Monday, 10 July 2017

Thinking in Drones: Encounters at the weird frontier of experimental electronic music

One can hear many things in a drone. Resonances and patterns emerge in a fleeting semiotics of uncertain design. I appealed to the internet for a name to give to this phenomenon and found instead wellspring of strange ideas: forums and journals filled with the dispatches of individuals to whom these signals spoke directly. Many veered towards conspiracies, or the realms of the paranormal by way of explanation. Whatever its manifestation, this form of sonic pareidolia is a function in the programming of our much assuming brains without which there could be no sense in the material world. It is in us all, yet finding a means to accurately describe even one such experience of this phenomenon can be tortuous.

Such was the problem I encountered when trying to form a coherent response to my time spent at the fringes of London’s electronic music scene. When I began to explore the milieu of noise and drone, and their oblique history in music, I found a similar diversity of voices and ideas. Visionaries such as John Cale and Karlheinz Stockhausen saw their creations as representing one aspect of the same cohesive sonic universe that popular and traditional music inhabited, distinguished perhaps only by tempo. Those amongst the more extreme, noise-oriented fringes have drawn a much harder line, seeing their work as a fundamentally different kind of beast, or even a challenge to the concept of music itself. Their dispute echoes the arguments of Surrealism and the Dadaists a century before, striving either to destroy the canon utterly or else subvert its precepts towards stranger ends, but united in a collective drive toward the unknown: new territories and new ideas.

But for the creators of experimental electronic music, what shape do these ideas take, that they now seek to understand? To many, the prism of electronic sound is a glass peered through darkly indeed. To these artists, the realms of drone held a sense of disassociation - of things brutal, alien and unfamiliar. Some have even seen cataclysm; the death of the universe. This has formed the crux of a creative process a creative process that can be at turns expressive, morbid, and coldly abstract. The artist Argumentix, Speaking in the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, explained his composition process, drawing inspiration from apocalyptic ruminations on the near future:

A lot of what I think about and write about artistically is the idea of being fifteen years in the future and looking back at the time that I’m living in right now and observing what was going on and what led to this apocalypse or big world change, because I feel pretty strongly that the world is going to completely change as we know it and to express that emotion and that impending doom, I mean, like, pop music doesn’t work anymore, and so people need something that is directly tackling that issue.

The documentary goes on to feature artists incorporating dream visions, altered states, periods of illness, and the ever greater subversions of technology in the pursuit of a desired sound. As a writer of cosmic horror, I felt like I’d come home. In the few months I’ve spent amongst the devotees of London’s own electronic musical fringes, I’ve often wondered that the two worlds haven’t converged more often or profoundly. For H.P. Lovecraft - the patron saint of weird - his legacy to music has been a curiously underexplored thing. In popular music, it has been celebrated almost exclusively in goth and heavy metal, drawing more of the kitsch, pulp horror elements of his work. But there is evidently room for other sounds in the Lovecraftian canon.

Lovecraft himself spoke of music in the real world very little, almost never of contemporary music, and despised most channels of popular culture in which he might have encountered it. Yet from his frequent allusions to music in his stories, one can imagine where his tastes might have lain. His stories contain a profound sonic dimension composed of a myriad horrors: cracked flutes and whistles herald the blind, ‘idiot god’ Azathoth sprawling on his throne at the centre of the universe. Cries of demon hounds are carried on the night winds while ingenious instruments concealed in the mouths of gargoyles breathe eerie monotonies through the subterranean abodes of grave robbers. Tillinghast’s electronic drone engine draws down monsters from the aether, while the mad virtuoso Erich Zann fiddles into the abyss.

Later writers of the Lovecraftian canon have followed this lead. Simon Whitechapel’s Walpurgisnachtmusick, sees its protagonist begin a psycho-erotomaniac journey towards fleshly apotheosis in an specialist record shop, making the work of the fictional minimalist band MiddlePain his primer for debauchery. Likewise in Alan Moore’s The Courtyard the narrative centers around an experimental noise-rock band: The Ulthar Cats, channeling the unwholesome beyond through their psychedelic performances in an abandoned church in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

On a deeper level, Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic pessimism and alienation chimes well with the darker side of the electronic scene. In later years, his depiction of the hostile and unknowable universe - the world without us (to borrow a term from Eugene Thacker) - would inspire such thinkers as Michel Houellebecq, and the anarcho-futurist cum radical Neo-Reactionary philosopher Nick Land. Land and his fellow exponents of the Accelerationist movement, his colleagues at Warwick’s ominous sound Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), were themselves advocates of experimental techno as the collective anthem for their vision of a new world. The circle was so nearly complete.

