Humans have been making drone music for thousands of years. We’ve been doing it so long that, at a certain point in prehistory, it’s no longer clear that music is the right word for it (to be fair, some presumably say that now). Archaeologists tend to recognize it as an aspect of cult, not “art.” But we’ve now reached a cultural point in which drone music is not only art, but at art’s leading edge, or at least somewhere near it. Rarely does it employ the hardened, static forms of traditional music, and usually it epitomizes a force against that crystallization, preferring liquidity, formlessness, and open creative space. And yet it still produces the meditative trance effect, its presumed cult purpose. What the dronologists are now achieving is a circular motion, returning to the undifferentiated sources of music before the cult even took hold of it.
Get enough of these people in a room together and something moving will come out. Looking at the list of instruments on the back of Cold/Burn, the collaborative album by Anla Courtis, Okkyung Lee, C. Spencer Yeh, and Jon Wesseltoft, it might seem a bit haphazard. But in listening to the pieces themselves, the timbral match between the album’s various sound sources coheres so wonderfully that it’s difficult at times to differentiate the various players. That’s not a criticism; what emerges from this coherence — between the bowed timbres of Lee’s cello and Yeh’s violin, and the thicker harmonics of Wesseltoft’s shruti box and harmonium and Courtis’ guitar and electronics — is a mass of sound that Edgar Varèse would admire, its melodies emerging when each instrument hits a unique frequency band and dissolving as texture when it fades back into the mix.
These pieces are pure improvisation, but to say so conceals the depth of awareness of each participant’s place in the larger structure. Improvisations like this reveal the talent of each player to feel each moment as it passes and participate where space opens up. The mutual respect is obvious. The album is not just a barrage of noise that flattens out as a drone, but a weaving of textures whose colors blend to create new shades. A lack of percussive instruments here does not prevent consistent rhythm either: “On Mercator’s Projection” features Yeh’s violin moving in a persistent beat for part of the track, as Lee’s cello bowing keeps the piece moving forward while still allowing full integration into the trance state. To see it live would have been ideal, but Lasse Marhaug’s solid recording preserves much of the harmonic content, even if full surround sound isn’t possible.
Cold/Burn ends with Yeh’s gurgling, choking vocal sounds. The voice — perhaps the first-known musical instrument. There’s something primordial about this work, despite its avant-garde pedigree. This music is not made for cerebral interpretations and analysis, but for the suspension of those interpretations. It’s less avant-garde than proto-primitive. Perhaps when we’ve exhausted all musical possibilities, the only course of action will be to return to the roots. Those roots run deep, even potentially tapping into other ancestral species (there is some slight evidence of Neanderthal music). When the inevitable bone flute/whistle/voice trio occurs, I wonder if we’ll still call it “experimental.”