Drone Loops and the Signature of Bliss

The experience of bliss means different things to different people. For this frustratingly former arranger and studio keyboard player, euphoria is conditioned by the search for perfect sounds.

To me, bliss means the slow opening and closing of a comb filter over a deep sine wave bass. It means a touch of soft analog distortion added to individual tracks within a digital mix. It means the rich imperfections of real oscillators rather than the wave-drawn kind. It means slow-motion pads evolving over fast tempos and relentless drum programming. It means synths and strings instead of guitars and brass. It means major scales with raised fourths and minor scales with lowered sixths. It means distant cloud formations of warm noise. It means no lyrics and only the occasional vocalise. It means suspensions and passing tones that linger like last long looks at a secret crush from childhood. It means tracks that sparkle, drone and thunder all at the same time.

Classical music is my thought’s blood, and bop is its muscle, but these offer different kinds of fulfillment: They survey the full range of emotion, intellect and physical sensation. They are transcendent rather than merely blissful.

Simple electronic loops, drones and chord progressions might be what I happen to associate with bliss, but classical musicians who didn’t spend their lives in studios finessing three-minute songs for days can find the effect purgatorial rather than heavenly. Bliss, like each individual’s heaven and hell, is personal.

Years ago, two naive music journalists cornered Karlheinz Stockhausen and played him a few tracks by Aphex Twin and Ritchie Hawtin. They assumed he’d enjoy these because, to said neophytes, all electronic music was equally strange and futuristic. Besides which, the aforementioned artists actually cited Stockhausen as an influence. (Never mind that that’s like citing Shakespeare if you’re a writer.)

Predictably, K.S. hated it all because, as an obsessive-compulsive composer who began with rationalist serial music in the 50s, the premise of which is never to repeat anything, he found the endless loops, triadic harmony and simple lines deadening, actually calling one track “not music but kind of drug,” which of course he opposes to the kind of rhythmic and contrapuntal through-composed content that characterizes his music and, for him, signifies life and vitality.

Stockhausen’s own favorite composer is the laconic Anton Webern, whom K.S. once described enthusiastically as “on the verge of total musical integration. “Pause for a moment and consider the difference between a nine-measure through-composed bagatelle for string quartet — a piece in which nothing repeats — and a twenty-minute drone over a quarter-note pulse, rigid eighth-note clicks and periodic triads. In what dismal universe would K.S. ever like the music of Ritchie Hawtin?

K.S.’s description of their music as a sonic smart drug is fairly accurate in terms of its purpose. Take away their idol’s revulsion and I doubt Hawtin or R.J. would have a problem with the idea.

For Stockhausen, and for classical composers generally, the trick is to use rhythmic variety to simulate the vitality of a living thing. Said trick is intended to make one’s composition seem alive through an act of alchemy. To imitate conversation and interaction by giving individual lines melodic independence and yet combining them to create larger harmonic/formal unities. To use parallel and contrasting phrases to balance non-repetition with familiarity of structure. To create music that is both surprising and inevitable.

When Stockhausen condemned techno’s crushing repetition, he sounded like every composition teacher I’ve ever had — though they, unlike Stockhausen, were not avant garde composers, let alone world-altering pioneers. Yet I still need loop-based music in my life — particularly music that maintains a level of satisfying distortion.

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Perhaps people who spend their lives working at desks can become too distracted by the complexities of jazz and classical music. Perhaps for them, repetition and minimal content is necessary: they need the whisper of ecstasy to mediate the drudgery of their work. For most of my life, I haven’t had to work in an office. But when I have, certain repetitive and carefully mixed tracks have helped to create a distant and blissful distraction. Too much and I couldn’t focus at all; too little, and I’d feel devoured by the emptiness of my task.

One example: Typically, classical music wants clarity and transparency. Even Debussy, who is celebrated for transposing impressionist paintings into music, the blurred outlines of which become successions of parallel ninth chords ghosting over a sustain pedal – even he draws broad phrases and shapes to emphasize his sense of form. Whereas drones and loops avoid temporal coherence.

You might be familiar with the sound of a person singing the fourth tone of a scale, suggesting a suspension, only to have a guitar play the third simultaneously, creating a dissonance that seems to vibrate deliciously. You might also be familiar with the sound of a piano playing the third and fourth simultaneously. That sort of non-functional rub is usually treated as a linear passing tone in traditional music. In repetitious music, the rub between the two tones can go on indefinitely, which seems to erase the tension-release contour of musical structure, replacing it with the periodic tingle of a mild dissonance. It is not music but sensation. A shimmer in the water, a wooly mammoth’s hum that resonates with the sympathetic strings of the psyche.

Music by Arovane, Herrmann & Kleine, Transient Waves and Thomas Köner — this is the sort of narrowly defined thing that signifies bliss for me. I can improvise and track that sort of music myself, but that is a less passive experience. I reserve my efforts for through-composed music when I have the opportunity to compose.

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A few examples of the kind of music I mean:

Monolake – “Ionized”

Notice how the sounds have been placed precisely in their frequency ranges and in the stereo field, suggesting (spatially) a perfect merging of sculpture and interior design. Notice how, within that static room, the one sinuous, non-static thing is a low sustained sound with a comb filter that opens and closes endlessly, so that the sound rises and dips like a winged serpent. A comb-filtered drone is one of my favorite sounds and Robert Henke (a/k/a, Monolake) uses it unusually well.

Generally, Henke’s mixes reveal a level of finesse I find lacking in most who work in that style: Sound design, engineering and minimal arranging — all are satisfyingly correct. The purpose is to create static sonic objects — the sound equivalent of Calder’s “Stabiles” — but to do so as precisely as possible.

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Here, Transient Waves use traditional instruments and a layered vocalise to create a track that makes use of a drone with glittering resonance filter sweeps:

Transient Waves

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Ulrich Schnauss – “Wherever You Are”

Ulrich Schnauss has a more mainstream style than I prefer, hasn’t attained a certain sophistication in sound design, and is sometimes unimaginative in terms of harmony and structure (as much of the shoegazer-influenced plinkerpop from that period tends to be), but this track has a lot of the characteristics I’m talking about:

1. Pandiatonicism, or white-key harmony: the use of diatonic scales in non-tertian ways, forming clusters and quartal/quintal chords instead of triads. Arovane does this systematically from the beginning, but in Schnauss, it’s the slow accumulation of parts that changes the harmony from tertian to pandiatonic. Whether he knows it or not, the simpler harmonies toward the bottom and their slow clouding with dissonance is a mirror of the overtone series.

2. The entire arrangement is structured to imitate the slow opening of a cutoff filter. Doing that literally is almost a cliché in post-Basic-Channel dub and techno, but with Schnauss, what creates the sound is orchestration: The constant addition of higher frequencies and registers with each added part.

3. The use of drones and clusters to create the sound of shifting overtones and mild dissonances that rub ever-so-gently, creating a sound that is hypnotic in its iridescence.

4. The deliberate addition of soft analog distortion to digital signals to give the overall sound that characteristic warmth.

I also have wistful memories of listening to Schnauss in 2001 before the second WTC Tower literally fell in front of me; before I came face to face with Shiva devouring the blesséd fallen; before galleries, museums and music stores closed all around me, and musicians, artists, choreographers and writers began to migrate to Montreal, Berlin, Paris, and Denmark; before the world divided into factions, erasing for decades that feeling of euphoric potential, which had fueled and galvanized our lives the moment before.

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Here are Ryuichi Sakamoto and Fennesz employing a repetitive but more sophisticated version of that idea almost ten years later:

Fennesz, Sakamoto – “Abyss”

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Here’s a far more sophisticated track by Arovane, who worked with pandiatonicism almost exclusively, not only in terms of harmony but in the melodic tendencies implied by linear parts:

Arovane: “Pub – Summer – AMX 1”

Do overlook the asinine image and description attached to the track, as this was the only instantly playable copy I could find short of uploading it myself.

This piece is the most effective of the last four examples because it avoids cliché tropes of happiness and opts for a self-sufficiency that has its own trajectory — which lends more depth to one’s sense of bliss, engages one’s intellect more actively, and steps deftly past the shallows and gaudiness of post-Love-Parade euphoria.

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This track is even simpler and more repetitive than the Schnauss, but Hermann & Kleine are more eclectic and tasteful than he (and better musicians, as those who have heard Christian Kleine play solo guitar will attest):

Hermann & Kleine – “Wonder”

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One last track:

Arovane’s last composition as of 2004:

“Goodbye Forever”

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As a young classical musician, I couldn’t have listened to any of this without wincing or smirking, without craving silence. But becoming a studio musician and playing with PIL has changed me forever. I’m now able to enjoy repetitive music, especially when it is free of parasitic hooks.

Pop music is parasitic and clings to the memory. Blissful music simply dissolves.

I don’t want to have to remember simplistic ideas inadvertently. I want only to enjoy glimmering static landscapes while they last, and bask in the pearl-shade permutations of their passing.

Then to emerge, refreshed, to ride the snake of waking life.

–Robert C. Hardin


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