Likewise, it is not just the tone or aesthetic that makes it such a potent territory for exploring these strange ideas. Perhaps the thing which most distinguishes noise and drone as a subcategory of electronic music is its inexorable connection to the technology used in its creation. Not only do its sounds and rhythms not exist in other forms of music, but the interrelationship between the artist and the complicated nexus of synthetic and recorded sound, loops and oblique mathematics that make up its composition is one wholly unique to the genre. Its composition is as much an act of exploration and discovery as it is an act of creation. For here, music is not the work of human agents, but a collaboration with the alien and implacable will of the machine.

Some artists, such as Daryl Groetsch (performing under the name Pulse Emitter) have taken this notion to its more extreme conclusions. Seeking to remove the human element from music altogether, he described one of his experiments thus:

I want to start taking data from nature and patching it into my synthesiser. I’ve done that a little bit with photo cells. You know? I can stick it out the window and the sun setting will go from a higher voltage to a lower voltage, and that can control the synthesiser. But I want to be able to take, like, a topographical map of Mars, and turn that into a voltage that will control my synthesiser, and then have pieces of music that are entirely based on data.

This dichotomy between human creativity and the appropriation of the syntactical currents of the natural world reflect a tension which has existed in music and art that has existed for centuries. Nietzsche identified the dichotomy as Dionysian and the Apolline, exploring the elaborate interplay of the two creative impulses - to learn the nature of the gods through reason or join them in revels on the celestial plains through transcendent intoxication.

To a reader of the Romantic poets, Groetsch’s experiments in environmental data hold a particular resonance. They recall a passage in Coleridge’s Eolian Harp:

 And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Two hundred years before the advent of our post-digital age, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge first penned the immortal lines of his poem The Aeolian Harp, he was not simply musing on the beauty of nature or the legacy of classical Greece from which the instrument arises. Writing at the time of the enlightenment, he and many of his fellow artists and writers were wrestling with fundamental questions of the soul and the ultimate intelligibility of the world and divinity during a period of such immense and frenetic change that one felt one's basic consciousness ill equipped to cope, suffering a paralysing disconnect between the soul and the material world. One has only to think about the internet, mass data, Twitter, datapocalypse, augmented reality, globalisation and the many other strata that comprise our borderless world and those beyond it, and such concepts become shockingly relatable.

His response, and that of many of his peers (Wordsworth, De Quincey, Verlaine and Rimbaud et al.) was to seek altered states. Opium and its various preparations are considered the most typical of the movement, but there were others, too. Hashish was de rigeur in France following Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt, and even chemical refinements such as amyl nitrate was coming into use in the medical profession. Yet this rush towards intoxication was never intended as an escape from the modern world. Through this exploration of consciousness and the soul, the thinkers of the age were seeking to attune themselves to this new world, and create a philosophy and a language that could fully comprehend its nature - both the material and the divine.

Unlike the denizens of the EVP forums, the drone never spoke to me in isolation. My first taste of experimental electronic music came while I was in university, but at the time it left me cold. It was only when I came to London and had a chance to enter into the scene and encounter it directly that it really began to make some form of weird sense.

While the ultimate pursuit of the Romantics was in the pursuit of an enlightenment ideal - to bring the light of science to the unknowable realms of consciousness. The electronic mythopoetics of the experimental electronic scene strike at something at once more abstracted, more fanciful and more obscure. A night of drone is an experience somewhere between a Dadaist happening and a ritual invocation. Like devotees of the cult of Mithras, we converge in cellars and dark spaces in furtive numbers. The music is an offering, an appeal to the machine god, like a medieval sorcerer forming furtive pacts with the denizens of the unwholesome beyond. This relic of ancient times takes place against a backdrop of harsh science fiction soundscapes, bathed in the scintillating glow of a myriad LEDs. But the drone scene isn’t new, nor does it exist outside of time. Drone is the perpetual present, the screaming edge of now, the primal chaos that has always been with us beneath the sheen of ordered sobriety. Like a creeping decay, it awaits all that lingers to long in the dark, changing only as we develop ever more sophisticated apparatus through which to observe it.