Hi Daniel, thanks for speaking with Discipline Mag. You head the Melbourne Drone Orchestra (MDO). Could you please introduce the group for our readers including conceptual intents, sonic territory, and anything else that may help readers interpret the group.
The MDO aims to realise the textural potential of the electric guitar at its most expansive through extended tones. The initial motivation was to indulge in the physical power of sound.
As a kid, I’d just leave my guitar to rest against the amp and feedback endlessly. I would just zone out. Sometimes I’d walk down the street during the day and would see how far I could hear it. The next step was to someday find other like-minded people and see how far it could be taken.
Seeing Sunn O))), Grey Daturas and Oren Ambarchi live was revelatory. I didn’t know drone was a genre until I’d attended their shows. Witnessing Grey Daturas’ and Ambarchi’s performances at various intimate spaces was particularly inspiring. They were all approachable people and good influences to have when you’re 18 and haven’t got a clue.
If I had’ve known enough people, the MDO would’ve started with dozens of guitarists. I was given the chance to organise the first MDO show at a Musikunst event. This was a monthly avant-garde live music series curated at the Great Britain Hotel in Richmond by Piers Morgan. I only had two friends, Dav Byrne and Liam Brewer, who I knew would be into it. The other three participants were Piers and their friends. Outside of this, I wasn’t that well connected in Melbourne’s noise community. I still feel like something of an outsider and I’m not unhappy about that.
Consequently, I wanted to keep the door open to anyone interested in the concept, regardless of their level of experience. This open-door policy remains in place and is an integral part of the MDO.
It followed that I felt it was important to keep everything conceptually straight-forward given the guitarists’ lack of familiarity with one another. Any abstractions in terms of realising our sound would come later and develop naturally, but with that said, I didn’t initially have a long term vision. This was meant to be a once-off.
The three guiding rules have been to stay tuned to D open tuning (DADGAD), avoid playing ‘riffs’ or solos and to only use 6 string guitars. Keeping participation restricted to guitars had the potential to encourage participants to incorporate a degree of ingenuity in how they went about creating drones.
I felt it was necessary to further limit the instrumentation to DADGAD tuning because it would take the participants out of their element and would allow for a degree of harmonic cohesion between the guitars being tuned to perfect fourths and fifths. That works particularly well on account of those intervals naturally occurring as harmonics on strings and within pipes. Beyond that, it would discourage anyone from using the ensemble as a platform for doing guitar solos and riffs that have been heard ad infinitum. It’s too easy to fall into bad habits in standard tuning.
By playing out of your element and doing so amidst a number of players at significant volume, you lose sense of yourself. As the founder and curator, I’ve felt it is my responsibility to avoid implanting too much of myself within the direction of the MDO and have considered the outcome of each performance to be purely collaborative, rather than being a dictatorial expression of any vision I’ve had.
Is the collection of musicians who make up the MDO fixed in the sense of a conventional/professional orchestra? Or is it more of a revolving door of like-minded musicians and serial collaborators akin to the way left field solo artists tend to operate?
Just for this occasion being the 10th anniversary, we are reprising the original iteration of the MDO, save for one individual. Generally speaking, the arrangement of musicians is not fixed and anyone is welcome to participate.
I wouldn’t say it’s a revolving door. More simply, the door is always open for people to enter or leave as they see fit.
I called it an ‘orchestra’ with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek. I had no aim to orchestrate the guitars, initially. That’s something I’ve avoided doing as I’ve wanted the participants to express themselves within whatever tonal register they felt most comfortable with.
In the last couple of performances, we have had graphic scores in which we determined sections where we all contribute high, mid or low frequency tones. But with that said, I haven’t wanted to dictate what anyone does as far as expressing tones within these parameters goes. In dispensing with absolute uniformity, I feel the participants challenge each other to come to the same conclusion but in their own unique way.
I admit that I do have a vision for one concert that will require specific orchestration and guitarists performing parts designated to each tonal section, but this is a long way off. It may never happen; or it may happen when I least expect to be prompted, as was the case with Norla Drone and Yidaki.
