It's a blazingly hot late-May afternoon in downtown Toronto when an orange-bellied helicopter cuts through the cloudless sky above the courtyard outside St. George the Martyr Church. Whether the pilot knew it or not, they were contributing to the early moments of a sprawling, communal drone event organized by nonprofit arts centre the Music Gallery. As the copter's propellers whirred overhead, in the shade cast by the old church's bell tower below, musicians of all ages hummed together, hunched over modular synthesizers, MIDI controllers, effects pedals, gongs, and more.
This moment of serendipity is partly what prompted Marie LeBlanc Flanagan, co-founder of music distributor and site Weird Canada, to build a national holiday around the genre in 2014. Marked by its expansiveness, drone is exceptionally inclusive.
"Most collaborative music has immense barriers to entry, there's a massive overhead of knowledge and history that you need to understand to feel comfortable joining the average jazz quartet, bluegrass circle, or rock session. Drone is different," she tells THUMP. "Drone, with its long, stretching tones, pulls together people, allows for collaboration, allows for togetherness in a very non-invasive way."
Celebrating with events in all provinces and territories, and this year in countries including Bulgaria, Germany, Latvia, and the UK, National Drone Day's mandate is to serve as an anti-capitalist "reclamation of the idea of a holiday, of a community celebration with no purpose beyond a shared interest in drone music, a community, and a marked moment in time."
That's what brought this ragtag tribute to sustain, tone clusters, and tension to the gardens outside the Toronto venue on a Saturday afternoon, with all proceeds from the PWYC event donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Riding under the event title "Drone Therapy," there were no headliners, and performances happened simultaneously on a casual, drop-in basis.
From the front of the courtyard, local author and Little Brother Magazine fiction editor Jess Taylor led the crowd through discussions on a variety of topics, ranging from the difficulty those in the arts have accessing therapy to mental health benefits of music. Audience members were encouraged to tell stories, literature was passed around connecting attendees to crisis lines and cheap and/or free therapy options, and playfully-named snacks (dinosaur-shaped "Dronosour" gummies, "Reverberice Cakes," etc.) were consumed.
On a conceptual level, pairing drone music with therapy makes a lot of sense. Psychoacoustics experts have written plenty on the subject, and LeBlanc Flanagan describes the experience of listening to drone as a "transportive" one. "When I am listening to drone, I can close my eyes and let the sound totally overtake me. I can burrow deep into my broken parts and strip my pain to the raw bits and reassemble, stitch myself back together," she says. "Most good therapy is ultimately about being still with yourself, and drone is one path to that."
Frustrated by her own and others' experiences receiving affordable professional therapy across Canada ("waiting lists for waiting lists"), writer and multi-disciplinary artist Kristel Jax organized the Music Gallery event after attending Toronto Drone Day events in 2015. While she's reticent to suggest listening to music has any direct therapeutic effects, documenting her experiences with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at CAMH through a series of vlogs soundtracked by drone music, gave her a sense of purpose and helped her find a community of support.
"A huge motivator behind making the videos was that people were saying it was helping them," she says. Empowering others through unpacking what she felt in her sessions gave her a reason to fully immerse herself in the CBT process, even when she was discouraged by it. "I wish when I was struggling, I had seen someone talking about the things I was going through to kind of normalize it, because I had no idea what was going on at first. I didn't know what a panic attack even was."
As for LeBlanc Flanagan, while she acknowledges drone will never replace professional help or pharmaceuticals, she hopes grassroots gatherings like these will let people know "they aren't alone, that they are human alongside a lot of other humans."
"What is being human anyway, but vibrating at your own frequency and struggling to find your place among all the other vibrations? I hope people leave [Drone Therapy] with beautiful drone sounds humming in their ears. I hope people find resources, community, and the courage to self-advocate and struggle through another difficult day. Because life is really hard and it's nice to take a day back for ourselves."
Tom Beedham is on Twitter.