As per the title, the aim of the research report is to explore and examine the relation and impact of Indian classical music on drone music concept via La Monte Young’s practice and state of contemporary ambient music.
La Monte Young is recognized as one of the early minimalist and experimentalist composers in post second world war period. He introduced drone music as a concept in contemporary music through the influence of world music especially the Indian classical music in the 1960’s. This minimalistic approach caught attention of La Monte Young along with contemporaries such as music composer Terry Riley and visual artist Marian Zazeela. Drone music implies an extensive aural experience with minimal changes of harmonic deviation throughout the piece. It also offers an experience of meditation. It interacts with audience both in audio and soul searching aspects.
The drone music is extensively practiced by ambient musicians and composer. New age genres like post-rock, noise, dubstep, neo-classical, gallery installation music, documentary field recordings mostly texturize its music with the embroidery of drone music concept.
In light of history it is evident that in Indian sub-continental culture music not only holds a place of cultural activity but also a vehicle of spiritual meditation, religious activities, flexibility of improvisation and a minimalist philosophy in its structure(Sorrell & Narayan 1980). In Indian classical music, music means an aural activity accompanied with form and artistic-intellectual appreciation. The practice of Indian classical music is around two thousand years old. The basic features of western classical music include pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre and texture. Indian classical music, in comparison to that, is bound by swar, that, jati under the broader concept of raag and tala (Ghosh 1968). Another indispensable element of Indian classical music is concept of drone which provides a compact harmonic foundation for composition. In Indian classical music this sound is produced with string instrument such as tanpura/tambura, ektara, dotara.
1960’s was the time when the world entered the traumatic phase of post second world war. It was the time of starting from the beginning, starting with nothing or the minimal thing people have around them. At that time in New York one of the pupils of maestro John Cage’s New School for Social Research was actively doing experiment with music, dissecting sound to explore the true color of that organic particle and had a subtle dream in mind to change the history of art. He is known as La Monte Thornton Young. By attending New School for Social Research La Monte Young got attracted to investigate about the perception of possibilities and exploring notions of chance and inconclusiveness in art, as well as infinite ways of permutations to perform the composition.
At this juncture of life La Monte Young was profoundly studying drone based world music such as Gagaku of Japan, Gamelan music of Indonesia and classical music of India. But Pandit Pran Nath’s earsplitting, elevated, and inflexible tambura tone with man-made sine wave timbre and texture and tumbling undertone struck Young intensely in the body.
The journey with Indian classical music infused static, sustain, infinite music of La Monte Young later in the 1980’s impacted on new age musicians like Brian Eno, John Cale, Tony Conrad and many more.
Drone as a word implies a buzz or constant low buzzing resonance. Aesthetically drone music builds with static or exceptionally unhurried sort of rhythm. It carries the minimalistic feature of sound. In Indian classical music it is hard to imagine a raag without the presence of drone aspect. This certain aspect is created with string instrument as well as percussion instruments to underline the drone. It could be intuitive as well. La Monte Young significantly used this particular characteristic in his composition. The reason for using this feature is to move towards the audience’s inner world of perception, inside the terrain of cosmic world, inward to self-existence, to immerse in art as a course of sonar wave, as a personal visual journey of artistic bliss and poignant rapture. For La Monte Young, sound is God (Young 2000); as in Sanskrit Gita Nada-Brahman (Beck 1995). La Monte Young chose features of Indian classical music to describe sound with language of music. Like oral language he sets his own phoneme, morpheme, syntax and semantics. His Indian classical music influenced drone music is consequently minimal and non-prolix. Apparently an extraterrestrial sound to target audience, nevertheless La Monte Young tried to air something new and alluring into the ether. Through his creation like The Well-Tuned Piano or Theater of Eternal Music he challenged the notion of the then high modernism in art and introduced collective performative dialect. By this avant-garde artistic strive he was coming out or moving aside from the Eurocentric understanding of musicality.
La Monte Young is a vital character in drone based music history. His minimalist and serialism affected music appreciation gave shape to avant-garde music of United States of America. The architecture behind his subtle, slow-pacing rhythm is the alap of Indian classical music which is an integral and majestic part of the music. In 1958 he first composed music with elongated tones and silences, titled as Trio for strings. It was before he delved into Indian classical music. In 1962 he founded the Theatre of Eternal Music; from here he started a new journey in the eternal space of drone music. These seminal performances contained dynamics of alap which opened out one after another. La Monte Young texturized his composition like alap and opened up the layer one after another with harmonic arrangements, he bound all the sequences and synchronicities in regard of Indian classical music. He also showed new ways of using sustained notes and harmonics. In Indian classical music drones may utilize anything from a single note to all of the notes of the scale (Ghosh 1968). La Monte Young’s Rag Bhairava follows the single note drone composition. Through drone music and sustained notes he gave music a structure, structure which moves periodically.
