When I arrived at the drone concert, half an hour before it was set to begin, I joined a crowd of thirty or so people. Some stood or milled about, but most sat in a huddle on the floor before the stage. Many lounged on yoga mats or sleeping bags or other cushioning. More than a few, evidently there for the long haul, had removed their shoes. I took my own seat on the floor in a back corner and—as much as I could, having brought neither yoga mat nor sleeping bag, not even a pillow—made myself comfortable.
This was Drone Not Drones, a twenty-eight-hour event now in its sixth year, held this past January at Minneapolis’s Cedar Cultural Center, as always. Even though most of those present at the outset would not be staying for the duration, all who’d purchased tickets were invited to do so, or to come and go as they pleased. Those with sleeping bags were likely to stay overnight, or perhaps simply to sleep through some of the performance. Drone Not Drones is one of the few concerts where dozing is not insulting, and is even encouraged. The music facilitates slumber. Drone is a minimalist genre organized, generally, around sustained or repeated tones, with little of the melodic variation that characterizes most contemporary Western music, or else with the variation slowed to a degree that obscures its dynamism. Drone has a long history, from Scottish bagpipes to gagaku, a classical Japanese form. In the twentieth century, drone entered the American avant-garde scene through the works of composer La Monte Young and eventually made its presence felt in pop music thanks to Young’s erstwhile bandmate John Cale, member of the Velvet Underground. Drone Not Drones celebrates this musical form by enacting an idea as simple as it is dizzying to imagine in execution: gather more than fifty artists to create a continuous drone for twenty-eight hours.
The grandeur of the idea is both self-consciously absurd and deadly serious; fittingly, the show had its origins in a tossed-off remark whose gravity was belied by its offhandedness. In June 2013, the beloved Minnesota band Low spent its entire twenty-seven-minute set at a Minneapolis music festival on a rendition of its song “Do You Know How to Waltz?,” expanded into a slow, attention-taxing, monotonous buildup of foreboding noise. After the song ended, Low’s Alan Sparhawk approached the microphone and offered as the band’s only explanation these three words: “Drone, not drones.” Sparhawk later explained that this slogan was coined not by him but by his friend Luke Heiken, a Twin Cities music scene mainstay who’d recently printed bumper stickers bearing the phrase. When Low had tweeted a reference to President Obama’s use of drone strikes to kill American citizens, Heiken had responded with the slogan and an image of the sticker, which is what got it into Sparhawk’s head. This all eventually led to the inaugural Drone Not Drones performance in 2014. All proceeds from that show and the five that followed were donated to Doctors Without Borders.