i. Eerie, Heavy, Gnawing
Try this easy recipe:
Pick a sound, either “note(s)” or otherwise.
By some mechanical means, hold this for a very long time.
Make or do not make other sounds.
It could enter a cookbook under any number of possible headings. Examples include:
Auditory Prayer Mat
Although it would most likely be called “Drone”. The word has terrible potency. Robert Burns addresses the Devil:
When twilight did my Graunie summon
To say her pray'rs, douse honest woman!
Aft 'yont the dike she's heard you bumman,
Wi' eerie drone;
Or, rustlin, thro' the boortries coman'
Wi' heavy groan.1
Utter it: “drone.” Our minds turn to the hive, finding male bees, lacking agency, stingless, useful only as gonads necessary for the propagation of the colony, uncomfortably like ourselves. We shudder, knowing too well the painful ennui: our bosses, friends-of-friends or fathers-in-law “droning on”. And more than anything, our attentions shift nervously skyward.
Outspoken curmudgeon and celebrated Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, in 1977, makes some remarkable observations on flight and humankind:
It would be false to assume that man only became airborne in the twentieth century. In fact, man has always been airborne in his imagination, as the numerous magic carpets of folklore prove. The twentieth century has merely reduced the limitless spaces where the imagination soared to rare altitudes to specific air corridors of no intrinsic significance whatsoever. Listen to the sky. The whirring and scraping against the air is nothing but the wounds of a crippled imagination made audible.2
The reader he bids “listen to the sky” is, for the most part, a twentieth century North American or European. Twenty-first century Pakistanis are hearing a rather different “whirring and scraping against the air,” one that they might pray eventually cripple their imaginations, for so far it has done precisely the opposite.
Predator and Reaper drones emit what, on the ground, sounds like a flat, gnawing buzz. (Locals sometimes refer to a drone as a bananga, a Pashto word for “wasp.”) “In the night, we have seen many times the missile streaking,” Ihsan Dawar, a pakistani reporter from North Waziristan, told me.3
Perhaps the flightpaths of these crafts have only as much “intrinsic significance” as CIA intelligence can imbue, but they are notably different from those of Schafer's commercial planes, and even traditional warplanes, in their charged but stagnant periodicity. Tirelessly circling, permeating the atmosphere with their nagging buzz, these drones promise arbitrary destruction and death.
Their constant, vociferous presence inevitably plays tricks on the mind. A tribal leader tells New Yorker reporter Steve Coll that “Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more. They turned the people into psychiatric patients”.4 Locals imagine “chips” that serve as homing beacons, leading drones to their targets.5 This may be a paranoid delusion. But they also imagine, with the vivid detail of lived experience, missile blasts ripping apart their bodies, and those of their children and neighbors. This is undeniably real.
Coll titles his piece “The Unblinking Stare,” but he could just as well have named it “The Unbreathing Wail”. For the new war machines it describes, the name “drone” is frightfully apt. It has relatives in dröhnen (German: to roar) and dröna (Swedish: to drowse). During waking hours, CIA drones may well buzz flatly. While their surviving prey are at what must be a fitful sleep, however, they cannot but roar.
A prayer here for the victims, and an unfurling of the best magic carpets we can muster. These are dark days, but surely no darker than others in the human past. (This by the measure of visual metaphor. Would we fare so well in translation to the aural?)
III. Free as a Bird
Consider Ghostface Killah's recent remarks on skydiving:
Yeah I did that. That was the best peace I ever had in my life. And when I say peace I say peace because being in the air by yourself where not even the birds can reach that height, it was silent. It was a different kind of silent. We could turn off the lights in this building right now and you could still hear shit, you know what I mean? But being up above the birds?? That’s why I know that when they say “I’m free as a bird”, I was really free as a bird.
I wanted to do that [skydive] and I wanted to hang-glide, you know what I mean? And, um... um... and study hypnosis.6
Ghostface brings us to the sonic space where human beings' flight-imagination, “crippled,” as Schafer has it, by modernity's motorized aircraft, gains new life by the very same planes. He astutely refers to the space that these vehicles make accessible (albeit in short bursts to a select few) as the above-the-birds. This same space was the goal of all of history's magic carpets. Icarus probes it for a few sweet moments, then falls. He never experiences its silence—he is too busy panting and flapping his wings. (Anyway, according to Bruegel, the splash is the sound worth remembering.) Nowadays, by contrast, any adequately monied tourist has access to this space on a Las Vegas weekend's whim.
