I Spent 12 Hours at a Drone Festival and It Made the World Seem Like a Better Place

Basilica Hudson’s annual fest celebrating harsh abstractions proved the proper place to overcome some of my skepticism and neuroses.
April 27, 2016, 10:35pm
Layla Fassa

All photos by Layla Fassa

The very conceit of durational art performances always seem a little suspect to me. Bad memories of Andrew W.K. noodling on a drum set for a full day or Jay Z and Marina Abramovic hamming it up at Pace Gallery for six hours are painful reminders that just because something goes longer, harder, or faster doesn't necessarily mean it will be braver, more artistically complex, or, well, better.

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So when I heard that Basilica Hudson, the performance art space run by musician Melissa Auf der Maur and the filmmaker Tony Stone, would be throwing the second edition of "24-Hour Drone: Experiments in Sound and Music"—a marathon festival where participants are invited to spend an entire day listening to drone music with few distractions—my first instinct was to be slightly wary.

But then I wondered if this could be a weekend of opening up. I wanted to see if I could do as the program said: "Explore. Experiment. Exchange." Which is why I decided to travel several hours from Manhattan to Hudson Valley in upstate New York on March 23—to see if I could shed my neuroses to achieve a meditative and peaceful state (even in public). When I told my mother what I was planning to do, she emailed me back to say that the US military uses noise music for torture, signing off with a wry "have fun!"

The massive factory that houses Basilica Hudson was erected in 19th century. It was originally a foundry that churned out railroad wheels, and then a glue factory, and now it's an arts and performance venue run by Auf der Maur and Stone. This year's festival promised to run the gamut from sound art, noise, vocal manipulations, and ambient music, with avant luminaries like Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Efrim Menuck, Noveller, and Egyptrixx's Ceramic TL project scattered among a diverse range of experimental, liturgical, and very noisy artists.

The crowd at Basilica Hudson

A lot of the festival's allure came from buying into the transportive possibility of drone music to achieve ecstatic transcendence. The 24 hours were broken up into four sections, each with an occult connotation: Invocation, Dedication, Purge, and Prayer. The program even described Basilica as an "Industrial Temple of Sound." Drone as a formal idea in Western music was ushered in by the minimalists, but its roots are ancient and religious. From Japanese gagaku music to Byzantine chants, drone has always been about becoming one with a sustained tone or cluster of noises, and reaching a trance-like state. This was the kind of effect that the festival was promising festival goers. It's also why La Monte Young, one of the genre's great-grandfathers, once said, "if listeners aren't carried away to heaven, I'm failing."

I pulled up to the parking lot on Saturday right as the sun was hitting the cathedral-like factory with a perfect mid-afternoon 3 pm light. A gentle and buoyant whirl of vibrations was getting stronger and stronger as I approached the corrugated metal walls, drawing me in. I had to find out what was happening inside.

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Once I got past the check-in desk, I found myself in a enormous concrete room with vaulted ceilings and glass windows. I realized that everyone in the audience came ready to stay for the long haul— and that I was very ill-prepared. Some people set up impromptu beds with couch cushions. Others brought a small fleet of blankets and pillows. Many brought lawn chairs, ready to make this cavernous room their very dissonant porch. When I made my way to the bar to grab a cup of coffee, I noticed that the festival was even selling a "Drone Survival Kit" which included a sleeping pad, blanket, water bottle, and free beer. In comparison, the only provisions I had were a sleeping bag, foam mat, ear plugs—and a large bag of Cheetos.

A warning from the drone gods

I noticed a sign over the cash register: "Don't be a drone. Be with the drone and put away your phone." It brought up a persistent worry that would bother me throughout the day. I wasn't exactly sure I could be unselfconscious enough to turn of my brain and melt into the room and into the performances. Let alone turn off my phone.

Gambletron in action

Sipping my coffee, I plunked down on a couch in the back corner of the room for the first performance of the day, by Gambletron (AKA Lisa Gramble), a queer sound artist from Montreal. As she played a mammoth pedal board and singing saw while breathing into a contact mic, I found myself tapping my foot to melodies generating out of the thick cloud of buzzing radios. Blown away by the texture of Gramble's noises, I even ignored the no-cellphone sign and tried to Shazam the song she was playing. Unsurprisingly, my phone was dumbfounded. I told myself this was a sign: one of my most relied upon comforts in concerts (the digital "track ID?") just didn't matter here. I needed to let go. So I left my phone to grow cold in my back pocket

After Gramble's performance, I decided to check out what the fest called its "hypno booth"—an amorphous blue tarp fashioned into a tent-like structure. Ducking inside, I was handed a blindfold and seat cushion. Once the tent filled up, a staffer hit play on a recording where a narrator gave certain commands, asking you to imagine yourself in the desert or wading in water. Then, the voice asked you to focus on the sounds around you—in this case, the erratic pulses of static coming from Gambletron's set—and figure out what you appreciated about them.

