Yoshi Wada and Drone Music as Conceptual Art


Drone music seems to be experiencing a comeback. Consider the high profile reconstruction of the Dream House, a 1960s sound and light installation by the artists La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, which was purchased by Dia earlier this year. The environment hosted multiple performances of drone-based music over the summer, including rarely heard compositions by Young, an innovator of the genre. The performances on Nov. 5 and 6 of the early 1970s work “Earth Horns with Electronic Drone” by Fluxus composer Yoshi Wada, who was born in Japan but lived most of his life in New York City, might also support this hypothesis. The event was organized by ISSUE Project Room and hosted by the Emily Harvey Foundation in SoHo, where Wada lived and worked in the 1970s. But drone, the lesser-known branch of musical Minimalism, never really went away, although it never attained the popularity of its pulse-driven counterparts in the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Drone has always been a subterranean genre. However, its roots in Fluxus, in the work of composers like Wada and his mentor Young, suggest that drone’s rich connections to postwar art have been overlooked, especially in the realms of sculpture, performance and dance. Wada’s recent presentation provided a unique opportunity to reconsider the history of drone in contemporary art, as well as the conditions of its re-performance.    

First composed in 1970 and then recomposed in 2015, “Earth Horns with Electronic Drone” defines the genre both at its emergence and in its present state. The performance lasted about an hour and a half—rather brief for a drone concert—and balanced precariously between the ideas of preservation and adaptation. The instruments consisted of four customized metal horns handcrafted by the composer in the 1970s using industrial pipe; an air-pumped reed organ, or harmonium, with foot pedal; and a homemade synthesizer with six sine-wave tone generators. While the pipes are artifacts of the composition in its earliest state, the harmonium and synthesizer are recent additions, and together replace an original electronic music system built by sound artist Liz Phillips. The custom system used on Thursday night (Nov. 5) was first built for Young by artist and sound engineer Bob Bielecki who, like Wada, also spent the 1970s constructing instruments for the New York City musical avant-garde.

The evening began slowly with the swell of deeply resonant sine tones played by the composer’s son, Tashi Wada, who has performed with his father for several years. The sustained electronic sounds vibrated the walls, causing sympathetic chatter in the ceiling fixtures and intermingling with industrial noise from the street. The roar of delivery trucks, blaring sirens and car horn bursts on Broadway were boldly asserted in the mix, providing an arrhythmic sonic backdrop that continued throughout the performance. The mixture of controlled and uncontrolled sound recalled Young and Zazeela’s Dream House, as well as composer Maryanne Amacher and sound artist Max Neuhaus. The intrusions appeared to annoy some in attendance, including the composer, but these extra-musical elements added surprising texture to a composition that was already largely improvisational.

The breathy undulating tones of the metal horns soon joined the car horns of the street. Two of the longest and deepest instruments were played with a steady continuity, rivaling the electrical constancy of the tone generators. The third horn joined with a distinctly stuttered technique, notated in the score, and more easily merged with din outside. For the following 50 minutes, the composition unfolded with a series of back-and-forth harmonic layering, giving particular emphasis to variations on the fifth and octave ratios (two of the most recognizable harmonic relationships), with added chromatics from the reed organ.

Over time, the dynamic interplay of simple tones and complex sonorities revealed acute acoustical difference in the ensemble. The concrete electronic sounds of the synthesizer contrasted with the organic acoustic sounds of steel and copper horns, as well as the reed organ, which produced slightly rhythmic wooden clicking when pumped. The crude horns’ inability to sustain a discrete pitch introduced tonal drifting as a fundamental concept. The continuous rearrangement of chord voicing produced effects of harmonic fluttering, acoustical beating, and psychoacoustic phenomena of inner-ear distortions and difference tones. The composition not only gave each listener a radically subjective experience and perspective, but also collapsed the distinction between interior and exterior space, as well as composer and audience.

Drone music can seem simplistic, but it poses quite a challenge to both the performers and the listeners. This genre is a durational art form, and is as much about physical and psychological endurance as it is an appreciation of musical structure. One of the core ideas is that the listener must confront the sound over an extended period of time, similar to how one experiences a phenomenological encounter with Minimalist sculpture or post-Minimalist environmental art. Indeed, the composer warned the audience prior to playing that, with drone music, “Some people get bored. You can sleep, or be quiet.”

The set-up was intimately structured: the audience listened to the piece while sitting cross-legged on the floor, as they likely would have decades prior. One particularly sleepy audience member took the advice to heart, resting his head across the largest horn, which stretched diagonally across the room and bisected the space like a floor-bound Minimalist object. Indeed, the horns are as much sculptural as they are musical, situating Wada in a long tradition of postwar sculptor-composers like Harry Partch, Harry Bertoia, the Baschet brothers and Laurie Anderson (as well as home electronics builders like Bieleck, David Tudor and Don Buchla).

The experience of “Earth Horns with Electronic Drone” thus extends beyond music to an artistic environment—in this case, a former artist loft—revealing the composition as an experience in space and time. The concert was also something of a homecoming for Wada, who was an original shareholder in the building that now houses the Emily Harvey Foundation. The composer’s return to SoHo thus locates his apparently niche musical practice within a broader context of downtown Conceptual art. Similar to his mentor La Monte Young, who worked with the Anna Halprin studio in San Francisco before moving to New York in 1960, Wada worked closely with the postmodern dance community, among other areas of contemporary art with which drone is not typically associated. Notably, “Earth Horns” was once used as live musical accompaniment by the Merce Cunningham dance studio while touring Europe.

Drone music exists today in various acoustic, electronic and electroacoustic forms, and the genre has transformed vastly over the years. However, its audience has remained fairly limited, and its convergences with contemporary art are tenuous. Considering that a performance lasting an hour is considered brief in this field, drone’s marginalized status is not a surprise. But it does raise the question of why this particular form of durational art has been avoided in a moment of widespread interest in documenting, theorizing and restaging performance from the postwar era, especially dance. Wada’s connection to such practices is clear, but it is worth reconsidering the sonic strategies of Conceptualism more generally, and to unpack the disciplinary distinctions between music and art that have been retroactively imposed.