Of course, any one-to-one equation of different imagined flights is inevitably flawed. And there is an important sense in which skydiving is not “imagined” flight at all, but commodified “flight”, in the same way that Coca-Cola is commodified “refreshment”. In this case, however, advanced capitalism has not yet vanquished poetry. Yes, Ghostface's flight is bought. Prior to and because of this transaction, it existed as a ready-made ideological package, totally external to anything to do with the physical experience of leaping from a plane. Yet he ends up in the above-the-birds all the same, opening up imaginative vistas for himself and anyone else who cares to join him. More accurately, vistas and soundscapes, for the sonic component is crucial to the entire apparatus.
There are profound poietic implications to Ghostface's contrasting of the soundscape of the skies with the “shit” one still hears when the lights are shut off, which is one and the same with Schafer's favorite bugaboos. The dissonance between the two is remarkable: modern technology as inescapable sonic impingement versus modern technology as gateway to sonic liberation. It should be noted, however, that even skydiving's “silence” inevitably has its noises—at least in the rushing of the ears against the air.
John Cage's trip to the anechoic chamber, which yields yet another kind of silence, famously has its noises as well: the tones of the body's systems at work.7 Rushing downward through the atmosphere must obliterate detection of these tones. Deciding which of these is the “better” silence, then, is a matter of personal taste. Cage's story is, in a sense, a thwarted search for ideal silence, into which can be read a certain degree of frustration. It also relies on enclosure: within a room, within the body. Ghostface's story, on the other hand, is of the structureless, out-of-body: “free”. But neither is true, ideal silence. Rather, they are illustrations that all “silences” are ideologies.
The closest thing to actual perception of ideal silence may be possible only in death. As the above examples indicate, our best approximations while living, paradoxically, come through sounds. A musical drone can therefore be understood as a placeholder for ideal silence. It represents the seizing of a sonic space, the mapping of a thanatotic imaginative terrain. Just like the earth so far beneath Ghostface's feet, it creates a boundary of constant tension: the imagination tugging perception away, the drone inevitably pulling it back. It can be transcended or subsumed, but these experiences ultimately prove entropic. The parachute deploys; the feet reunite with the ground. The drone re-enters the mind's ear. Death reclaims every living thing.
This provides a way to understand why Ghostface relates his skydiving experience to the study of hypnosis. If skydiving allows for imagined time “out-of-body”, then hypnosis does the same for time “out-of-mind”. The experience of the hypnotized is not an altogether comfortable one. Its uncontrollability, the ceding of one's agency to the hypnotizer, mimics imperfectly one's eventual yielding to death. The imperfections are the uncomfortable part: “What if he does it wrong? What if I never snap out of it?”; or the inverse (in the case of hypno-therapy): “When will it wear off, and how will I know?”. Nevertheless it is remarkable that this technique, which amounts to a handmade tool, can point so unflaggingly toward what lies beyond human perception. It's a trick that in its execution amounts to something much more profound.
Droning is another such trick. It could be argued, in fact, that droning is a very particular subtype of hypnosis. Hypnotics provide a certain strategy for the deployment of droning, at the very least. If the crests and troughs of a held tone's waveforms become the arc of a swinging pocket watch, what does that do for our listening? What does that listening do to our minds? Will it ever wear off? And if so, how will we know it has?
IV. The Fourth Madness
The pull skyward; the pull deathward; the terrific charm of loss of control; the exhilaration of imagined flight; the sensuous physicality of constant vibration in the ear, and the promise of its sublimation into ideal silence—these are all components of a kind of transcendental erotics. The concept of “la petit mort” provides one important shorthand for this nexus.8 Arcadelt's bianco e dolce cigno dies singing, then falls silent. So does the poet, who would happily die 1000 times a day.
A swansong comes after countless winged flights. In Plato's The Phaedrus, Socrates explains the significance of wings:
Every soul travels around the entire heavens, appearing in different forms at different times, and cares for everything that lacks a soul. When a soul is perfect and has its wings, it travels through the sky and takes part in the governance of the entire cosmos, but if it loses its wings it drifts along until it can grasp onto something secure and settle down. There, it takes on an earthly body which then seems to move itself because of the soul's power. This united whole of a soul and a body fastened together is called a living being and has the name “mortal.”...
