A museum gallery is an apt place for some drone music. As I’ve mentioned before, Chicago has a pretty active scene for drone music, which is a catch-all term for music with sustained notes or chords. The Chicago duo White/Light has an installation all this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art: a dark room filled with cabinet speakers and a couple of old tape machines. The tapes spin around, creating humming sounds that come out through the various speakers. If you spend a little time in the room, listening closely, you’ll notice different noises coming out of the various amps.
It’s a great spot for a little meditation. You’ll think that you’ve seen and heard everything there is to experience in this room after about 90 seconds, but linger for a while and let the sound wash over you.
That’s also the best attitude to take when experiencing a live performance of drone music. At various times during the month, White/Light’s Matt Clark and Jeremy Lemos and guest musicians have been performing in this space, improvising off the room’s droning vibe. The most famous of the guest musicians, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, played with the duo Saturday afternoon (March 20). Shelley’s thumping mallets added throbbing rhythms to the abstract guitar and keyboard sounds, giving the music a bit of the same feeling as Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” The music built from a quiet intro into loud thump — loud enough that I saw one parent exiting the room with a young boy who was grimacing with his hands over his year. Ear plugs, folks — wear ear plugs!
Upcoming performances: March 23, 7 p.m.: Lucky Dragons. March 27, 3 p.m.: Félicia Atkinson: Saturday. March 28, 3 p.m.: White/Light.
Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley was in Chicago last night (Dec. 16), sitting in with three great local performers for an improvised set of instrumental music. Guitarists David Daniell and Douglas McCombs have been doing similar sets for a couple of years now, and they recently released a cool collection of their work called Sycamore on the Thrill Jockey label. They’ve played with various drummers, and each percussionist adds a different sense of rhythm and texture to their layers of guitar. For this show, in addition to Shelley, they were joined by Jeremy Lemos of the Chicago drone group White/Light.
Lemos played electronic stuff for part of the show, and then he unplugged one of his equipment cords and pushed the live end of the plug against his amp, creating small crescendos of feedbacks. In an interesting way, it was almost as if Lemos was providing the sort of distorted noise you’d normally expect to hear from the electric guitars, while the two guitarists were making more subtle shades of sound.
The set began very quietly, with Daniell and McCombs making tick-tock clicking sounds and tiny notes with their guitars. Some people in the bar did not seem to realize the performance had begun, chatting over this understated music, but the club quickly fell quiet as audience members concentrated on the music. For the first 10 minutes or so, Shelley was also listening intently. He sat at his drum kit without making any beats at all for a while, and then he cautiously felt his way into the music. At one point, the music took an unexpected country-folk lope, reminding me a bit of something Souled American might do, but channeled through the more ambient music of Daniell and McCombs. Later, the ensemble slid into more of a rock-music groove, giving Shelley a chance to stretch out on the drums. After cascading and falling a couple of times, the uninterrupted performance faded down. One by one, the musicians stopped playing until it was just Lemos, making some low squelches with his table of electronic gear.
Daniell tells me the four musicians did not get a chance to rehearse together before sitting down at Wednesday’s concert, which makes the performance all the more impressive.
Photos of David Daniell, Jeremy Lemos, Douglas McCombs and Steve Shelley.