La Monte Young’s music practice introduced several things in the understanding of music as well as sound. He took the concept of mathematical combination of tones from the Indian classical music. Later he used the notion with minimalist approach to build a structural aspect of music. His music also let the audience know that time is not an independent fact. It is dependent on the idea of rhythmic alternation. The way La Monte Young produced music and sound that also reminds the listener without the perception of rhythmic alternation; anybody cannot understand the sequential pattern of natural environment. To illuminate this perspective he used the sustained tones with firm harmonics and changed them periodically one after another.
His philosophy of music later engrossed the rock music and ambient music genre. 1960’s famous rock group Velvet Underground’s Heroine song carried the influence of drone music which amplifies the nihilistic temptation of the song. Brian Eno took the drone music into another level by introducing ambient music. Brian Eno released an album which is never-ending like La Monte Young’s infinite music concept. In ambient music drone music can be found in different layers. Drone music played a background role to new-age music genres such as dubstep, electronic music, noise art. These genres do not directly follow the structure of drone music but mix the essence of it. Slow, Static, long sustained tone of drone music is also used in art installation in galleries to engage audiences more into the work.
This report examines the impact of Indian classical music on La Monte young’s drone music. In the process of examining the impact researcher finds an intimate relation between Indian classical music and La Monte Young’s drone music. Pandit Pran Nath taught him the style of Kirana gharana which is the most creative style among Indian classical music (Flynt,Jr. 2002). Pandit Pran Nath was famous for use of extensive alap and slow tempo voice renderation (In Between the Notes: A Portrait of Pandit Pran Nath 1986). In this gharana artists treat the notes as an autonomous sphere of music which are able of parallel extension. La Monte Young’s drone music also has this sort of potential fertility. La Monte Young’s drone music works on underlying levels indistinctively and creates the foundation of the tonic. The nonstop humming of note(s) offers the choral ground for the presentation. In his music sometimes the presence of drone becomes insignificant, though in reality it is not; because that insignificant drone basically takes care of the modality of the composition. For La Monte Young, music is a spiritual meditation, a vehicle to journey towards inner-self, a way to re-view the universe as never seen before. As he said, you get involved with the frequencies and it becomes a vehicle for meditation. Through meditation you can achieve another aspect of existence (Ronner 2015). By taking inspiration from world music La Monte Young changed the stereotypical understanding of music and sound of western society. The structure of drone music not only shows the minimalist aspect but also shows a disciplined, formative perspective of life as well as nature. It shows minimum is the maximum, nothing is more than that. This constructive notion he developed from Indian classical music. In Indian classical music one cannot improvise anything except he/she learns and memorizes the basic formation of the raag. La Monte Young through his creation fuses the music of east and west in very intricate and intellectual level.
Beck, G. L. 1995, Sonic theology Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound, 1st Edn, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi.
Flynt, Jr., H. A. 2002, On Pandit Pran Nath (1918-1996), viewed 8 June 2017, <http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/on_pandit_pran_nath.htm>.
In Between the Notes: A Portrait of Pandit Pran Nath 1986, DVD, Other Minds, USA.
Nikhil, G. 1968, Fundamentals of rāga and tāla, with a new system of notation,Popular Prakashan, Bombay.
Ronner, A. 2015, Ragas and Ratios: 6 Things We Learned from Legendary Avant-Garde Artist La Monte Young, viewed 8 June 2017, <https://creators.vice.com/en_au/article/ragas-and-ratios-6-things-we-learned-from-legendary-avant-garde-artist-la-monte-young>.
Sorrell, N. & Narayan, R. 1980, Indian Music in Performance: A Practical Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchestar.
Young, L. M. 2000, Notes on the Theatre of Eternal Music and The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, viewed 8 June 2017, <http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:www.melafoundation.org/theatre.pdf&gws_rd=cr&ei=gXo6WcXtJ8n88AWflY3oCA>.
Imran Firdaus is a Filmmaker, Researcher, Visual Artist and Art Organizer based in Sydney/ Dhaka. His video arts/short films have been exhibited in Norway, The Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom, and Indonesia. He was a research fellow of Bangladesh Film Archive. He established the International Inter-University Short Film Festival organized by Dhaka University Film Society. He also curates Prodorshoni – an Instagram based art exhibition site. Currently Imran is pursuing a PhD in Screen Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Imran writes extensively on film, photography, art and music in…well…in any ‘writable space’ from blogs to newspapers, magazines, and books. Watch Out or Connect with Imran @ https://imranfirdaus.wordpress.com/ | [email protected]