Embrace the Overtone: momentarily records Cassette Drone Releases
Brian Grainger, Dissolving in a Body, released September 22, 2022
Jonathan Deasy, Le Flétrissemment, released January 10, 2023
N, Vielank/Woosmer, released October 11, 2022
Wind, rain, flowing water, bees, cicadas—drones are as ancient as sound itself. Yet while drone music has a long history in a variety of cultures, it is the music of India—complete with specific instrumentation, training, and methods—that introduces drone to the West.
As the story is often told, La Monte Young’s 1958 composition Trio for Strings is one of the first drone pieces to emerge from this influence. Young was inspired by a recording of a live performance of Indian music by Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Chatur Lal, and Shirish Gor that Menuhin described as “monotonous yet full of rich variety, simple yet so intensely subtle.” Young, who along with Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Rhys Chatham, John Hassell, Yoshi Wada and others would study with classical Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, has dedicated his life to the drone. His 1960 #7 fluxus composition, which lists two notes, B3 and F#4, and the instruction, “To be held for a long time,” reads like a template for his entire career. John Cale, who along with Tony Conrad played in Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, would merge the drone with rock n’ roll in forming The Velvet Underground, and the Beatles, influenced by Ravi Shankar’s sitar, would popularize the drone in other ways.
Young’s commitment to drone offers one approach, but drone comes in many styles, flavors, and temperaments of holding something for a long time. Synthesizer compositions by Élaine Radigue and Laurie Spiegel move at a glacial pace; Phill Niblock’s walls of sound are designed to be played at extremely high volumes to enhance the overtones; Richard Skelton’s more melodic drone work is influenced by his reading of various landscapes; Sarah Davachi’s erudite, musicological explorations of early music incorporate melodic drones; and the extended guitar drones produced by SunnO))) resonate with distortion and fuzz. Part of the beauty of drone music can be found in this variety, but also in the extended timeframes as these works unfold, allowing the listener space to stretch focus into sounds both heard and imagined.
Under consideration here are three drone works offered by momentarily records, which releases only on cassette, only exclusive music, and always only 30 units per release. Beautifully and uniquely packaged, these works offer not just sound, but tangible objects, undercutting the often ephemeral nature of digital music. In many ways cassettes are the perfect medium for drone, as anyone familiar with William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops knows that part of the beauty of tape as a sound medium is that it lives and ages in ways that digital ones and zeroes cannot. As material objects, the important thing is not what these cassettes sound like today, but what they might sound like twenty years from now. For those unconvinced by the impermanence of tape, all purchases come complete with unlimited streaming via the free Bandcamp app, plus high-quality download in MP3, FLAC, and other formats.
Housed in a stained wooden-framed case and cloth bag, Brian Grainger’s Dissolving in a Body, which he refers to as “held tone music,” (idioteq.com) is perhaps the most minimal offering here. Oscillating drones reminiscent of fans, airplanes, organs, and machine hum create a space that slowly pulses with breath-like intimacy. Evolving over two 42-minute tracks labeled “Blue Session” and “Yellow Session,” the main variance between the two is the inaugural chordal structure with Blue pitched toward the low end of the scale, while Yellow engages at a higher range. Distinguishing between the drone of held tones and ambient drone, which he sees as offering more of a dynamic range, these tracks, recorded live with no edits or overdubs, would be familiar to fans of Radigue’s work. While unfolding at a glacial pace, drone can often be thought of as a form of ambient wallpaper, but here close listening rewards with subtle variety and dynamic shifts in microtones that keep the listener engaged. There is a soothing bodily quality to this music hinted at by the title, like being submerged in a vat of warm water that cradles and supports by filling gaps and spaces. Ultimately Grainger is interested in using sound to defamiliarize “by creating sound environments that vary so minutely, that they create a ‘new normal’ of the air in the room, and in doing so, alter the way listeners perceive the passage of time in the process” (idioteq.com).
Time passing is also central to Jonathan Deasy’s Le Flétrissemment. Packaged in a lovely mirror-in-mirror faced deep blue plastic, this release consists of two pieces, “Dôme” and “Les Profondeurs,” of just about 30 minutes each. While Deasy’s works share with Grainger’s a deep oscillating hum, they unfold quicker with a bit more obvious texture. As Deasy offers on his Bandcamp page, “The degradation of a tape loop and the saturation of a driven tube created an idea of sustain, meditation and patience. Embrace the overtone.” Like Basinski’s work, these compositions feel like they are simultaneously evolving and devolving, offering an effacement that creates specters of sounds past. It is through the subtle merging of overtones that the pieces move forward. As he states, they document “The degradation of fidelity over time. A meditation on the passing of time and the profound nature of sound” (idioteq.com). As these pieces unfold the experience of listening is not unlike the ebb and flow of waves or wind gradually rising and falling while supported by a sustained undercurrent hum. As a whole, the two pieces complement each other, as the first is a bit more subtle up front while the second creates a sustained and unresolved tension right from the start—one soothing, one slightly ajar—culminating with what appear to be ghostly echoes of voice.
Vielank/Woosmer by N (Hellmut Neidhardt) offers pulsing buzzing drones complete with a milled oiled plywood case bound by a piece of rope—a juxtaposition of textures that resonate with those found in the recordings. Perhaps closer to Grainger’s idea of an ambient dynamic range than pure drone, the two live-recorded, 20-minute compositions noted in the title offer the most expansive of the three recordings. “Vielank” is sustained by the hum of lower tones that seep in and out as higher and brighter tones play on the surface like light on water. Moving in and out of synch allows for overlaps and gaps that accentuate the evolving microtones that float and bloom, maintain and then dissolve. Attracted to the label’s concept of minimal sounds, long-time drone and ambient artist N commented that “it was kind of a challenge to write some longer tracks that stay interesting without using a wall of distortion and a rising volume level” (idioteq.com). The results hover in that space between sustained, evolving, and devolving that each of these recordings offer, but with a wider sound palate, reminiscent of Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith. “Wooster” leads with a bit more tension between sounds rather than leaning into it as the first track does. This creates a sonic density right from the start, but with room for sounds to be pulled apart as opposed to woven together. The interplay moves a bit faster and covers more space than the first track, but shares the same phase-shifting quality and an arc that moves toward slower and longer drawn-out tones.
These three inaugural releases from a label that “focuses on quality and works out subtle differences in each work” (Bandcamp.com) offer a range of sounds, textures, and objects to explore. Although keeping with the label’s minimalist aesthetic, the variety offered with these three releases should appeal to a wide range of drone fans. While the music is certainly worth a listen, the unique packaging and cassette recordings make for a memorable and collectable combination.
All three recordings can be found here: https://momentarilyrecords.bandcamp.com/
Interviews with the artists and label founder Thomas can be found here: https://idioteq.com/introducing-new-independent-experiemntal-label-momentarily-records-30-notable-albums-released-in-2022/
Further Drone Reading
On Minimalism, edited by Kerry O’Brien and William Robin. University of California Pres, 2023.
Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion by Harry Sword. White Rabbit, 2021.
Sustain/Decay: A Philosophical Investigation of Drone Music and Mysticism, edited by Owen Coggins and James Harris. Void Front Press, 2017. [Reviewed on Metapsychosis]
“Infinity’s Pathfinder: Pandit Pran Nath,” by Marcus Boon. https://marcusboon.com/pandit-pran-nath/