nota Sola for one pitch and numerous subsequent pieces by himself and his followers and contemporaries in the realm of spectral composition, including Iannis Xenakis whose earlier 1958 "Concrete Ph" is a tape work of superimposed recordings of smoldering charcoal which form a near-static field of sound, while not a strictly "drone" work operates with a similarly minimal-souce and stilled-time sensibility, as well as Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu and many others.
  • Yves Klein's 1961 performance art piece, The Monotone Symphony, which included an unvarying 20-minute drone as its first movement.
  • Late 1960s - 1980s work by minimal composers and gallery artists Yoshimasa Wada (The Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Serpentine), Tony Conrad and Faust (Outside the Dream Sydicate), Terry Fox (Berlino), Harry Bertoia, Jon Gibson (Two Solo Pieces), Charlemagne Palestine (Four Manifestations on Six Elements), David Hykes (Hearing Solar Winds), Pauline Oliveros (Horse Sings From Cloud), Alvin Lucier (Music on a Long, Thin Wire), Harley Gaber (The Wind Rises in the North), Stuart Dempster (In the Great Abbey of Clement VI), and Remko Scha (Machine Guitars), to name only a few. All used long, sustained and timbrally dense harmonic material for the entirety of various of their pieces.
  • Kraftwerk's experimental/drone self-titled first album Kraftwerk (1970): the 4-minute intro to "Stratovarius", the organ drone on most of "Megaherz", the first half of "Vom Himmel Hoch".
  • Klaus Schulze's early "organ drone" albums Irrlicht (1972), and Cyborg (1973).
  • Tangerine Dream's ambient drone album Zeit (1972), and to a lesser degree Phaedra (1974).
  • Fripp and Eno: the 21-minute drone ambient of "The Heavenly Music Corporation" on No Pussyfooting (1973), the 28-minute drone ambient of "An Index of Metals" on Evening Star (1975).
  • Jon Hassell's Vernal Equinox (1977)
  • On Miles Davis' Agharta (1975): the last 6 minutes of the last track, especially the last 2 minutes.
  • Coil's drone music albums such as How to Destroy Angels EP (1984) and LP (1992), Time Machines (1998), or ANS (2003). Plus many tracks on non-drone albums, such as "Tenderness of Wolves" on Scatology (1984), "Wrim Wram Wrom" on Stolen and Contaminated Songs (1992), "Cold Dream Of An Earth Star" and "Die Wolfe Kommen Zuruck" on Black Light District: A Thousand Lights In A Darkened Room (1996), "North" on Moon's Milk (1998). (Plus many semi-drone tracks such as "Her Friends The Wolves...", "Moon's Milk Or Under An Unquiet Skull Part 1", "Bee Stings", "Refusal Of Leave To Land", "Magnetic North", etc.)
  • On Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994): especially "[spots]" and "[tassels]", and to a lesser degree tracks such as "[tree]", "[parallel stripes]", "[grey stripe]", and "[white blur 2]".
  • Bowery Electric's "Postscript" on the album Beat (1996).
  • Gescom (a side-project of Autechre): the experimental album Minidisc (1998) is half drone ambient (tracks "Cranusberg [1-3]", "Fully [1-2]", "Shoegazer", "Polarized Beam Splitter [1-5]", "Dan Dan Dan [1-4]", "A Newer Beginning [1-2]", "Go On", and to a lesser degree "Interchangeable World [1-3]", "Yo! DMX Crew", "New Contact Lense", "1D Shapethrower", "Inter", "Of Our Time", or the drone techno of "Pricks [1-4]").
  • Radiohead's "Treefingers" on the album Kid A (2000)
  • Biosphere : half of his ambient/drone album Shenzhou (2002), and his drone album Autour de la Lune (2004).
  • Boards of Canada : the drone ambient of "Corsair" on Geogaddi (2002).
  • Melthair and the Loverats debut album "Sex Wrangler" contains numerous drones (www.myspace.com/melthairandtheloverats)
  • Wilco's album A Ghost Is Born (2004) contains "Less Than You Think", a 15-minute-long track containing ~12 minutes of droning ambience after a brief piano-based melody.
  • contemporary drone composers Phill Niblock, Jliat, Ian Nagoski, Leif Elggren, Eliane Radigue, etc.
  • Dark Ambient, Noise Music, post-Industrial Music and Improvised Music bands and projects involved with drone music include Autopsia, Die Krupps, KK Null, Pelt, Zoviet France, Hototogisu, Double Leopards, C.C.C.C., Merzbow, Trockeneis.
  • Other contemporary bands representative of this genre include Maeror Tri, Stars of the Lid, Children of the Drone, Windy & Carl, Troum, House of Low Culture, Growing, Cisfinitum, Klood, Melek-Tha, Raagnagrok, Alp, Controlled Bleeding, and Laminar. Some important hearths for bands in the genre include Soleilmoon or Drone Records.
  • "National Grid" by art / noise group Disinformation (see Disinformation (band)) uses pitch-shifting electric guitar pedals to introduce subharmonic intermodulation patterns in amplified live mains electricity (sourced using VLF radio interference and/or direct output from live mains transformers), to produce intense and highly immersive sub-bass performances and sound installations. "National Grid" performances have taken place at ZKM (Karlsruhe) and the Volksbuhne (Berlin), in the UK at The Royal Institution, Disobey, Corsica Studios, The Royal College of Art, Westbourne Studios, Cargo (all London) and The Junction (Cambridge). "National Grid" installations have been exhibited in the access corridor of a underground nuclear warfare command centre, the engine room of an arctic trawler, and at The Foundry, Kettle's Yard and Fabrica galleries, with the longest running version of this drone composition lasting continuously for 6 weeks. "National Grid" was first published by Ash International on LP in 1996 and on CD in 1997, and also appears on the "New Forms" 2xCD, published by Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst (Leipzig) curated by Carsten Nicolai, and on The Hayward Gallery (London) "Sonic Boom" exhibition catalogue 2xCD curated by David Toop.
  • "The Barometric Sea" by Deepspace is drone-based, taking in many ambient and drone influences.
  • Most of Bethany Curve's songs are drone-based, made only with guitars.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Drone music" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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