Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Notes And Comments

Desperately Seeking Stillness

Life at prestissimo requires moments of adagio, even of larghissimo.

Nathan Goldman

Lake in Poland, Łukasz Jastrzębski; flickr.

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.

This year’s show was my second. Although I’ve long enjoyed pop music that incorporates elements of drone, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve developed an affinity (and the patience) for the form’s slower, subtler manifestations. I associate two separate but not unrelated events with this growing interest: my intensifying addiction to Twitter and—since all conversational roads seem to meander in this direction—the election of Donald Trump. Thanks in no small part to these two agitating facts of my daily life, I’ve never been more anxious than in the past few years, and the slowness and stillness of drone music serves as a balm. The frantic, manic pace of news today simultaneously demands and corrodes one’s attention. There’s always a new headline, a new reaction, a new interpretation. Of course, one can step away from the news cycle’s maddening swirl—but it’s not so easy. Beyond any rational justifications for remaining in its grasp—as a political being, one perhaps has an obligation to remain maximally informed—there’s the simple truth that indulging in overstimulation is frighteningly compelling, even pleasurable.

But life at prestissimo requires moments of adagio, even of larghissimo. Drone’s glacial pace provides the anodyne of boredom. Unlike the novelty of an agitated tweet or a presidential tantrum (the latter often contained in the former), whatever is new in a piece of drone music tends to arrive so slowly as to seem already ancient. Listening to drone feels like waiting for something to happen—indefinitely. Unfulfilled anticipation, pressed to its limit, becomes a form of tranquility.

There’s another, darker dimension of my newly acquired taste for drone. Even in its peacefulness, drone music verges on the apocalyptic. Musicologist Joanna Demers explores this in her book Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World, which is composed of essays and “speculative artworks” attributed to a fictional narrator whose work has been assembled into a twenty-third-century art exhibit. In the preface, Demers writes, “Drone music excels in creating and maintaining tension. It aestheticizes doom, opening a door onto once and future catastrophes.” She argues that drone’s illegibility evokes this association, because “apocalypse itself is a phenomenon that flouts interpretation; it is a literal rendition of the ineffable, something that exceeds or evades or defies speech.” It’s hard, these days, not to feel as if one is awaiting the end of the world. Drone offers one possible way to feel at peace in that waiting.

After the audience was warmed up, so to speak, with a short session of preparatory “laughter meditation,” a contemplative form whose objective is to induce a merry spirit, the first performers opened their half-hour set with a steady drumbeat, which gradually swelled into a percussive, minimally melodic hum. Many of the listeners reclined on their mats or sleeping bags. The crowd gradually grew as the first band was seamlessly replaced by the second. Less than an hour into the drone, flat on my back and eyes closed, I felt at peace and not unpleasantly bored.

The boredom ebbed and flowed. One performer set chiming keyboards over a steady track of rolling water (boring); another, a violinist, played the same note repeatedly, just to the point where it began to grate; a series of gorgeous melodic flights followed, interspersed with soaring wordless song (transfixing). I wondered if one might best understand drone not in terms of sustainment or repetition, but as music pushed to the border of its meaningfulness, an effect also accomplished through stillness or aimlessness or noise. The night came to a climax with a performance by Low’s Alan Sparhawk himself, who opened with jagged bursts of cacophonous guitar-playing before shifting to a more minimal approach. Eventually, a drummer, guitarist, and bassist joined him to create repetitive squalls of body-rattling noise that were somehow soothing yet unsettling. It stretched time: I checked my phone when I thought two minutes had passed, and found that it had really been ten. I wondered if the true apocalypticism of drone music lies in the way it defies direct appreciation on a human scale; I couldn’t help thinking of global warming.

I left before midnight and didn’t return until around noon the next day. While not physically present, I had two other ways to continue experiencing the show: a video was streamed online and a feed of the audio was broadcast on a local community radio station. In the early morning hours, I watched a bit of the streamed video, finding the continuity of the drone deep into the night surprisingly reassuring. The next day, as I drove back to the venue, I tuned the radio to the drone and let it fill the car. The roads were snowy, and the car in front of me was proceeding with understandable but perhaps excessive caution. I didn’t mind. The electronic buzz of whatever artist was playing kept me serenely present in the moment’s slowness.

Back at the show, watching the succession of acts, I began to think of the drone as something passed, like a torch, from one performer to the next. I realized that one could understand the event’s name without a direct reference to drone warfare, without losing the event’s spirit. The unity of the drone was, after all, a kind of borderlessness, as was the possibility of watching it unfold online or listening to it on the radio. After a few hours, I left again. As I drove to pick up dinner, listening to the drone all the way, I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if this were always available? A drone suffusing the city, to be dipped into at will.

Returning for the show’s final hours, I found that the room was packed. I watched one artist play a trumpet spasmodically; another slid a bow across the neck of a guitar; another plucked a harp and, with the aid of a looper pedal, orchestrated her own solitary symphony. Armed only with a guitar, the final artists to take the stage unleashed steady swells of noise. Twenty minutes before the event’s twenty-eight hours were up, he set down the guitar, exited the stage, returned to fiddle with his equipment, and walked off again. The drone droned on. This pattern repeated; it was as if the drone were no longer some created thing, but rather a force being gently coaxed to its conclusion. In the last minutes, the noise—now a single note—grew quieter. I felt it buzzing in my head, and, surprising myself, I began to hum it softly. By 11 p.m., when the concert ended, the drone was present but barely audible. A man came on stage and went up to the microphone, and another came up to silence the sound. “And so it ends,” announced the man at the microphone. As we all rose to leave, I imagined a future in which I might bring a sleeping bag, settle in, and experience it all, the whole twenty-eight-hour drone, without interruption. It might, I thought, be transcendent; it might disappoint. Perhaps such unfulfillment, aestheticized and stretched across days, would even seem beautiful.