...The natural function of a wing is to carry what is heavy upward and raise it to the region where the race of the gods dwells. In a way, they have more in common with the divine than any other bodily part...9
Only by a long and arduous process can a soul achieve the heights of immortality, but:
When those that are called the immortals reach the summit, they go outside and stand on the back of the heavens. While they stand there, the revolution of the heavens carries them round, and they study what lies beyond the heavens.
Of that place beyond the heavens none of this world's poets has yet sung worthily, nor shall any ever do so. But it is like this—for one must dare to speak the truth, especially when the subject is the truth itself. That place is occupied by the being that really is, which is intangible and without color or shape. It is perceived only by the intellect, the pilot of the soul, and is the object of the true kind of knowledge.10
Socrates' visual-spatial bias leads him to omit any description of the soundscape of this “place beyond the heavens”, but it is not difficult to connect it to the “different kind of silent” of Ghostface Killah's above-the-birds, or rather the “ideal silence” toward which it points. In other words, the poets may never sing worthily of the beyond-the-heavens, but that will certainly not be for lack of trying. For they know, as we do, that just beyond the limits of the imagination, close enough to taunt us relentlessly, the beyond-the-heavens must be singing its own inconceivably (inaudibly) beautiful song.
This upward striving, this straining to hear, creates a kind of intoxication. Any worthwhile poet will tell you that intoxication is a form of perfection. Baudelaire proclaims: “It is Time to get drunk! If you are not to be the martyred slaves of Time, be perpetually drunk! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue as you please.”11 Take up any human tool toward the common superhuman end! Get out-of-mind, out-of-body, that the soul may take flight outside of Time!
Virtue, I think, would be Socrates' tool of choice from Baudelaire's list, though the selection would not be uncomplicated. He might prefer we add “intellect” or “reason”. In the speech at hand, at least, human perfection has its source in correct and reasoned dealing with memories of the soul's flight amongst the gods:
When a man deals correctly with remembrances of this sort, he is always initiated perfectly into perfect mysteries, and he alone really becomes perfect. Since he stands apart from the busy antics of humankind and draws close to the divine, he is rebuked by most people for being out of his wits. They do not realize that he is possessed.
So then, the whole speech up to this point has been about a fourth kind of madness12. Whenever someone sees beauty in the world he is reminded of true beauty and his wing-feathers grow. When he has regained his wings, he longs to fly up, but he is unable to and gazes upward like a bird, not caring for the things below, and for this reason is regarded as mad. Of all the kinds of possession, this is the best and is from the best source, both for the one who has it and for the one who shares in it, and it is because of his participating in this kind of madness that the one who loves the beautiful is called a lover.13
The relation between this experience of beauty as thwarted upward attraction and that of sexual arousal is readily apparent. In fact, Socrates describes the experience as a transposition of earthly “bestial” and “hubristic” desires into the realm of the spiritual, which in this telling is no less physical a place. “Beauty” is still the sight of the beloved. Soul-feathers grow as the more sainted counterparts of phalluses and clitorises:
When the recent initiate, who saw many things in that early time, sees a godlike face or some form of body that imitates beauty well, he at first gets goose bumps and something of the earlier dread comes upon him... As he looks at him, his goose bumps go away and an unusual warmth and sweating seizes him. He is warmed by the effluence of beauty he receives through his eyes, which naturally moistens his wing-feathers. As he grows warmer, the follicles, which had earlier hardened and closed so that the feathers could not sprout, are softened; and as the nourishing moisture flows over them, the shafts of the feathers swell and begin to grow from their roots over the entire form of the soul, which was feathered all over before.
At this point the entire soul is throbbing with excitement. It is like the experience of cutting teeth and the itching and irritation that occur around the gums when the teeth are just coming through.14
Here we have relationships between arousal and anxiety (the “itch”), and physical development with spiritual transformation. These take shape as tensions or dissonances, realized through what can be understood as a meditation practice, or the invitation of a desirable kind of “possession”, in which the principal sensory organ at play is the eye, the principal extra-bodily transmitter the lightwave, “effluence of beauty”.
