Music for Drones: Introduction
(note: this post is written by Robin James and originally appeared on her blog: It’s Her Factory)
What if, instead of making art about drones, we make art with drones? What if we don’t jump immediately to the question, “What are drones used for?”, but first ask “What is a drone, materially? How does it work? How do we work with drones? What is a drone, as a medium?” Maybe if we stop overlooking materiality and medium in our enthusiasm to praise or critique drones, we’ll be better equipped to think about their effects and consequences?
We, citation: obsolete (a collaboration between christian.ryan and Robin James), are interested in developing a series of sound art and pop music pieces we’re calling “Music for Drones.” These pieces use quadcopter drones equipped with speakers and mics (e.g., contact mics), to make works that follow from Karlheintz Stockhausen’s Helikopter–Streichquartett’s precedent. Our “ensemble” will include four toy drones that mimic the composition of a traditional string quartet: two smallish “violins,” a medium-sized “viola,” and a large “cello.”
We are not only interested in the sonic properties and potentialities of drone tech; we are also interested in using sound performance as a means to open out political/material questions about drone tech, listeners’ perceptions of drone tech, the aesthetics of drone interfaces, and so on.
We’d like to try several different iterations of this project :
ONE: A reperformance of Stockhausen’s original, or as close as we can come to it. We will work from his score, and adapt this to the drone context. We’re basically covering Stockhausen’s original, playing it on quadcopter drones and digital instruments instead of full-sized helicopters and orchestral instruments.
This has been attempted before, most notably by the University of Michigan Digital Music Ensemble. You can hear (and see) their performance here. They use electric guitars and remote-controlled helicopters in a way that reperforms Stockhausen’s original idea: mixing the harmonics generated by the helicopters with pitches and harmonics generated by stringed instruments. One main difference between our cover and their cover is in the kind of copter or drone used: they use monocopters, we’re using quadcopters. Their use of guitars raises some interesting questions that we’d like to push even further: sonically, the UM DME sounds not that much different than your average sunn 0))) track, or even the guitar work in Ministry’s “Khyber Pass.” How do we take advantage of the fact that these helicopter-generated sounds and harmonics are no longer illegible and indigestible to pop-oriented ears? Also, though Stockhausen’s original, like, well, 2000+ years of Western music theory, focuses on harmonics, there are other musical dimensions to the sounds generated by the drones: rhythms, timbres, percussive effects, maybe even melodies. How can we highlight sound’s other, extra-harmonic properties?
TWO: Newly scored sonic material. This may be concrete material, it may be generative sound, it may be something else, or it may be a combination of a lot of things.
In future posts, we will address more specifics about the actual making of the piece(s): the different modes and styles of interaction and sound generation we’re interested in experimenting with, the specific technological specs and devices we’ll use, tech problems and challenges that arise along the way, etc.
For now, we just ordered a cheap quadcopter to begin experimenting on/with. We plan on crowdfunding the project, and are developing a video to use in our campaign. We will post links to the crowdfunding campaign once it goes live.