I have, for a long time, been fascinated by the musical worth of drones. From the rattling of engines to the clouding of a white noise machine or the roar of planes, drones have become a fascination of mine, one that I have been wanting to explore in a musical way for a long time.
The best thing that I have experienced about drones is the inherent ability of them to make other noises musical. The first time I experienced this was when listening to France’s beautiful Mistress of electronic music, Éliane Radigue, whom I want to talk about here.
[Above: French composer Éliane Radigue, b. 1932]
One of the most stunning pieces of electronic music I have ever heard is her L’île Re-sonante (2005). The near-hour long piece consists of varying-frequency drones coupled with voice and other elements. The gradual transition of sounds produces a slow motion, aural variation that allows you to be completely immersed in a mesmerising, meditative zone.
One day, listening to this piece, I was on a clanging and rattling old bus and I found that the sounds I would usually dismiss as unfavourable sonic irritations had become musical, percussive and, to some extent, rhythmic.
Investigating further, I strolled around town to the noisiest places I could find: main streets, building sights, industrial areas. Here, I experienced the same effect: the drone was allowing me to filter out certain elements of sounds that made them dismissible, replacing them with an augmented appreciation of the aleatoric aural environment. What a discovery it was.
Determined to expand my appreciation for the drone, I delved deeper into Radigue’s work to discover a piece that would not only grow my love of drones but also of the spoken word (something I have been working heavily with recently: listen to Happy Richard here to discover more on that).
The piece features narrators Robert Ashley (the English voice) and Lama Kunga Rinpoche (the Tibetan voice). Mila’s Journey Inspired by a Dream (1992) again features the long, slow motion waves of Radigue’s APR Synthesizer with the spoken word of the narrators. The impact that this provides, for me, was magnificent. It appears to me that she has used the waving motion of the drones to not only frame and contribute significance to the simple spoken word, but she has also found a way to musically harmonise the speech with an extra-vocal sound (I tend to think about it as pressing a single bass note on an organ while playing a harmonically-variable melodic line on top – each note will react differently with the pedal note).
This technical aspect also helps to demonstrate Radigue’s love for Tibetan Buddhism. The drones, as mentioned above, create the perfect, meditative sonic space and give time for the listener to contemplate the words while enjoying the ataractic aural waves.
The question now, I suppose, is what significance does this pose to the project at hand: a dance-sound partnership based in the rural setting of Aberdeen?
Well firstly, it gives me a chance to finally experiment with the drones I have grown to love. On their own, drones can be very difficult to use: Radigue uses them as an experienced electronic composer with a grand knowledge of technology and surrounding supporting material, such as text and voice. On the contrary, my music is acoustically based although the sound shapes presented by my work are considered akin to those noted in electronic music (have a listen to my friend Andrew Fowler performing my solo piano piece tEn here and you will see what I mean).
Secondly, the inclusive nature of the drone – meaning their capacity for transforming everyday sounds into musical sensations – is perfect for the outdoor nature of the piece. It means that whatever sounds may by chance happen within the environment, they can only contribute to the sonic scene rather than detracting from a secluded and private ‘classical’ performance.
Keep an eye out for the next part of my blog posts, where I will be discussing the droning activities of a particular South American Ensemble with a penchant for home-made instrumentation.
Bryce Hope is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen where he has achieved his Bachelor and Master Degrees. In 2016, he was awarded the Carlaw | Ogston Composition Prize for his solo piano piece tEn; his output includes works for piano, small ensemble, narrator and performances artists.