I have problems with drones (part 2)

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Early on, I was suspicious of drones in general: it seemed to easy. That probably wasn’t helped by hearing a lot of inferior drone pieces. If you had a couple of sounds you thought were kind of interesting but didn’t know what to do with them, make a drone.

The first drone pieces I made were sort of an aesthetic exercise. I didn’t expect I’d end up making a number of pieces, each for a different reason, which were in fact heavily reliant upon the drone. I knew that minimalism had become a pervasive influence (you don’t need to do much with whatever material you have) but it seems that the drone – non-timeline music, as Robert Ashley defines it – is equally important.

There’s another thing I disagree with about Ashley’s categorisation of composers who are and are not beholden to the timeline. He says that John Cage and Morton Feldman were “trapped in the timeline way of thinking”; I’m not so sure about that. I think that both of them embraced the timeline in the way they embraced harmony, doing so in a way that neutralised its functional purpose.

Feldman’s late music is the obvious example here – its vast scale rendering any form or structure imperceptible (and on the micro level, the complex manipulations of metre, which again the listener cannot hear). Cage’s music-making in the 1960s actually does seem to largely outside the timeline, but repeatedly throughout his career from his first percussion pieces to the final ‘number pieces’ his compositions were built within a defined time structure. He quickly found that defining the temporal construction – beginning, middle and end – before a note was written made any question of teleology or continuity a moot point.

I’m looking back over my “drone” and “non-drone” pieces to find out what similarities or differences they may have beneath the surface. It appears that the non-drone pieces involve a process or set of processes working themselves out, producing musical events independently of the timeline in which they occur. This would explain a good part of the anxiety I felt when composing for the Music For The Bionic Ear project. That piece was required, for the sake of clarity, to have a linear time structure and a maximum duration. I did feel a bit lost trying to use this as an organising principle.