Tuesday, June 5, 2012


This is a drone:

And this is a drone:

 But there is a third definition of drone: a long, sustained sound. The Telegraph has an article up on Nico Muhly that is partly about a new piece of his called Drones and Piano. Go read it and have a listen to the piece--the player is at the bottom of the article. The comments are interesting. They seem equally divided between saying "cool, yay for Nico" and saying "what a pseud!"

Before we get into the interview with Muhly and his music, let's go back and look at the word 'drone'. It comes from Old English draen meaning 'male honeybee'. Applied to unmanned aerial vehicles it is possibly an extension of the flying aspect of the bee. Applied to music, it is possibly an extension of the humming or droning sound of the bee. The Wikipedia article on musical drones is rather uninformative. This bit, for example, is particularly misinformed: "drones are less often used in common practice classical music, because equal temperament causes slight mistunings, which become more apparent over a drone, especially when also sustained." Equal temperament is no impediment to the use of a drone whatsoever. I think the problem here is that 'drone' is not a technical term in music because we already have a term for this: pedal or pedal point. Here is that Wikipedia article. Both drones and pedal points are long, sustained notes. But the former is a non-technical term that can mean any sound that drones on and on. A pedal point, however, is a term in harmony. I wonder if some composers, like Nico Muhly, like to use the word 'drone' simply because it is not a musical term and it can seem as if he is doing something new and cool instead of just using one of those old pedal points.

Sorry to keep droning on! I think I have made my point. The possibilities of pedal points and drones have been known to composers ever since we have had composers. Here is an early example:

Of course Muhly is familiar with Perotin--in the article he mentions that another piece, Viderunt Omnes, is one of his favorites. Just the other day I put up a piece by Bach that uses pedals extensively, first on the tonic and then on the dominant:

Over top of the pedal point in the bass, Bach is weaving two voices in imitation. It is never the pedal or drone that is interesting, it is what is done over top the pedal or drone. I listened to the first two movements of the piece by Muhly. Taking the second one for an example, there are three things going on: the drone, a loud percussive and dissonant element and soft, sustained chords. They seem to be assembled in a random way, which is to say that if you created three similar elements and did put them together randomly, they would have pretty much the same effect. Each of the three elements is uninteresting in themselves--just my opinion, of course, but I have heard loud, dissonant and jagged piano music a thousand times, and soft sustained chords, not to mention drones. So the creative act is in putting them together. It just doesn't seem to me that they go together to form anything interesting.

Nico Muhly has puzzled me every time I have heard his music. I have never heard anything that was not derivative of some kind of high modernism. I have never heard anything that made me want to hear more, or even continue to listen. Have I just been unlucky? Obviously lots of people like his music.

I find the interview more interesting than the music, though. I like it that he pushes back at those doom-mongers who keep saying classical music is dead. I get a bit gloomy on the subject myself at times, so I'm glad that some people are optimistic.

UPDATE: Following the advice of a commentor, I listened to Skip Town, a four minute piece by Muhly. I listened to two versions, one in concert:

and a recorded version with film:

I found the film rather distracting so I stopped watching it halfway through. I often recommend this, especially with pop music. Listening to this piece has made a difference in my view of Nico Muhly. A lot of what I have heard before was a pastiche of modernist cliches. For example:

This tends to remind me of Stimmung by Stockhausen, at least some of it. But Skip Town is quite different. Instead of sounding like the post-war generation of the avant-garde, it takes off from the later one of Steve Reich, with a touch of John Zorn. I would love to see the score, mainly to have a look at those elements that are not the piano. Some interesting timbres and textures.

Oh, because someone is sure to ask, what pieces by Steve Reich does Skip Town remind me of? How about this one:


Erin said...

Well drone is the older, more basic concept -- pedal point is a fancy art music thing.

I can't understand your description of the elements of Muhly's piece being put together in a random way. Listen to some random sounds... The balance between freedom and order in Drones & Piano is part of what makes it sound so compelling, I believe.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Erin,

Thanks so much for leaving a comment.

You find Drones and Piano compelling where I don't--which is just fine! I mentioned that the comments on the article were divided about 50/50. I've been hoping to run across some music by Muhly that would attract me, but it hasn't happened yet.

Other than this, what would you recommend?

Erin said...

Skip Town

RG said...

Please don't skip town! But I have my own complaint about this post. Well, not a complaint, because it is not a scold. It is an encouragement, a reminder of your vocation! Perhaps listening to all that droning subdued your recusant senses...

"uninteresting in themselves--just my opinion, of course"

Huh? Since when does Bryan Townsend prepare retreats? defensive disclaimers?!

Your blog is unique and outstanding precisely for this, offering just opinions, not mere opinions!

But I refer you to the remarks of an expert in the area:

I am not shy about expressing opinions and evaluations. Indeed, I think that is my job as a blogger!

It is necessary for someone to actually express a critical opinion. By "critical opinion" I mean an evaluation of a piece of music that is genuine.

Everyone's opinion is equally valid so there is no objective basis for criticism whatsoever. Well, horsepucky!

Well, said!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks RG. I'm not backing off on the right, indeed the need, for real critical commentary. But with young composers you have to be careful. The history of music is littered with wildly mistaken critical commentary. You should see some of the things they said about Beethoven!

I'm putting up an update to this post...

JLG said...

Skip Town is cool, but Drones & Piano is much more of a leap into the future. Drone is such an important aspect of so many musics today. And Nico links it all up. Amazing!