The History of Drone Music Culminates in 'Now That's What I Call Drone'

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Drones in music long predate drones in warfare.

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Reuters and Shutterstock/ermess

July 2012 is the month for drone music.

Three pieces of music came out recently, all centered around drones. The first two were from the composer Nico Muhly, titled, simply and directly, Drones and Piano and Drones and Viola. The second is outrageous: Now That's What I Call Drone, a remix of mostly pop songs often beyond the point of recognition.

Muhly's pieces for drones have been in the works for years; Bruce Brubaker, the pianist on the recording, first performed Drones in the winter of 2011. Now That's What I Call Drone is newer, and its founders write, "[L]ike all significant ideas throughout history, this started as a joke on twitter." In the quarters where I saw it, it seemed obvious that the album was a bit of a joke -- about flying, killing drones, but also about buzzing, tuneful drones. Because both, after all, flow from the same word. Which is kind of weird.

What we now call "drone music" long predates the word drone. Aboriginal customs on many continents centered around a drone: a sustained, hypnotic pitch that channels something powerful and possibly divine. The Australian didgeridoo, now the provenance of stoners and drum circles, is the best-known example, but Japanese Gagaku, Scottish bagpipe music, and arguably even western Europe's sacred organum center themselves around a supported sine wave.

Drone, the word, fell into use by way of bees. Around the year 1000, as Old English condensed, dran meant a male honey-bee. The Oxford English Dictionary tracks it after that, as it became draæn, then drane. In the 14th century, it gained a new meaning -- to roar -- perhaps from the bee's sound while hovering (and bagpipes entered the mix somewhere near here). In the next three hundred years, the verb became a noun, and the Scottish bard William Dunbar referred to a "fule" falling into a "drene." By 1641, Milton wrote of "thumming the drone of one plaine Song."

Drone was a noun for sound, but it didn't have a school yet. In the lineage of modern pop, drones appear as musical tools throughout history. But they had their shining moment half a century ago, in the 1960s, in New York City's new music scene.

Then, inspired by swirling influences in Indian and European classical music, a series of musicians experimented with sustained tones and silence in their music. The most notable examples were LaMonte Young and Phill Niblock*. The genealogy gets complicated here -- but Young wrote a series of compositions based around sine waves or impossible actions in the late '50s, curated concerts at Yoko Ono's loft in the early '60s, and began the ensemble the Theatre of Eternal Music in 1962 -- which included John Cale.

And from there drones pollinate everywhere. Cale joined the Velvet Underground, which featured drones in "Heroin":

And influence leaks with Yoko Ono across the ocean, until the Beatles used drones centrally on "Tomorrow Never Knows." The critic and composer Kyle Gann splits that whole New York scene (the scene also of Philip Glass!) into two parts:

Certainly many of the most famous minimalist pieces relied on a motoric 8th-note beat, although there were also several composers like Young and Niblock interested in drones with no beat at all. [...] Perhaps "steady-beat-minimalism" is a criterion that could divide the minimalist repertoire into two mutually exclusive bodies of music, pulse-based music versus drone-based music.

And their use seeped into the rest of music. Kraftwerk used them, as did Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Miles Davis, and Aphex Twin, and Radiohead. Wilco's "Less Than You Think," from 2004, sits on a drone for 12 of its 15 minutes.

Until you arrive in 2012, with drones in the news and talked about again among the New York interpretive class. But what's funny is that they all start with this central analogy, between mindless bees and the roar they create. And they flit in this idea zone between unchanging eternity and quick variation. Nadia Sirota, the violist who plays Muhly's Drones and Viola, says that the piece uses drones as a "sort of the cadential pedal note embroidered so extensively beyond its original purpose."

And that's kind of the fate of analogy and technology in general.

It's also the operating principle of this:

Updated, July 27: The composer Phill Niblock's name was spelled incorrectly in the original version of this article. It has been corrected.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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