Labels and genres are thrown around a little bit haphazardly these days, where a term like drone music can relate to everything from Tony Conrad to Eluvium or even something like Windy and Carl. Clearly there’ something of a diversity within their approaches, often using a technique or genre merely as a launching pad for their own unique ideas and interpretations.
So it’s interesting when someone goes the other way, paring down their individuality and becoming more purist in their approach. More purist that is with 153 other people.
Little can be more true to the dictionary definition of drone music than the initial half of this project by Dutch sound artist Rutger Zuydervelt, who also records under the name Machinefabriek. Machinefabriek is best known for his ambient electroacoustic and experimental work on labels like 12k, Type and Important.
There is only one note played on this entire 50 minute piece. An A note. It is played by 153 artists including Oren Ambarchi, Benoit Pioulard, Stephen Mathieu, Nils Frahm, Tim Catlin, Aidan Baker and of course numerous others. Zuydervelt uses them as his dream orchestra and weaves a web of sound between them.
The project stems from an installation that Zuydervelt presented at Sounds Like Audio Art in Saskatoon (Canada) and Into the Great Wide Open in Vlieland (The Netherlands). It’s about walking through the orchestra, where Zuydervelt played each recording on a continuous loop with speakers positioned to form an orchestra allowing folks to move from one instrument group to the next, controlling the mix as they go. Inspired by the tuning of an orchestra, he’ enlisted some of the more traditional sounds you’d expect like woodwinds, strings and brass, as well as elements like voice, processed accordian, zither, harmonium and electric guitar. Then of course some of these folks are using extended techniques with their instruments.
It’s a remarkable work of stasis, here initially the development comes from the subtle variations in texture, though as the piece progresses the approach changes and it works itself up in density and urgency, particularly when it begins to mix disparate elements of his virtual orchestra together. It’s hard not to be amazed by the way Zuydervelt has mixed this, there’ a real subtlety in his approach, the way he moves between the different instrumentation is almost sensual – betraying a deep love of the not just the instruments themselves, but also the orchestral form which these sounds echo.
Whilst there’ initially a certain peaceful Zen like quality, the cumulative effect of stasis can also become fatiguing – even after the 25 minute mark where the sustained notes change in modulation and much shorter notes are integrated including percussion, insistent piano and sawing cello. Some notes are sustained, whilst other instruments are quickly plucked or beaten. It’s something of a welcome relief, the tension of holding a similar sounding drone with only subtle variations can be wearing, where you begin to wonder if this orchestra will ever manage to get tuned up. So whilst it maintains its central premise, the introduction of disparate elements makes it much more engaging musicality. Particularly when the voice becomes more prominent around the 40 minute mark, with multiple vocals drones and curiously a spoken word piece that discusses the labour market barely within earshot.
It’s here that you truly begin to comprehend the skill and beauty of Zuydervelt’s work, not just in recreating an individualistically determined multi channel experience into a stereo mix, but in doing the audio equivalent of picking you up and taking you away, before putting you down again where you began – with the voice recreating the zen like drones at the beginning.
It’s truly a compelling sonic work, where the subtle disintegration of the uniformity of the drone elements initially make it all about textures and modulation, moving from feeling like a (admittedly pretty amazing) science project and unburdening itself into a real live musical composition freed from constraints. Yet then in what I can only assume is some form of peculiar magic, and thanks in no small part to the power of the human voice, it moves from being merely a musical composition into a profound spiritual experience.