The drone has meaning changes as a direct result of my mood and the context in which I hear and understand it.
Some wider context before delving into the music, drones have existed and continue to exist in many corners of the world. The systematic use of drones originated in instrumental music of ancient Southwest Asia, and spread north and west to Europe and south to Africa. They seldom resonated on their own but for the most part they were embedded into instrumental arrangements. The drone or “burden tone” (Bourdon) has served as the backbone to many folk music traditions, from Southern Italy to Scandinavia. Most bagpipes have up to three drones, in America, most forms of the African-influenced banjo contain a drone string. Since the 1960s, the drone has become a prominent feature in avant-garde and film music.
In the Middle Ages, Europe and Byzantium sang over a foundation of drones. Back then, larger cities in the Christian world hosted huge entertainment venues called cathedrals that showcased psychedelic light shows backed by endless drones and aesthetic semi-narcotic heady incense fog: cathedrals, where choirs and organ players pushed their audience into ecstasy with what was then the loudest music imaginable, resonating from the walls with lots of heavy overtones bringing heaven to earth with a lot of help from the drone. So even in their purest form, drones connected people with a vibrating universe from early on.
Drones change the original piece of music fundamentally as the melody plays against the drone. They also change so much more in terms of the audience’s actual act of listening and experience of the music. The sound world created by the drone and its interplay with the tune adds a dynamic a constant, a pull towards or away from the home tone. Each note has its own special relation to the drone creating a dyadic cadence ( a two-tone musical interval). The drone is the essence of life itself in its most primitive state the point from which all melody stems from, is related to, understood by and must return to.
Human beings are wired to respond viscerally to the drone it embodies our sense of the infinite and eternity it is a heady and powerful sonic form that is very much a part of our spiritual DNA connecting us to the one, the eternal life force. It embodies the understanding that “God is Sound,” and “Sound is God.” The drone is eternal and takes us to a deeply spiritual place within a few seconds.
The drone sets up a ritual, a play space where magic can happen and this feels strangely comforting to me, like home and yet a sustained tone to evoke disquiet, a sense of lifting the curtain of the everyday. A place where Mystery and magic live. Here be dragons!
The drone harnesses time in an unmarked, uninterrupted spiritual ritual, an audio element within music that transcends borders and stretches back millennia. The drone creates a sacred sonic space it entranses us .
When we play the hurdy-gurdy we create a sound world in which we can dream, drift and explore. The instrument powers up the synapses and feeds the soul. It really is a magical thing. It takes us back to our ancient past; it takes to everywhere and nowhere. When we play the instrument runs deep into our psyche, it’s like free basing history and universal geography. The drone comes from a place of resonance and intuition, something primal that exists within everything and is everywhere.
With the drone you can enter a trance state if you’re luck you’ll be able to leave your body and become the spirit of the music. It can be a full on psychedelically revelatory out of body experience through music. That is what I’m aiming for when I play with Celtarabia.
Often with the drone in the hurdy-gurdy, it’s about playing the silences, especially with melody strings and the trompettes. It’s finding those moments, those punctuations, pauses and silences.
I think of the drone as like ‘the universal one’ of God it’s the home tone. Each note played melodically is one step away from or towards home and this is where the musical tension and meaning resides in the relationships between melody and drone.
The drone exists outside of us and deep within us. It is an oral expression of a universal hum we can only hope to fleetingly channel when we play.
When we play the drone we are also played by it. It changes our psychological state by facilitating a focus on the present by limiting our experience of the constant of change. Putting us in the moment for a continuous period of time.
The drone allows us to take control of time by releasing us from our need to mark time. It takes us away from the mundane in every way and allows us to enter a sacred space dream and just let go. To be in the moment for as long as we choose.
In a way, the drone represents the ultimate folk music a powerful tool of personal liberation. The drone unites us as a feeling of togetherness by dint of communal or and shared wonder and allows us the freedom from the tyranny of time and the now normalised imperatives of human achievement and digital social validation.
The drone is the sound of a free universe in which anything is possible.