Head down in the hypnobooth

I quickly got bored, unconvinced that just closing my eyes and "focusing" would engender some unknowable reverie. Every time my phone buzzed in my pocket I snuck a look. Glancing around the room, I noticed that the participants getting the most out of this meditation exercise were mostly under the age of ten. Maybe it was because, unlike me, these children (who, along with their families, made up a sizable percentage of the audience) didn't take everything so seriously. When I crawled out of the tent, my mood had soured a bit. My distractions just seemed to be piling up. When would I even get time to write this later? Should I eat dinner here or in Hudson? Was the Beyonce album actually going to come tonight? (Spoiler alert: it did, right when I was waking up from my first nap of the day.)

I couldn't let that one hiccup psych me out, so I decided to immerse myself in the second act of the day, hARBOUR, a Hudson-based trio of musicians that included the fantastically talented painter-poet Jack Walls on clarinet and vocals, Damien Cleary on guitar, and Jonas Bers on electronics and miscellaneous homemade instruments. The entire factory shook as they played, and when I stumbled outside for a second to get my bearings, I almost passed out from the ensuing bout of vertigo. When I regained my hearing, it was like I had entered a new realm. My five senses had morphed in the last hour, and it was shocking to be hit by the stillness of the outside and the breeze of wind.

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I stumbled into the the Basilica bathroom where I could hear a playlist of animal sounds and low hums reverberating through the minimalist industrial space. I'd never felt safer sitting on a toilet at a festival. My appreciation for these tiny sounds was so great that, afraid to disrupt the peace of the room with the blast of a hand dryer, I dried my hands on my pants instead. We were only a few hours into the event, and I was feeling the start of a sea change.

Arone Dyer's Drone Choir and an inanimate friend

Arone Dyer's (of Buke and Gass) Drone Choir had just started when I returned to the festival's main space. Apparently I had missed the distribution of blindfolds. About a quarter of the audience voluntarily blinded themselves as the choir sang towards it's also blindfolded mannequin idol. Their harmonizations and chants filled the space. Children stopped playing. People stopped chatting. Everyone was self-consciously serious. It was the most forceful attempt to provoke the magic of drone, and I wasn't sure it worked. It felt contrived to blind yourself in order to enjoy the full breadth of a noise—the sonic equivalent to gimmicky "dining in the dark" restaurants, perhaps. I was reminded of everything I disliked about the "hypno-booth," faux spirituality, and canned mindfulness.I set up my sleeping arrangements as the sun was slowly descending. Light flooded the center stage as Christopher Tignor began his set of impressionistic drum playing and whizzing violin experimentations.

I reached towards my notebook to scribble an observation, but stopped mid sentence. The full-on experiential nature of drone dissolves descriptors, making it nearly impossible to capture in words. The abstract rumblings coming from the center of the room rocked me to sleep. The last thing I saw was the sun at its lowest point bathing everyone in a golden hue.

When I woke up, the Innov Gnawa, a traditional Moroccan gnawa music band based in Brooklyn, were midway through the only danceable set of the night—during which they grabbed members from the audience and started an impromptu dance circle. I did the previously unthinkable: I clapped along, got up from my sleeping bag, and joined the circle. Parking attendants I saw earlier in the day just getting off their shift excitedly joined in. People didn't care one bit how goofy they looked as they lost their shit. It was liberating to be a part of it all.

The author and his Cheetos, ruminating together on the weekend's lessons

I decided to take a nap again around 10 pm. When I woke up it was close to 3 am. My camera battery was dead. My glasses were missing. I crawled around my blanket and found them close to someone's foot. When everything came into view, I realized almost everyone else was sleeping and the harshest set of the night was underway. I couldn't really identify who was playing, but I felt like I was living in a telephone that was connected to dial-up internet. The sounds were crunchy, distended, and erratic. I realized I just had the strangest and most beatific night of sleep I can remember ever having.

I laid my head on the juddering plexiglass window of the train home. Eventually, sunbeams started refracting from the brackish waters of the Hudson River. As the train hurtled along the edge of the river, its wheels hiccuping along the tracks, and the assured hum of the engine sighing in the background, I was reminded of the perpetually vibrating concrete floors and viscous sounds that I bathed in for the last 12 hours. Eyes fluttering shut, I did my best to internalize the secret lessons that such an experience can impart—that if you just focus on a single sound, savor it, and let it pass through you, the world can slow down.