Is there a collective noun for drones? It wasn’t until i was about halfway through Twenty Twenty, the debut release from Congregation of Drones, that the question occurred to me. On the strength of this remarkable album, though, ‘congregation’ seems entirely appropriate. Congregation of Drones is a duo comprising violinist Pauline Kim Harris and Jesse Stiles on electronics. Twenty Twenty is their first collaboration, created (as the title suggests) late in the year when the world took a turn for the pandemical. As such, the first two of the four pieces on Twenty Twenty were created in person, while the latter two were worked on remotely, due to lockdown. It’s therefore striking to note that there are no obvious signs of these different working conditions – if anything, those final two tracks are arguably the most compelling and cohesive (and, in the case of third track, ‘Experimental Treatment’, ambitious) on the album.
Choosing an artist name like Congregation of Drones implies one or two things about the nature of the music you’re setting out to create. ‘Congregation’, considering when the music was created, is an interesting choice of word, precisely because congregating wasn’t something that was possible during that time. (The word could also have religious connotations but that’s not relevant here.) As for ‘Drones’, that word’s both accurate and deceptive. Drones are certainly at the heart of Twenty Twenty – there are plenty of them, and they could certainly be said to ‘congregate’ – though they’re by no means the only focus of the music, and at times aren’t obvious or even audible. All of which is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that Twenty Twenty is an enormously complex listening experience. Drones suggest stability, a foundation, yet they’re continually militated against by a plethora of unpredictable materials, often arranged in multiple layers, creating a powerfully dramatic soundworld. Not surprisingly, the resulting narrative is not linear, but follows a capricious, even rhapsodic, path moving freely between patterns and gestural repetitions one minute, and free-form vagueness the next, all the while continually shifting the centre of attention between back-, middle- and foreground.
An interesting aspect of Twenty Twenty is the relationship between the Harris’ violin and Stiles’ electronics. In opening track ‘Gesture of Devotion’ the distinction between them is at its clearest. The violin gets things going with faint harmonics that slowly join together to form the beginnings of a melody; meanwhile the electronics stir from a distance, traces that over time start to coalesce into a nascent texture. This clarity of separation is played with; the violin expands into oscillating gestures, though subsequent ‘calls’ from the instrument start melding into the electronics, and in due course the two parts become smoothed into a single, homogeneous music. The distinction between violin and electronics is continually blurred and clarified, though it soon becomes clear that regarding the violin as soloistic, and / or the electronics as atmospheric, is a mistake. Both are both, or perhaps it’s truer to say both are neither: if anything characterises the duo’s relationship throughout Twenty Twenty it’s a consistent sense of sympathy and unity, where either component can come to the fore or retreat to the sidelines according to the organic whims of the music.
That organic quality is what makes the album so engrossing and immersive. It’s the best kind of organic, not merely a music that ‘makes sense’ as it progresses but which allows for complete spontaneity – where, in spite of what’s gone before, we nonetheless have little to no idea what might happen next – yet where everything sounds just right. A vital part of that spontaneity is the music’s tendency to play fast and loose with certainties of pitch. Returning to ‘Gesture of Devotion’, in the midst of a later, more powerful dronal texture there suddenly appear huge shafts of sonic ‘light’ that reverberate through everything.
On the one hand, it’s a moment that seems to be catalytic, causing percussive impacts to break out and ultimately evaporate the solidity of the texture into a gorgeous shimmering. On the other hand, almost everything in Twenty Twenty could be read as catalytic, inasmuch as that sympathy between the violin and electronics causes a continual mutual response, one that often leads to support and reinforcement but which – vital for a genuinely interesting improvisational environment – is not afraid of going in opposing directions. Mutual sympathy doesn’t, and shouldn’t, imply endless agreement (the downfall of so much latter-day improv), and the result here is a hugely effective tension between behavioural harmony and friction. Apropos: second track ‘See What Happens’, where, a few minutes in, after a series of rising tones and arpeggios have brought clarity to a hitherto stratified amalgam of stuff, the electronics swamp and destroy, crunching everything in waves of noise. Perhaps nowhere else are the duo so evidently pitted against one another; many minutes pass before things start to stabilise and the two finally find a way to merge once again.
i’ve avoided talking about details, mainly because it’s not necessarily the moment-by-moment activity that’s of primary importance throughout this album, but rather the longer-term way in which certain behaviours are given time to emerge and play out, rarely sounding pushed or hurried along. Yet as a listening experience, it’s the details – a vast, seemingly never-ending torrent of fascinating filigree – that ultimately make Twenty Twenty as utterly arresting as it is. This reaches its zenith in the highlight of the album, the third and longest track, ‘Experimental Treatment’. A mixture of miniature chirrups, gentle crushed impacts, sighing low notes and dreamy drones combine to form an intoxicating soundworld, penetrated by notes pushing through like messy lasers. From here, the music develops a balance between ambient bliss and abrasion. What characterises the track most, though, is the extent of its details, featuring layer upon layer of stratified elements, all distinct and individual yet somehow all functioning in a way that, at least, neither disrupts not detracts from any of the others. Such a bewilderment of detail is mesmerising; each time i’ve listened not only have i heard many new things, but the way i’ve listened has changed: sometimes the ear skitters across the surface, beguiled by idea after idea after idea; other times it homes in on certain elements and focuses on them, everything else becoming peripheral embellishment and decoration.
Fittingly, the final movement, ‘No Spinning’, becomes a kind of extended resolution to the multifaceted complexity of the first three tracks. Sounds redolent of wind and foghorns emerge from a dense texture out of which various pitches – often heard as a perfect fifth – are reinforced. However, unexpectedly, those pitches become encrusted with noise, which in this context sounds like the effect of a light shining too brightly. Where previously focusing on one element was subject to the vagaries of each listening, here this intense band of pitch-noise becomes a clear epicentre, around which all else – a cavalcade of apparently swirling elements, all circling at different rates – form a gorgeous mandorla, radiating outward. Pitch is subsequently clarified more and more, the violin – both real and in electronic incarnations – emerging in various parallel melodies in the midst of textural flutterings, becoming frantic before the album’s final plateau (Twenty Twenty doesn’t really feature ‘climaxes’ at all, just assorted forms and intensities of plateaux). An intense dronal background with a clattery core, it somehow manages to conjure the effect of a cadence by stealth, magically arriving at an inverted ‘tonic’, concluding in some final electronic jitters and surging vestiges of noise as the drone draws everything to a close.
The spontaneity and organic nature i’ve talked about combine to create an almost biologically-charged music, continually shifting shape, all the while retaining an ever more coherent and clearly-defined sonic palette. More importantly, though, is the simple fact that Twenty Twenty is absolutely stunning. The first thing i did after listening to it, was listen to it again, and then again. Barely a day has gone by since first contact when i haven’t revisited it to discover more of what’s going on in its amazingly intricate dronescapes, and every time the experience has been different, renewed; it’s as if the album didn’t definitively exist but were being reformed and recomposed on each new listen. One thing that’s never changed, though, is the evident need to play it loud – this isn’t simply music to be listened to or even immersed by, but inhabited.
Released by Every Possible Recording, Twenty Twenty is available on vinyl and download.