This is a short except from my forthcoming book ‘The Secret Life of the hurdy-gurdy’ Field notes on playing the hurdy-gurdy from the world’s most respected players.
Throughout this autumn I have been working on the Disconnect-Reconnect Show developing ideas and researching approaches to the project. From Nov 1st to 7th I was on a residency at Cecil Sharp House on a residency to develop my ideas further.
1. What did you use the bursary funding for?
I used the bursary funding to develop, refine, research and explore ideas for my new solo show Disconnect/Reconnect. I’ve been researching and developing a cross genre show in which story-telling, theatre and music are combined with new writing, digital media to create a unique folk gig that weaves immersive storytelling with live music inspired by music from the pan European and England’s traditional music repertoires using contemporary approaches to create a show that has broad popular appeal. In financial terms I used the bursary to pay my expenses and wages whilst I worked on developing the Disconnect/Reconnect project at home and at Cecil Sharp House in London. I’ve invested some of the money on joining the Monday Singers at EFDSS to develop my singing.
2. Would you have been able to do this work if you did not have the bursary?
There is no way I would have been able to dedicate the concentrated effort, thought and experimentation on this project if the bursary had not been awarded.
As a full-time musician and artist my income is really quite low compared to the average wage so opportunities to travel and spend time in London researching ideas, new musical and performance concepts are relatively rare as the cost of accommodation, travel to from and around London are prohibitive.
Being on residency gave me a strong credible platform to conduct crowd-based research via social media. The ability to ask pertinent and impertinent questions yielded some great new ideas whilst confirming and challenging some deeply held personal beliefs.
The residency enabled me to broker relationships with potential participants for the project both in the UK, Europe and America.
Being able to discuss the ideas in the project with Nick and Malcolm in the library and their miraculous ability to pull out fascinating resources that moved my thinking along was a joy.
I think one of the reasons I wanted to come to London was to meet and have conversations with staff at Cecil Sharp House to develop the ideas in the show. However remote working due to the coronavirus made this impossible. It would have been inspiring to have heard some stories about previous residencies and work developed as a result of them.
I used some of the money to pay for the EFDSS Monday Singers sessions with Emily Portman. This has been great fun and a tremendous learning experience, challenging me consistently to develop my skills as a singer and develop and learn new repertory. Work I will continue to focus on over the next year as the show develops.
One of the intangible but valuable benefits of the residency is that I feel much more confident about the project and my own abilities as an artist and validated by the Alan James Creative Bursary Award as a musician. I know previous awardees have gone on to create wonderful things based on their research and I hope Disconnect-Reconnect will have a similar impact.
3. What future plans do you have to use and/or develop the work created?
I’ll be developing the work into a show and album that I hope to tour in autumn 2022
I’ll be working with my musical collaborators closely to develop and refine their musical contributions to the show.
I’ll be writing more new tunes that respond to and develop the tunes shared with me.
I’ll be looking for additional funding to produce, rehearse and tour the show using Arts Council Project Funding Awards.
Using the insights, I gained on residency I will be developing the show further and challenging myself in new ways as a performer. By developing singing skills, mouth music skills and foot percussion skills.
I’ll be actively seeking out and developing my skills as a story-teller and raconteur. I’m hoping to spend some time with Taffy Thomas.
4. Any other things you would like to say or like us to know?
The show I’ve been working on whilst I’ve been here at Cecil sharp house is a solo show called ‘Disconnect-Reconnect’. It’s about how music allows us to cross borders without inhibition and connect people even when we’re really isolated. Underlying that it’s about creating and listening to music as a shared social experience.
The show involves storytelling digital media and of course tunes on the hurdy gurdy. It’s designed to be a lot of fun with plenty of laughs and heart. There will be guest appearance by a number of musicians via video so that I can take all my friends on tour with me and navigate and share my musical world in an augmented concert experience using projections.
