Before you read this piece, make sure the room you are in is as silent as possible. If possible, close the door, the window too. Turn off the radio, stop listening to music. Switch off any appliances that may be running. If you have noisy neighbours or barking dogs on your street, do what you can to mitigate their bother. If you are on public transport of some kind, or a café or bar, or if you are in an open air space, find the quietest angle you can, far from chatter, traffic, the sound of wind or water. Do not put ear plugs in. Do not read this piece aloud.
At first, you may hear only silence, but very soon you will notice the throng of this silence: the hum of the fridge or gurgle of a radiator, the whirr of a computer. Stop these, if you can. The ticking of a clock will become deafening. Traffic may sigh in the distance, or you may notice the grudging rumble of a train. You will hear the silence itself, its thickness, its dust.
Try to ignore the distractions (the passing car, the purring cat) and listen harder: find what is beneath that pleasant hush (or does it disturb you already?) Identify, if you can, the sounds beneath the silence, for surely there are some, wherever you are: wind in the eaves; the 60 cycle per second whirr of step-down transformers on telephone poles; overhead wires; a neighbour’s uneasy footsteps; wine glasses. Pick one of these and concentrate on it for one moment.
Now begin reading.E
cho was a mountain-dwelling nymph, an Oread from Mount Cithaeron. Once, when Hera was again trying to catch Zeus red-handed, Echo tried to distract her with chatter and babble, but Hera wanted none of it and cursed her distractor: Echo was only able to repeat the last words spoken to her.
Drone is a sound frequency ranging from 30 Hz up to 12 000 Hz, the former being a low rumble and the latter a high-pitched whistle, each scarcely audible.
Soon after, Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but could not tell him so. Narcissus, confused and irritated by the repetitive reverberation, spurned her. Echo’s body wasted from sadness. Her voice was all that remained.
Rocks are Echo’s bones; Echo’s bones are Drones.
In another version of the story, Echo is a charm with a quicksilver voice. Pan takes a fancy but Echo spurns him, and Pan in turn whips up a frenzied horde to tear her to pieces. Gaia, filled with pity, hides the million shreds of Echo’s body in the loneliest places. Even guilty Pan heard her, and, tormented, chased the sounds, never to catch as much as a whisper.
Were Drone a mythical figure, they would be a deity benthic or chthonic, one of low places and undergrounds. Like Echo, Drone would be ubiquitous and invisible. A troll or giant snake, a sea serpent or ouroboritic worm dwelling in frosty Nordic mountains, Celtic barrows, Sardinian nuraghe, or the fathomless ocean. A dragon, even, in deep subterranean slumber.
The builders of the great medieval cathedrals knew about Echo. In Chartres, Burgos, and Ely, you can hear her: maybe those masons and architects, too, had parts of her body buried in the vaults and buttresses, the domes and dark entries. In the cathedrals, plainchant became polyphony. Some believed Echoes were sprites which could be entranced and captured by the daisywheels or hexfoils they scratched into the walls of the old buildings.
Drone is the reverberation of the big bang, what remains of the birth of the universe.
Pause for a moment, and concentrate on listening again. Close your eyes if it helps. Listen to the silence, or better, the sounds within that silence. Focus on a detail, then open out to listen to the entire field of sound. Move back and forth between the specific and the general as you continue to read.
In 1608, on the run and hiding out in Sicily, Caravaggio visited an ancient cave near Syracuse. The grotto, some 25 metres high and winding back nearly a hundred into the rock, has a tall thin entryway, almost serpentine in form. Caravaggio’s guide, the architect and archaeologist Vincenzo Mirabella, told him the legend of the tyrant who had used the cave as a prison, exploiting the space’s acoustic properties to eavesdrop on his captives’ whispered conversations (chiefly that of the poet Phyloxenus of Cythera, there imprisoned for having failed to praise the tyrant’s awful poetry.) Caravaggio listened, and looked: ‘It has the form of an ear,’ he said, and using the name of the ancient imprisoner, called it the Ear of Dionysius. Perhaps, though, he wasn’t thinking only of the tyrant but the almost-homonymous god Dionysus, and one of his avatars, Pan, and what Pan did to Echo.
Drone is the sound things make when you’re not listening to them.
