Book Review: Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World

    This book review started with an email with questions about the pandemic and the end of the world. No, really.
    I should begin by mentioning something that some of you may already know but that I don’t talk about a great deal here: I host a radio program of electronic and experimental and contemporary music on a local Community Radio station and have done so for several decades. Since it’s community radio, there’s no playlist – I share what interests me with an audience who support the station directly (it’s a different model than Public Radio, and operates on a smaller scale, which means I have a great degree of freedom).
    I recently received an email from a listener who mentioned something I’d never thought much about. They started by thanking me for doing the show, told me a little bit about how they were doing during lockdown, and then asked me about why “so many of the groups and albums and song titles had to do with darkness or the end of things.” It took me by surprise. Was that really true? My first thought was that perhaps - since so much of what I program was largely instrumental, my listener was thinking that I broadcast two (glorious) hours of lonesome every Sunday night - "music with no people in it," more or less. But I popped open the playlists page for my show going back for some time and rummaged around, there was a bunch of end-of-something-end-of-everything stuff there. Groups. Albums, Track names. Since the work I programmed was a collection of my choices, was it my choices rather than a sign of the times? Uh oh. Disclaimer: I am not a depressed or mopey person. Ask anyone. As I read and listened, I realized that my correspondent was reacting to a specific kind of music that I broadcast with some regularity: work that falls somewhere between very minimal ambient and drone work, which often did express itself in those terms. In a flash, I knew just what to do: It was time to re-read Joanna Demers' Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World. Once I'd finished, I also knew it was time to recommend it to you - my friends out there weathering these times. And here we are.
    Drone and Apocalypse certainly isn't a self-help book, although what kind of book it precisely is is a bit difficult to describe. Let's try it this way: It's a book about drone music that references music many of you will know and love (William Basinski, Thomas Köner, Celer, Eliane Radigue, Tim Hecker) that goes about its business in a most unusual way. The questions at the heart of the book are simply stated, I think: What might the philosophical foundations of drone music be? How does a kind of music which is often dismissed as being "devoid of content" - either by being boring or pretty in a way that serves little purpose find an audience and function in the present age? What laid the groundwork for its existence and our enjoyment of it? And does that work say something to us as we live in the shadow of various forms of apocalypse?
    I'd have to say that this is quite likely one of the odder books I've recommended to you - in terms of both its form and its content, it is certainly a good deal closer to Tom Phillips' Humument than it is to The Computer Music Tutorial (or even Joanna's own earlier book on the aesthetics of electronic music Listening Through the Noise, which I highly recommend for its breadth and analysis). So I'm going to try to describe this odd beast of a book, in the hope that you'll either be interested in checking it out, or have a... different response. Fair enough?
    Although this isn't a work of fictional, it starts with a fictional artifice (I dislike the word "artifice" - since it is often used to refer to clever deceptions - but I don't have better one). The essays are presented as an imaginary exhibition catalog curated sometime in the 22nd century dedicated to the work of a largely unknown 21st century artist of sorts (you'll probably smile reading the curator's biography of the fictional artist Cynthia Wey, an MFA grad working payroll as an administrative assistant at a state university - one foot on the academic platform, and the other foot on the train). The catalog includes her essays along with propositions for various artworks that were never realized. The structure that Joanna Demers sets up lets her manage a neat sidestep from the conventions and affordances of "academic" or "scholarly" writing. The equally fictional "curators" of the catalog attempt to contextualize her work in its time, and then step back to let Cynthia Wey speak. Using Cynthia Wey's voice/character, the essays in this book are more a personal record of listing to and being moved by the music you're supposed to be writing about from a scholarly distance (I think that the act of choosing works of art one loves and writing about that as a main subject is something that also made Miller Puckette and Kerry Hagan's anthology Between the Tracks or John Eliot Gardiner's Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven a better than average scholarly read, so I guess I'll have to admit some bias). In the course of writing about what she loves, Wey/Demers also makes a wide number of pretty dazzling connections of what she sees as the ideas behind the work to the work of thinkers and writers from Aristotle to Medieval iconography to... well, it's quite a ride. My only bumps in the road involved the decision to not leave Cynthia Wey's proposed works viewed as visionary by future scholars and curators as imaginary. While Sean Griffin's photocollages and Inouk Demers's audio works are just fine, adding this particular "real world content" had the effect of breaking the book's fourth wall and also passed up a chance for the reader to imagine alongside Wey/Demers.*
    The story takes place largely in the future, allowing Demers to pose questions about how contemporary art will fare after the 21st Century that go beyond the theoretical concerns of scholarship to consider catastrophe in its personal, cultural, and social forms, and to do so from an imaginary future whose existence suggests that "we will get beyond this." Departing from her writings as a musicologist (which I have considerable respect for) gives this book a particularly personal and emotional resonance that I think would be very difficult to achieve by other means - the line from Wordsworth's poem about the sources of inspiration The Tables Turned comes to mind here when describing the limits of drier scholarly writing:
    Our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— We murder to dissect.
    I tend to value any book about music that does one of three things – or all of them:
    • Reading the book sends me to its subject matter – either for the first time, or once again – to listen and reflect.
    • Reading the book sends me in search of the authors/articles the author mentions or praises
    • Reading the book leaves a memory trace in me that makes me return to it again
    This book has done that for me. If this humble disquisition has piqued your interest, I would direct you to the "Look inside" feature for the Amazon listing for the book. It'll give you a little bit of Joanna Demers' explanatory preference that will help you get a sense of why the author made the choices she made, and that can be your starting point to choose whether or not to engage more deeply with Drone and Apocalypse. I hope I've done her justice, and I hope I'll see some of you "on the other side" of that engagement. * If you enjoy the idea of imaginary audio works above and beyond the imaginary Beatles album here and there, I would heartily suggest spending a little time with the annual listing of imaginary recordings from the legendary community station WFMU's own Webhamster Henry. Taken together, they're an amazing work of the imagination all their own, veering between laugh-out-loud funny and interesting enough that maybe someone ought to take a run at this one.... Please prepare for a trip down 20 years worth of rabbit-holes, and... you're welcome: