Drone on forever

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by the potential of pure ‘noise’, and the beauty of the single ‘note’. The concept of music is largely based around the interplay, juxtaposition and sequencing of frequencies of noise. Sometimes in combination, which we experience as either pleasant or unpleasant (discordant) and sometimes separately, as single notes. However, here I’m talking about the idea of a single extended tone – the idea that a basic building block of music taken alone can be as fascinating as a whole symphony. It’s a bit like repeating a word over and over again, until it becomes meaningless, it becomes pure sound, and something else entirely than it was.

This is hardly an original idea, there are many traditions of this, not only in western music with the (so called) minimalist movement, and composers like Ligeti (one of my heroes), but in other traditions – such as buddhist chanting and with ‘singing bowls. Some instruments (particularly celtic instruments such as bagpipes) utilize a drone (a single constant note) over which the rest of the notes occur – however, I am particularly interested in the possibilites of that single note. A single plucked note on, say, a guitar is not actually a single thing, it has many harmonics and so on combined with it. The strength or softness with which you pluck the note affects its sound. If you amplify the note or distort it (which adds further harmonics) and then feed it back on itself you can create incredibly interesting sounds – the best example of music created by this method is a group called Sunn-O))) (pronounced sun), where the feedback from the note and the manipulation of the note becomes the music.

In time, I suspect I will do something with this, although it’s a fairly nihilistic thing – to remove all structure and form – I think it’s worth it. We’re obsessed in this modern age with music and sound as entertainment. I don’t have any strong objection to being entertained, there are some good songs and some great music without a lot of depth, but I’m interested in knowning what ‘sound’ itself sounds like. It may not entertain too many people, but there’s a deeper resonance when I listen to bands such as Sunn-O))) or EARTH, and composers such as Ligeti or Philip Glass, which goes to something more primal than mere entertainment.

Why is it that when someone scratches on glass or rubs a balloon or polystyrene does the sound have such a strange physical effect? Certain sounds manipulate our deepest primal fears and invoke physical responses. I think that’s really interesting, because I wonder what in our history has caused us to respond that way.

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