Steve Hanson reviews Drone and the Apocalypse by Joanna Demers (Zero)
When I saw that this book existed, I had one of those moments that writers sometimes have. Someone had ticked one off, on the list of things I had hoped to do before I exit the world.
I have long thought that someone needs to write a serious book on drone. That Joanna Demers has now done it, and in such an exemplificatory spirit, is delightful. This is so very far from a dry academic autopsy. There are roots to drone, but Demers doesn’t give us a tedious timeline or teleology.
With music that never begins or ends, where time is irrelevant, why would you? Of course, drone has roots, and I have sketchily covered them as a music writer, over many years, hence my urge to collect my thoughts in a more systematic way. This book review had better do.
You cannot approach this topic straight on. If writing about music is like dancing to architecture, writing about drone is like trying to recreate Malevich’s black square using only the discarded bits that collect under your hole punch. So I am not going to directly restate what you can read in Demers’ book here, though I am urging you to read it.
When explaining drone to students – I am currently supervising a dissertation on noise in art – I usually look back to Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony. Then to Tony Conrad, a member of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music in the 60’s, The Dream Syndicate, who was way ahead of the pack. So were Faust, with the ur-industrial drone, and they came together with Conrad, providing that metronomic pulse defined by a Neu! one-beat, now globally franchised as ‘Krautrock’, as Conrad relentlessly droned his violin over the top. Pure music, it makes the hairs on your arms stand up.
So how does all this make meaning? That dangerous word, ‘pure’, means only that it is relatively untainted by genre. Here, in brief, is how I approach drone, particularly its flattened aesthetic. Its very particular temporality and duration. Drone often unfolds over time and does not, at the same time. It is one big moment. Movement and no movement in one. Listen to the last tracks on Eno’s Discreet Music for an example of this. Of course, some drone moves, some slightly, some drastically. But drone often invokes the constantly collapsing present moment of Heidegger, or buddhism. I could go into Bergson here, but this is a book review.
Drone can be utopian, the blank space we need to move to, mirroring Attali’s concern that sound travels before other mediums. It is literally avant-garde in form, as it is unburdened with the demands of, say, sculpture making. That said, you can make a work with the equivalent impact of a large bronze, with the same presence, in a space, with sound, using drone. You can fill a vast aircraft hangar with something as brutalising and permanent as concrete and metal, using only noise.
But still, how does it make meaning? There is a great deal to be gained here from writing about abstract painting. Drone often ‘hangs there’ like a painting. If you put a title on a very abstract, open piece, it tends to ground its meaning more, to narrow its range of possible significances. The same, for me, applies to drone. Adorno suggested that an effective modern piece will contain its own language. It will teach you how to read it as you take it in. They are monads, sealed units containing their own logic. But an effective modern piece will also contain a seed that can burst out and rupture itself, and all that lies around it. It is Revolutionary. Drone often teaches you how to read it. And drone can rupture. This is how I judge drone, qualitatively. It is how I read it.
But Demers also presents us with a fiction to read. A science fiction. Her book is in that tradition, in the best examples of Ballard, and… well, Ballard. Just as Robinson’s film cans appear in a caravan, in Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins, and the fictional academic Gang Lion, in Vertical Features Remake, by Peter Greenaway, Demers’ book comes to us via fictional, rediscovered academic notes.
For me, drone is both utopian and apocalyptic all at once. That requires you to look awry and take some deep breaths before writing. Demers does this and judges drone, through her fictional muse, on the apocalyptic side. She has written a dystopian sci-fi of noise.
Again, I have personal touchstones here. Godspeed You Black Emperor’s 1997 debut ‘f#a#∞’ asked if the end of the world was coming. To me, at the time, it was. I listened to this record on my way to work. Couldn’t stop. My job in a bank was turning me to drink. The tech people there, at that point, didn’t know if the mythical ‘Millenium Bug’ would wipe everything away. I watched the Seattle protests and Genoa. 9/11 wasn’t far away, which I watched live, in the HBOS headquarters. I watched a massive financial institution destroyed from within one, on a screen used to show banking adverts to marketing staff. A delegation from the Twin Towers had been in that very room, only a month before.
Godspeed were a scab I couldn’t stop picking, it hurt me. It bled more than it should, but it satisfied. The drone sections could go either way. They were blank spaces that flickered between the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. Between hope and its opposite. All that remains of them now is the Wagnerian apocalypse of Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O. The funeral drum and Orleans horns of ‘rocket falls on Rocket Falls’. Yanqui U.X.O is an elegy, a grand political wake. The cover artwork is typical of their approach, bombs fall on the front, we’re not sure who is dropping them or where, which gives the image great tension.
These bombs are all bombs. On the back, the words ‘Yanqui U.X.O’ sit in the centre of a spider diagram. ‘Yanqui’, they say, is corporate imperialism, ‘U.X.O’ is unexploded ordnance, landmines. These words are then linked to Sony, British Aerospace and AOL Time Warner.