The Temple of Mercury at Baia near Naples is a home of Echo. It could have been a temple to her, had she ever been deified, but it was never really a temple anyhow, only later designated one by 18th century Romantics. Most probably, it was the frigidarium, for the post-sauna chill. Now, a very shallow pool has formed in it and a tree grows from the ceiling. The Temple is almost perfectly circular, and if you walk to the end of the small half-bridge which extends into the pool, and speak, your voice will return to you, perfectly, from several different angles. It accidentally prefigures the cupola of Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence, the whispering gallery of the Alhambra or the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur. At Clonmacnoise Abbey in Ireland there is a whispering arch, where you can utter a name at one side for it to pass almost perfectly to the ear of someone standing at the base of its opposite. The arch was for confessions, marriage proposals, and for lepers to speak without fear of contamination.
Drone and Echo are non-identical twins.
In Chinon there is a Rue de l’Écho, and a sign directing you to the Echo which forms around the edge of the town’s medieval walls. If you follow the sign, however, you still might not find her. Such is Echo’s nature.
Without Drone, there is no music. Drone is the base in relation to which all other notes are perceived, an auditory and psychological mechanism. Drone is the rest on which any melody finally resolves. Drone, a basso profondo and continuo, anchors music to the earth, stopping it from disappearing into the aether. If it resonates in E flat, then it is the earth, rendered in sound.
In 1537 Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia published the Nova Scientia. Mostly known as a counter-Aristotelian study of motion, ballistics, and projectile trajectories, Book 4 of the Scientia concerns sound: Tartaglia puts forward the idea that Echo can be separated from its source, and used as a weapon of war.
Listen again. Somewhere, in your sound field, there is a Drone. Identify it, and as you continue to read, make sure you are aware of the sound, constantly, all along.
The human response to Drone is replicate it, using bodies, and tools.
Lazzaro Spallanzani was an Italian priest who, among other things, studied Echo. He had a pet owl who, he noted, hit the walls when it tried to fly indoors in the dark; bats, he also noted, didn’t. This led Spallanzani to believe that bats had an extra sense and in 1793 he set to experimenting, at first covering bats’ eyes with birdlime, then removing them completely. He found they could still locate tiny nesting holes in the roof of a cave in total darkness. He filled brass tubes with wax and turpentine and used them to block the bats’ ears, then punctured their eardrums, before eventually acknowledging the ear as an organ of navigation.
Overtone singing originated in Mongolia or southeastern Siberia, and spread as far as Japan, Sardinia and the Sami singers of northern Sweden and Finland who breathe in a circular motion and alter the shape of their mouths’ resonant cavities. They become Drone.
Echo lives in music: call and response chants, the round or canon, the counterpoint and the fugue are all about Echo. Orlando di Lasso’s O la o che bon echo, written, perhaps, to be sung in a side chapel of one of those great cathedrals, is a part song all of Echo, a whimsical dialogue between a voice and its invisible double.
The hollowed trunk of a eucalyptus in Australia, the pipes and hurdy-gurdy in Europe, the tambura in India, all dating back thousands of years, all human methods of summoning Drone.
Four hundred years after Lasso, the invention of the Echoplex changed the sound of music. Allied with radio and playback technologies, voices with no sources were everywhere: Joe Meek heard a new world, Stockhausen sang of the young ones, Lee Perry built an ark, Arthur Russell fashioned a world of Echo.
Right now, I can hear a clock ticking, a washing machine, and two other sounds which I cannot identify.
Echo appears in the margins of a number of folk tale collections, from Basile to Straparola, to Perrault and the Grimms. The uncollected tale sometimes called ‘The Echo-Bird’ or ‘Peter and the Echo,’ recasts Echo as a winged creature, a premonitor of doom, a bad omen.
I can find no record of Drone in folk story, but Drone is always there.
Are you still listening?
People all over the world can hear the Hum, and the Hum is a manifestation of Drone.
The Hum has many sources: in certain places it is the mating call of the toadfish; at 30-40 Hz it is the sound of the jet stream, up to 60 Hz it is the resonant frequency of buildings responding to powerlines.
Spallanzani’s work tangentially gave birth to radio and detection ranging: although radar uses electromagnetic waves of frequency and not the voice, its principles are the same. If you have lost someone, you may call out their name in an attempt to find them. This, too, is a form of echolocation.