One thing that’s been particularly interesting while I’ve been here on residency, and caused me a lot of fascination is the archive resources and the library, which are just tremendous. I’d like to say a big thank you to Nick and Malcolm for finding and searching out some really great materials. Of particular interest are the photos from the pre-war international folk dance and song festival held in 1935 a few years before the start of the second world war which give us an extraordinary glimpse into another world whilst provoking deeper questions around national Identity and state.
The images from the 1935 Festival are a delight and I’m sure I will find a way of incorporating them into the final show.
Special thanks to Nick for introducing me to some new ways of thinking and understandings in this area.
I’ve also been using my time during the residency to engage in discussions with other musicians and artists around the country and indeed across Europe to find out what their feelings are on things like Brexit, the impact of COVID and the social nature and intangible benefits of playing music together and for audiences that go beyond the simple metric of ticket sales. I’ve been looking at like the spiritual emotional, and social dimension of making music together. So that’s been really interesting.
Here are some of the questions I asked on social media: 1.
It’s day one of my Alan James Creative Artist residency at Cecil Sharp House and I’m starting with a question to musicians in the UK. In one word (or more) describe your feelings about Brexit.
It’s day two of my Alan James Creative Artist residency at Cecil Sharp House and I have another question to musicians in the UK.
‘Brexit has proved to be hugely divisive. What can we as musicians do to build bridges with Europe and re-establish cohesion within our own society?’
It’s day three of my Alan James Creative Artist residency at Cecil Sharp House and I have another question to musicians in the UK.
‘The impact of the Covid pandemic and Brexit has been tremendously isolating for us all, what stories do you have of overcoming isolation and creating connection with other musicians and audiences during these challenging times?’
It’s day four of my Alan James Creative Artist residency at Cecil Sharp House and I have another question to musicians in the UK.
‘What does the new normal look and sound like for you as a musician? What has changed, what has stayed the same, what is better, what is worse?’
It’s day five of my Alan James Creative Artist residency at Cecil Sharp House and I have another question to musicians in the UK.
‘Playing together has a spiritual, social and emotional value beyond the economic drivers of ticket and album sales. How do you use music connect to others and what are the ‘intangible’ benefits you find in the act of making and sharing music?’
Participants took part in the discussions in quite large numbers and the answers given were thoughtful, funny and had heart-warming qualities I’d like to bring to the show. The answers to question five were particular insightful moving beyond anger to hope a central theme of the Disconnect-Reconnect show.
Here are some of them:
Music played with others, is a form of Esperanto; a second language, whereby you might communicate with others, where you may not have a common tongue. Chris Tandy
It’s non-verbal communication. That’s a pretty amazing thing. I can’t put a specific value on it, but I know my live would be very dull without it. Jane Bird
I met a very high proportion of my friends through music, some of which I’ve never physically met, but music provides a real connection between us. Making music with others ranks as one of the greatest pleasures in my life, it’s been like that since I started making music 58 years ago.
Plus, another of life’s greatest pleasures is seeing the emotions that you can bring out in the audience – happy, sad, remembering. Music has the power to make connections in so many ways.
For example, years ago I was busking in York City Centre. I was playing Whistling Rufus on my melodeon, when an elderly lady stopped, listened, and started crying. When I finished the tune, she came over, grasped my hands, and thanked me. It had been her late husband’s favorite tune. Remembering that musical moment still moves me Kevin Holland
I am just heading out for a week-long Pagan retreat where we will connect with each other through instrumental music, chant, song, mantras, drumming etc. I could go on for pages and pages as music is integral to our Ritual and social interaction and is and social interaction and is also woven through our everyday interactions. It encompasses both solitary and group spiritual practices. And is used in many other ways that I am not sure I should share here. Blessings. David Manley
The above, yes, especially Chris Tandy’s comment at the top. Playing for people to dance, whether or not we have many words in common, can be a deep, almost spiritual experience. Playing in public when a tiny toddler starts dancing along, and watchers share the joy is pretty good, too. Richard York
Where playing with others becomes a communication of harmony, counter melody it’s an amazing level of communication. To know where they might go with the impro. It forms a relationship. Watching dancers physically respond to that key or tempo change is pretty amazing too. Janet Worrell
Worked abroad for four years and could settle, make friends and absorb local culture because I found local musicians playing local music, who shared music with me. Also met other folk musicians who were travelling and shared music. Wouldn’t have been happy without music then – might not have been able to cope. Jo Drew
Part of my work has involved liaising, gathering in and playing along to the videos from my fellow musicians and projecting them and then working out and researching the logistics for how to back project and projection map elements of the show. As this will make for a much more interesting live experience for the audience.