This is how drone and noise is apocalyptic, it goes back to Hendrix and The Star Spangled Banner, a national anthem painted in napalm, with its roots in Chicago bar room amplification. Pure pragmatism, but those roots in turn reach further down, to slavery and Empire. So many records come on like easy listening versions of Klauz Schulze, Edgar Froese or Cluster. The ‘ambient compilation’, but there was little that was reassuringly cosy about the German pioneers. In this sense, I am wary of the zen comparisons to drone, although they can legitimately be made.
‘Bayreuth Return’ by Klauz Schulze signifies, it makes meaning. Think about it. Think about post-WW2 German culture. Think about how the word ‘Bayreuth’ inevitably resignifies after the holocaust.
But that’s an old recording to bring up. So let’s examine the subject through a more recent one. Angel’s ‘Terra Null’, for Editions Mego. Get the CD. Examine it. The initial signs seemed to indicate a record about 17th and 18th century emerging imperialism, with track titles such as ‘Naked Land’ and ’Colonialists’. Put the CD on.
‘Naked Land’, betrays an almost spaghetti western sound, which seems to further underline the frontiersmanship. A guitar twangs, detuning and retuning, but the electronic side of the drones betray the time we’re in, and via this, Angel collapse ancient into modern, as Marx did when he talked about ‘primitive’ accumulation and the commodity as a kind of anthropological fetish.
Somehow, this album by Angel puts us into that space, ‘Quake’ particularly, via slow drones, cello, oscillators, guitar and scree, it unfolds into what Dan Latimer called ‘a sublime appropriate for individual subjects fixed in some vast network of international business, blinking, clicking, whirring incessantly to transmit, like transistorized Jedi Knights, the power of the Force.’
The buzzing, low tones simultaneously describe this evil landscape, at the same time as they try to open a crack in it, and of course speed is important here, temporality is crucial to capitalism, and to drone. To slow it right down is to resist. To speed up is to acquiesce.
The antique etchings on the CD sleeve may be of ‘the new world’ of colonialism, but they become, simultaneously, dialectically, about the ‘new world’ we may be forced into, the place, as Jameson once told us, that we have no alternative but to go to. The past as the future. The two cancelled out by each other. This is ‘utopia’, terra null, a no-place, at least not yet. The last cut though, ‘Quake’, gets bible-apocalyptic, roaring like Sunn O))), or Merzbow. This is utopia and apocalypse as one. Hegel’s dialectic as two opposites in one whole, never combining, but bursting, absolutely seething with historical tension.
Oval, for me, are so important to this topic. Oval are drone as the End of History. They are the sound of vacuous mall music glitched out endlessly to swallow all of time. They are a formal translation of the flattening of our cultural landscapes into a substance so thin that it now covers everything. Their titles are also crucial to this, ‘Lens-Flared Capital’, for instance.
Faust hinted at what was to come when opening their first album. The radio sweeps over the scree of interference, as All You Need Is Love flashes up, and is then smashed to pieces by noise. That, they say, is what happened to all of that, as Baader-Meinhof rose. Their spectre has just returned. Here is the logical extension of Revolution 9 by The Beatles, with its reference to Beethoven’s last symphony. Gesamtkustwerk as smashed fragments. Noise as historical symphony, that ensures another Historical Symphony can never be written.
Beethoven was nearly deaf when the Ninth was premiered, and recording equipment did not exist. Since then, hundreds of recordings of it have been made. We have heard the Ninth more times, and better, than its writer. In this, Demers is absolutely correct to approach the topic through science fiction: Leif Inge’s Beet 9 Stretch slowed down Beethoven’s Ninth until it lasted for 24 hours, with no pitch distortions. This piece does many things, but one thing it has to do, before all the others, is flatten the Ninth into a millimetre thin surface, in order to squeeze the excess of signification out of it. This is one thing that drone can do well. Beethoven’s Ninth has become so overloaded with signification and connotation that it has imploded, in the way Faust made All You Need Is Love collapse. The Ode To Joy has a hundred meanings, the european anthem, film music, adverts.
This is the same thing as Demers’ opening reflections on ancient music that has been transcribed in detail and left to us, yet we will never know for certain how it sounded. The first performance of the Ninth was perhaps the last time this would be the case. With drone, transcription is often pointless, the space, medium and document is the music.
But once the Ninth has been flattened by Leif Inge, and the piece is being played on an endless loop, in a huge space, it becomes a new site of radical potential, which doesn’t completely erase its own suturing join with the historical, something the philosopher Catherine Malabou is very concerned about.
Drone gives you the space where utopia and dystopia, the tabula rasa and apocalypse are one. Where they fold into each other. Demers gives us this, in the form of a musicology as dystopian sci-fi. She explores what I have outlined here through Tim Hecker and Celer, via Boethius. She has taken risks, and they pay off. She was the right person to open a serious debate about drone in book form, not me.
Now it is up to us to carry on the conversation in the spirit of her annunciation. Here is my offering as an invocation. Snow, snow, snow come on snow, blast it all blind into a wiped, white VHS crackle. Lose the landscape and this sadness, in drifts no gritter can pass.
Your instructions. Get this book, put Oval on repeat. Think, reflect, think, write. Repeat.