MDO is playing a show at the Norla Dome near Melbourne CBD on December 30. This event will present a graphic score where sound and colour combine to create a map or path within the venue. Can you elaborate on this aspect of the performance?
The initial idea was to determine the resonant points of the Norla Dome for each note in the western chromatic scale. In doing that, I felt it would be interesting to use these points to traverse the path of a geometric shape or pattern and I decided on the ‘figure amoris’, also known as the unicursal hexagram. It was important to determine a six sided or pointed figure that had no religious connotations, but was consistent with the theme of there being six guitarists playing six string guitars.
In activating resonant points across a geometric figure, what I would call a “kinetic score” has been devised. You can either follow the points of resonance, visit various points of resonance relative to a particular note (using a tone map that will be provided on the day), or stand still where you are and let the sound travel through you at various intervals. Through using the space as an instrument, the audience can configure the outcome of the composition as they would please.
The colours illuminating the dome at various intervals do little other than to signify the particular tone being played for the benefit and convenience of both the guitarists and audience. It had no influence on the outcome of the composition, in the same way writing a piece of music in treble or bass clef doesn’t affect the music itself.
The combination of lights, colours, sounds, visuals, and an abnormal number of live performers all equate into a large amount of stimuli for the audience. It sounds like a sensory overload (of the best kind). How did the MDO get to a place where this became the focus of the group?
Colour is just a means of communicating the score in this case and so far, lighting has never been at the forefront of what we do. Nor has symbology. We prefer to revolve around the sound.
Instead, we have had a couple of performances which were in virtual darkness, like at The Gasometer or The Eastern Station in Ballarat. Our first performance was underground in the cellar at the Great Britain Hotel.
I felt that colour was an effective universal code for following the tones and it is suitable as this is a monophonic composition in which the tones change at 3 minute intervals.
I would suppose the uptick of this is anyone who is hearing-impaired can feel the vibration and perhaps have a meaningful experience in knowing which tone corresponds to a specific physical feeling of resonance. If you’ve listened to sound in the Dome, you’ll know that at certain points, you feel the same tones very differently. For instance, at the points of weak resonance, I wouldn’t feel any vibration if I stooped and it seemed to be centred solely around my head and shoulders. When I play the same note, but an octave higher, it seemed to resonate through my entire body at that particular point.
The number 6 is a recurring motif for this performance. I look to the use of the ‘figure amoris’/unicursal hexagram, the 6 guitar players, 6 strings on a guitar and possibly others. Is there a particular significance that plays into the number 6 here?
This is a matter of both coincidence and compositional necessity. The initial incarnation of the MDO had six members. The standard electric guitar has six strings; though with that said, I’ve never been against anyone using more strings, as long as they stick to DADGAD tuning.
In trying to determine a geometric figure to base the score upon, I didn’t want this to be arbitrary, so I figured why not stick with the theme and use a shape with six sides or points?
With that said, what other shape could I have randomly chosen? I’d be interested to see what other people can achieve with different patterns using, or better still, improving upon the same concept. We are playing only one tone at a time for three minute intervals, so it would be fascinating to map the geometry of multiple tones being played at once.
Using a basic hexagon wasn’t going to cut it, because that would mean that the resonant path would be confined to the periphery of the Dome. A star of David, or Merkaba, was absolutely out of the question because I do not want any religious connotations to infiltrate this performance or any other aspect of the MDO.
I settled on the unicursal hexagram because of its original use as a mathematical figure by Giordano Bruno derived from the work of Blaise Pascal, the ‘figure amoris’. The thelemic interpretation has absolutely nothing to do with choosing it and has no bearing upon this performance.
Colour plays a distinct part in this performance. How were colours chosen and what significance do they have?
The colours serve a pragmatic purpose. To be honest, I’m cynical about whether the use of colour and symbology within compositions has any tangible impact on the musical quality, beyond providing some inspiration to the composer. Given that I am composing for the MDO which comprises the interests of a number of participants, I need to consider them and remain as objective as possible in determining the nature of the composition. When we developed the graphic score and narrative for the Yidaki performance, that was done as a collective and borne out of the rehearsal.