One of the unexpected consequences of the residency is that something of the spirit of Cecil Sharp house has influenced my thinking and allowed me to take my ideas forward and provide really stimulating areas for further research. Being able to embark on one line of inquiry in the library, and then come across something else that’s really quite fascinating and takes you off on another tangent has been excellent.
So, it is the library I have to thank for developing my interest and being able to satisfy my curiosity about Puirt-a-Beul music, and mouth music making in England for dancing. Listening to the wax cylinder and field recordings at the listening post in the library was a direct window onto another world and something I will treasure for a very long time.
There is an element of my research that is definitely going into the show, which is the seated step dancing whilst doing mouth music whilst playing the rhythm with your feet. Having read the description in one of the journals about this it’s just I have to do this this is really good useful inspiring knowledge.
One of the joys of being at Cecil sharp house on residency has been have access to these wonderful rehearsal rooms, and to just be able to sit in them and play and to think and to reflect and to develop ideas, having the space and the time set aside to just do this one thing without the distractions of normal life has been lovely. One of the unexpected outcomes of this is that I’ve written a couple of tunes for the project. I really wouldn’t have gotten around to doing had it not being a residency so that half hour 45 minutes in the morning, just practising warming up and playing around with ideas, has had some really lovely outcomes.
As an artist, it’s a rare privilege to be given the opportunity to have a residency to develop new creative ideas and I’d like to say a really big thank you to Cecil Sharp House the EFDSS and to the Alan James Creative Bursary fund for allowing me the opportunity to explore and develop new ideas and create new work. It’s been fantastic.
Sitting and writing the evaluation and having a chance to reflect on the residency has been a particularly useful exercise as it has allowed me to draw together many of the learnings, reflections and most importantly the key next steps for the project.
DHM RECORD LABEL RADIO PRESS RELEASE For immediate release
Agent Starling release European Howl
Agent Starling’s debut album, European Howl releases on all the usual digital outlets on May 4th, 2021. The ten-track album is full of catchy hurdy-gurdy tunes, new songs, hypnotic drones, live bass grooves & strings, all with an experimental edge.
Agent Starling are Quentin Budworth hurdy-gurdy and Lou Loudhailer voices & other instruments. Recorded in the first three months of 2021, European Howl also features Dexter Duffy-Howard on violin and cello. Recorded in Yorkshire UK by Agent Starling, the album was mastered in Oregon by Kevin Carafa.
The album is influenced by musical traditions from nations across Europe. A mix of instrumental pieces, spoken word and songs, themes range from a miscellany of Greek Tales (Wine Dark Sea), an elegy by a dying lover (Requiem) to Helicopter Arms, inspired by the glorious gurdy tune at the heart of the song. Delores County Ride is a tribute to the women who hop trains in Arno Bitschy’s film This Train I Ride, and the album’s title track is an ode to being European, a call for connection in today’s isolationist climate.
Quentin and Lou both have strong musical provenance. Lou was originally in prophetic UK Indie band Red Guitars and has gigged and recorded ever since, heading up psychedelic rock band Loudhailer Electric Company. Originally part of Suns of Arqa, Quentin is the force behind world fusion medieval rave band Celtarabia, also featuring Lou on bass. He spent the year before lockdown touring Europe meeting with other top hurdy-gurdy players exchanging tunes, techniques and experiences. The band usually play the alternative festival circuit throughout the summer, but due to lockdown restrictions on live music, Lou and Quentin joined forces to create Agent Starling and record European Howl.
European Howl releases on all the usual digital outlets on May 4th, 2021 on the DHM record label, catalogue number DHM028, distributed by Label Worx.