Meditations of equal power and beauty can be performed using the ears as the principal sensor, with soundwaves as the principal external force. Sound's relative slowness allows it to turn any given space into a labyrinth, its tangible periodicities guiding the senses in an exploration of the surrounding environment. While the bouncing of lightwaves between object and eye is so rapid as to be infra-perceptive, that of soundwaves between object and ear carries at least the illusion of perceptibility, making possible (for the conscientious listener) a useful kind of mesmerics. This potentiality is heightened if the sound becomes continuous: that is, drones.
It is no coincidence, then, that Plato sets as the sonic backdrop for Socrates' speech the constant droning of cicadas. This “shrill summer chorus” casts a “Siren-like spell” over the place where Socrates and Phaedrus sit beneath a large shade tree. More than just a reminder of the attentions of the Muses, to whom Socrates extemporizes the cicadas as messengers, the periodic drone of cicada-song is an erotic event-horizon, creating the “keynote” (as Schafer would put it)15 against which a generative dissonance is possible. Phaedrus knows, at least intuitively, that he must lead visual-centric Socrates into the heart of this sound in order to gain from him the insights he seeks. The cicadas may eventually report to the muses, but as they sing from the trees for potential mates, they also summon the daimons. Their drone becomes agent of possession. It stands as a “silent” reminder of the transcendent power of audition.
Here is another recipe for you to try. This one's more of a challenge:
Tantric Schwanengesang (or, “Draw a Straight Line and Follow It”)
In your mind's ear, or by some mechanical means, create the death-song of a theriomorphic swan-person. Extend this song beyond the limits of duration and perception.
Jump from an airplane.
Wear but do not deploy a parachute.
In the space of this brief essay, we have seen drones as technologic nightmares, imagined wings, pendulums, prayers, and strange attractors. Perhaps we should add to this list drones as trampolines to the spheres, and trapdoors to the underworld. A drone can clearly activate “the veil”, and likely even precipitate the “thinning” thereof. Further, it is itself a kind of membrane, and so the human urge is to penetrate it, to break through to the “other side”—to the out-of-body, out-of-mind, above-the-birds, beyond-the-heavens. This impulse implies simultaneous tranquility and violence, eros and thanatos, painful bestial death and sublime release.
It is my hope that all of this goes some way toward answering some implicit questions, perhaps the most important being: why drone here, now? A recent proliferation of lazy droners in the West (including many composers of concert music) has pushed droning into an aesthetic corner that frequently, to thoughtful musicians, feels inescapable, or at least not worth the bother of working to escape. In answer to this I have already made my case. Droning is a terrific act, in every sense of the word. It holds within it boundless joy and infinite chaos, and so creates a powerful elixir. It must be applied with great thoughtfulness and compassion. Then it is “good”, by measure not only of aesthetics, but of the spirit as well.
If, as Socrates has it, the intellect is the “pilot of the soul,” then let it also be the pilot of our continued audition. We are capable of inventing powerful and versatile tools for the control of our sonic environment. This ability has incredible psychic implications. Let us use it for the greatest possible good, as often as we can. May our souls in this way sprout wings and fly. May we think clearly, love deeply, live freely, and meditate often. May we, the drunken, the mad, drone our “silences” toward the sublimation of all ideology, until Time retakes us—at its end.
-Adam Zahller (2015)
1 Robert Burns. “Address to the Deil” in Selected Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
2 Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books ,1977. (pg. 85)
3 Coll, Steve. “The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan.” The New Yorker 24 Nov. 2014
6 Pitchfork Media, “Ghostface Killah – Over/Under”. 7 January 2015, www.youtube.com/user/pitchforktv
7 Cage, John. Silence. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
8 As a long-form exploration of this concept within the bounds of literature, Roland Barthes' “The Pleasure of the Text” is an important read. He refers to la petit mort in more general terms, most often jouissance.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1975.
9 Cobb, William S. The Symposium and The Phaedrus: Plato's Erotic Dialogues. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.
11 Baudelaire, Charles. “Get Drunk.” Paris Spleen. Trans. Louise Varese. New York: New Directions, 1947.
12 Three other “madnesses” appear earlier in the text.
13 Cobb, William S. The Symposium and The Phaedrus: Plato's Erotic Dialogues. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.
15 Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1977. (pg. 9-10)