Auraltone Music AM005, 2011, CD album, 50m 14s
Sometimes when you visit my site to read a review you find yourself struggling through some complicated exposition on a rarely considered aspect of experimental music, full of technical terms and pointless intellectual gymnastics. I’m sorry about that. I’m a bit self indulgent sometimes. However, if I suspect that enough of my readers will be unfamiliar with an unusual style or genre to warrant it, I do feel it’s worth spending a bit of time on explication.
Drone is a style characterised by the use of sustained tones: not long notes in the normal sense, but single tones, generated by a variety of means, that may continue for ten or twenty minutes, or even longer. It bears a certain conceptual, and sometimes aural resemblance to minimalism, in the way that certain generative conditions may be established at the beginning of a piece, which cause a repeated or continuous sound to gradually change over an extended period; it is also clearly not concerned with the usual valuations of performance skills as indicative of musical value. There is also a relationship with ambient music, which under certain circumstances may be hard to distinguish from drone; drone music certainly addresses some of the same ideas, with its emphasis on the production of an atmosphere, and its interest in timbre to the exclusion of rhythm or melody.
‘So doesn’t this stuff all sound the same?’ you may ask. Well, that’s partly the point, and obviously individual pieces will sound the same as themselves, for extended periods: but timbre is a wonderful playground for a musician or sound artist, and one that has been much neglected as a field for meaningful artistic statements in Western music. Put simply, there are a lot of different sounds in the world with the potential for continuity.
Erik Tokle constructed the three pieces collected on The Golden Bear And Other Works LP from sounds generated by an electric guitar, some analogue sounding synthesis, and some field recordings. Clearly all of these elements have been tweaked and fiddled with until they fit his purposes. He may have used an EBow, or he may not: there are many ways to record a sound from an electric guitar without recording any attack. This is partly the point: audible traces of the musician as performer, as active agent, are elided: not in order to excise the music of personality, or humanity (it has a great deal of both), but to enable us to listen to the sound as given, without being distracted by the cleverness of the players. This is ‘post-musicianly’ music, if you like, in the same sense as the ‘post-painterly abstraction’ of 1960s artists such as Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella, of whose work the cover art is reminiscent. It is still important to the work’s meaning that it is a trace of certain procedures, but the craft of making it is no longer central to it.
Sound is sound, and it has (in contrast to the plastic materials of the visual arts) the characteristic of powerfully engaging our faculties, whether we want to be engaged or not. The principal experience that an audition of this material elicits is that of being in a place, or feeling a mood: its texture is the texture of experience itself. That some of its sounds are environmental ones, found sounds encapsulating the atmosphere of a real place and time, both materially enhances this effect, and conceptually colours our listening, if we know this to be the case. Elements of the field recordings are aleatory and discontinuous, while others are ongoing and ambient; this is also the case with the guitar sounds, which sometimes pulse in and out of hard clipping, inducing a slow but distinct rhythm of timbral transformation. The overall soundfield is gentle, however, and although there are elements of harmonic tension, it envelops the listener in a calming and dreamlike atmosphere: this music, like ambient music, is at least as much about ambience as it is about continuity and transformation. This work is clearly the result of long and careful application, and for me it would be easy to fall into the trap of admiring the craft: well, to be honest, geek that I am, I have fallen for that one, hook line and sinker. I’m full of admiration for Tokle for having made this enchantingly beautiful piece of sonic art.