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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

A Drone Nightmare

Apparently the wrong way to go back to sleep

I don’t usually write down my dreams in any great detail, but this one was something. If I have trouble sleeping in the middle of the night, I might put on a pair of headphones and listen to a recording to block out the world, and to make my immediate world more insular. I don’t generally experience a lot of trouble sleeping, and so it’s something I’m not particularly adjusted to. People I speak with for whom insomnia is a fact of nightly life have accumulated mechanisms by which they cope, and they’re often eager to share. There’s a whole industry of tools, including audio of people gently speaking you to sleep — somnacasts, as it were. There are also enough apps for white noise and environmental sound to fill your playlist until the heat death of the universe. One friend of mine listens, he tells me, to histories of ancient Rome at a low volume. He swears by it.

A couple nights ago, when sleep suddenly failed me, I tried to listen to some music, specifically a favorite recording that seemed suited for the task, the album Trilogie de la Mort by Eliane Radigue. It’s drone music in the nearly purest sense: thick bands of the sonic equivalent of wool, and one of my favorite ambient albums of all time. To the extent that Radigue’s recording here has a melodic component, it’s your mind’s ear picking out patterns amid what is more likely moiré interference than notated song. The good news is listening to Radigue’s music worked. I did fall asleep. The less good news is the nightmare that ensued.

I’m in a large room, a story and a half in height, packed with people. Tall windows, covered with thin scrims, make up two of the room’s four walls. It’s bright in here, the midday sun softened but by no means weakened by the cream-colored curtains. There’s an event going on, some sort of cultural happening, maybe a concert, or a talk, or an exhibit, or a combination thereof. The specifics are uncertain. (This is a dream.) I’m not sure if I’m participating or just taking it in. The key thing is that I’m wearing a large pair of headphones, bulky black things with hard angles, like castoffs from a Sony production line for the military (I had been reading the latest Lazarus graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark just before bed). As the event unfolds, I notice a deep hum. At first I think it’s the event itself, but that’s not the case. Several people have to stare at me at once for me to realize I am the source of the hum. I edge my way to a wall, pat myself down, and go through my backpack. In classic “last place you look” manner, I realize my headphones are emitting the noise. (You probably saw this coming. You weren’t in the dream.)

Now, for whatever it’s worth, my headphones aren’t on (whatever that means in the dream). They’re not plugged into anything, and to whatever degree they require a battery to function, they are powered down. I hold them in my hands and rotate them, eventually realizing that the people around me are annoyed. I am, too; unlike everyone else, I am also experiencing embarrassment. The drone has gotten louder and more troubling. I step outside the gallery. The light is exceedingly bright. I fiddle with the hard-edged blackness that is my pair of headphones. I no longer hear the droning, and write off the whole incident as a matter of interference, some unfortunate tension between technologies, between what I had on me and what was going on inside the event.

I’m in a house. Clearly I’ve made my way here from the event, but I have no memory of how I traveled. (In the dream this lack of awareness is of no concern. I’ve moved from one scene to the next. It’s a dream, which is to say it functions like a movie.) The house is a suburban residence, and a party is going on. I see some friends, and some people I don’t know. It’s fairly quiet. I feel like the height of the party is over by at least an hour, and the stragglers are enjoying each others’ company. The sun is still high in the sky. And then I hear the drone, quieter but no less insistent.

I sit in the living room and slowly take apart my headphones, at first mechanically, unplugging this and detaching that, but the effort isn’t sufficient to the task. The drone persists. I don’t experience the glances of annoyance from people here like I had at the event, but I feel like I need to sort this out. I need to solve this problem. If the droning hum had gotten to me earlier, now the mysterious cause of the sound is what really bothers me.

I go into the kitchen to borrow some scissors and start cutting the remaining cables off the headphone. I grab a used plastic bag from the counter bearing the red logo of a local supermarket. Eventually the droning stops, and though my headphones have been reduced to a collection of broken parts, I feel relieved. I take some deep breaths, now that this weird phenomena is finally behind me. I stuff the bag with the pieces.

Someone from the party sits next to me on the floor of the kitchen. I try to describe what had happened. As I talk back through the sequence of events, I do my best to explain what the drone sounded like. And as my description comes together, I hear it again. At first I think it’s my memory, but no, it’s the drone. I peer into the plastic bag of broken headphone parts, but there is no sign of life. From the floor, where I’m seated, I can see under the kitchen counter, and there are some wicker baskets on a low shelf, one conspicuously packed with goods, covered with the sort of red and white cloth you’d put on a picnic table. For some reason, I am drawn to it. I lift the cloth, and underneath is an audio recorder. Like the headphones I had been wearing earlier, it’s a bulky thing, with more buttons and functions than I’ve ever seen on consumer products. Most importantly, in this moment, the recorder has one tiny bright red light on. This is more than a light. It is a probing, threatening, sentient presence.

I am frightened, in part because of the insectoid threat of the red light, and in part because this device is emitting the exact same drone my headphones had been making earlier. If the original drone was an inchoate thing, this feels different, somehow. If the original drone felt like a phenomena, this one feels like a purposeful presence. If the original sounded like something happening in real time, this sounds like a recording. Someone has placed this here, and while I don’t know why, I feel like I am its intended audience, its intended victim. My brief relief has been quickly replaced by mounting anxiety. I reach for the device, and as I do so, the shadows of two people appear behind me. They say something to each other, the blasé chatter of people who have been doing whatever their job is for a long time. I don’t understand a word of it, but I understand their intent. They are here for me. This device, with its fierce little red light, has fulfilled its purpose. And as one of the people pulls black fabric over my head, I wake up.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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