“The Drone of the American Continents”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:59 am

Last night there was a fearful (and exciting) thunderstorm in Costa Mesa with thunder so loud it made our windows rattle.  The commotion woke my wife and I in the middle of the night, and we looked out our window to catch some views of the lightning and rain before going back to bed. Shortly after we turned back in, our power went out, which (along with everything else) killed the fan that was running in our room. The whole block had lost power, and so everything was very quiet–eerily quiet. We hardly ever, or never, notice it, but there is a constant electric hum that is always running just underneath our perception–we never notice it because it’s always there (just as a fish would never notice that it’s wet because it’s always underwater). But last night, when the power died, the hum disappeared, and it left a notable silence. It was much closer to silence than we ever normally get; my wife loved it, but it made me a little uneasy.

It didn’t last long, and after twenty minutes or so the power came back on. I heard the fan start up again, and faintly, underneath it, I heard the hum begin again; but I couldn’t hold onto it for long, and it soon disappeared again under my level of perception. But it was interesting to experience it unmasked, if only for a short while.

La Monte Young, the father of the musical minimalism movement, explored the concept of drones (a constant tone around which other tones move) quite a bit in his music, and was also one of the primary proponents of just intonation in the last century. He often staged performances and improvisations at his home in New York, and he says in one paper that he chose the 120-cycle hum of his home’s aquarium motor for a drone in order to keep it “in tune with the frequency of the 60 Hz AC power supplied by Con Edison” (basically meaning that the pitch of the hum of the motor was an octave above the hum of the power; 60 Hz is approximately equal to the B-natural two octaves below middle C). He ends that section with this quote, which tends toward the poetic but accurately sums up what I’ve been talking about:

The primary drone on my Original master tape of “April 25, 1965 day of niagra” is 80 Hz, 4/3 above 60 Hz, which is the dominant or the 5th degree. Because the recorder used to make the unauthorized copy that produced the Table of The Elements CD 74 ran at a slightly different speed from the Original, the ToE CD is at a slightly higher frequency and, therefore, has lost the intended effect of its harmonious relationship of a perfect just fourth to the 60 Hz AC power line drone of the American continents.

(P.S. I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting much lately–I’ve still been busy, and I’m still working on putting together my music website at http://www.ajharbison.com. But that’s coming together quite well, and I’m hoping to start posting more often again. We soon return you to your regularly scheduled TLB!)



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    Idhrendur on 06.15.2009

    On a tenuously-related note, check out this XKCD comic, particularly the alt-text (hover the mouse over the image for a few seconds).

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