The Hum is the Drone is low frequency radio waves, used for military purposes.
The now-disused Royal Navy Fuel Tanks at Inchindown in the Scottish Highlands are six reinforced concrete chambers, each over 200 metres long, ten metres wide with fifteen metre-high arched roofs. They were built in the Second World War, and designed to be blast proof. If you say someone’s name in there, that name will resonate for 112 seconds at 125 hertz. The tanks have the longest echo of any human-built structure.
The Hum is the Drone, the sound of work: air compressors, power plants, electricity substations. The Hum is the Drone is the sound of deep sea shipping coming to shore. The Hum is the Drone is the sound of steelworks, coalmines, cooling towers, and their ghosts.
Is it still there? Has it changed? Have you become used to it? Has it shifted? Listen again. Make sure you can hear the Drone.
In 1928 Elvira Lawrence, a former motorcycle stunt rider, built the Echodrome just outside Reno, Nevada. Her great intention was to create something that would be no mere carnival sideshow, but a temple to Echo. (It is possible that it was inspired by a visit to the Temple of Mercury, or the Whispering Gallery of St Pauls in London.) A long, smooth oval white wall (not unlike a motorcyclist’s Wall of Death) was recessed at regular intervals with spaces for singers or musicians. Clara Rockmore, with her then fiancé, the inventor Leon Theremin, is said to have debuted her own First Concerto there, but no recording remains. After a grisly murder case centred on the Echodrome the place became a destination for rubber-necking tourists from Reno then fell into disuse during the 1940s. Its ruins still stand there today, and visitors claim its Echo is more potent than ever.
One Hum theory claims that it consists of spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, the sound our own ears make. We are Drone.
Echolalia is the spontaneous habit of repeating the sounds other people, or things, make. It is a common process in language acquisition, and can be a symptom of various autism spectrum disorders.
Drone doesn’t know what time it is, and doesn’t care: Drone dissolves time.
Echo is the presence of the disembodied; Echo is a ghost.
In one of the ninety stories in Indeterminacy, John Cage wrote about visiting the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. ‘In that silent room,’ he wrote, ‘I heard two sounds, one high and one low.’ He asked the engineer why, if the room was so silent, he had heard two sounds. ‘The high one was your nervous system in operation,’ said the engineer, ‘and the low one your blood in circulation.’
When you, too, are in a lonely place, Echo will be there: a haunting of wild mercury.
The Om is the first sound, the Drone almighty, the act of creation itself.
How much time has passed since you began to read? Do you know?
Where Drone and Echo meet they form a sound we recognise as running water, thundering rain, the static hiss of electronic devices, tuned-out radios, applause. It is a complex sound, capable of drowning others. It is a mighty roar and an insidious hiss.
All Drones are vibrations, all Echoes too. All sound is movement.
Drones and Echoes are not only polyphonic, but also polysemic. Now, Drone is a multirotor unmanned aerial vehicle; Echo a smart speaker housing a voice-controlled personal assistant.
If you hot desk in an open plan office, some of your colleagues will be wearing noise-cancelling headphones, or ear buds, at least. If you commute by train or bus, you will see workers with them clamped to their heads. (Maybe you are wearing them now, as you read this.) Many of those people are listening to white noise. They claim it helps them focus, concentrate. Drone music is 21st century worksong.
Are you still listening? Don’t forget to listen.
The town of Agnone in Molise is home to the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, a thousand-year old bell forge. Each year, every church in the valley in which the town lies plays one note on its bells, and this note is responded to by the next church along the valley. Even with the best vantage point, a listener will never be able to hear more than five or six of the forty churches’ bells ringing. The piece is all Echo, and all Drone, and can never be heard in its entirety.
And here, feel free to listen for – or imagine – an Echo, too. A high-pitched sound, pinging around your room, head or reading space, slowly ebbing, dying, fading away…
Drone is depression, a howl of anguish; Echo is laughter, giddy, rising. Echo is hysteria, a compacted scream; Drone is profound joy, the deep well-spring of connectedness to the earth.
Listen! Can you hear?
'Drone/Echo' is from the forthcoming work We Live Here Now.