In keeping with composing objectively, determining the colours applied to each tone couldn’t be an arbitrary process. I used Scriabin’s ‘clavier à lumières’ as a reference, but even his designation of colours to tones is somewhat esoteric.
Going around the circle of fifths, I traversed the spectrum in 30° increments. C begins the circle of fifths and it is designated with the first colour of the spectrum, red. It follows that G is orange, D is yellow and so forth.
The ‘figure amoris’ has 13 points of intersection, with each point named after 12 Olympians in Ancient Greek Mythology. Can you explain this further?
To better express this composition and to make it clear where resonant intersections happen, I had to designate names to each intersectional point. Again, I didn’t necessarily want to do this arbitrarily and it seemed a more imaginative alternative to writing “top-left” or “centre”. The first and only thing that came to mind was the pantheon of 12 Olympian gods. Then you have the 13th point at the centre and that represents Hades, the ruler of the underworld. Around the centre, the are 6 large resonant points, played by 6 guitarists, using 6 strings. Again, with the sixes; it seemed to work elegantly enough that it was worth keeping.
I didn’t want to just designate each point randomly. It seemed appropriate that the apex of the ‘figure amoris’ should be named Zeus, with his lover Demeter and wife Hera beside him. All of the other mythological figures were positioned adjacent or beside each other for reasons related to the mythology. For example, the point designated as Apollo is where the axes connecting his father Zeus and stepmother Hera intersect. Again, this was purely as an attempt to be as objective as possible.
With that said, if there were 9 points of intersection, I could have named them after the planets. Designating each point as an Olympian God is a matter of compositional convenience and I’m careful to avoid conflating my own beliefs and views with the concept of the MDO and its performative outcomes. Instead, I would like the final outcome of any idea I have to be informed by as many of the participants as possible.
Logistically, it must be difficult for so many musicians to come together for an event of this magnitude. How do you all prepare for such a feat? And does the group lean more into rehearsed music or improvisational music?
The rehearsal aspect is more a social matter of understanding what the MDO is about. It’s as important to bring your personality to the room as it is to leave it the door.
As a musician, I’ve never had any experience like it. It’s a strange kind of liminal space I’ve never felt elsewhere.
Despite being purely improvisational, rehearsal is necessary to make sure that the people who participate get it. The guitar can do so much more than just play post-rock riffs or whatever else in unison. I want to feel as though I am part of a sonic mass.
What makes the Norla Dome the ideal venue for this performance?
Anthony Cooley proposed an MDO show and this was the catalyst for the compositional idea of determining points of resonance within the Dome.
A space with this much acoustic potential demanded a special kind of attention. It took 9 hours to find 151 resonant points. I’d like to do a few more tests in future as good science does not stop at a single outcome.
There is using the space, then there’s making use of the space. In this case, I wanted make use of it as an instrument.
‘Big band’ is a term that comes to mind for the MDO. Is this a term that the group hates or embraces?
I never saw this as a big band, nor heard of it called as such. If anything, I wasn’t sure this would happen again after the initial performance at the Great Britain Hotel. We just kept getting invited to play gigs and it was only when enough people wanted to be part of it that I realised I needed to start booking larger spaces, like the Northcote Uniting Church or Memo Hall.
One thing I’ll say is that there is a sense of community. A lot of strong friendships have come out of it. People who previously haven’t had any experience performing or organising shows have gone on to become regular fixtures in the experimental culture of Australia. I hope this continues to happen. I’ve loved all of their work.
It’s been posited by some that chemical/herbal recreation is well-paired with enthralling live sonic experiences. In your opinion, would such a mental state help or hinder the experience of MDO?
I don’t think there’s any harm in it if you know what you’re doing, but I wouldn’t want to base my experience of the MDO solely upon being in that state. I’m all for experiencing it within different modes of consciousness, but I wouldn’t recommend one over the other. We all experience sound differently.
I would just hope that the experience of the MDO would be psychedelic in its own right.
What kind of an experience are you hoping to deliver on December 30?
A positive one.
There’s every chance we will either achieve or fall short of the stated objectives. Ultimately, the desire to fulfil them is superseded by the pleasure of working creatively with the people who make the MDO what it currently is.
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