John Cale interview: leading the drone orchestra

The Velvet Underground founder and his collaborator Liam Young explain their incredible new Barbican project

© James Medcraft

For most of us, drones are sinister military tools: flying robots used in remote places for surveillance or attack. We’re glad they’re not a common sight in the London sky. But how long will that last? For Liam Young, an architect and designer dedicated to making people speculate on new technologies, now is the time to start asking questions. ‘What could these things be if they weren’t flying over the hills of Pakistan dropping bombs on would-be enemy combatants?’

We’re talking in a warehouse attic in Hackney, while Young pilots a small quadcopter drone around the room, ahead of ‘LOOP>>60Hz’: a musical and technological project running for two nights in the Barbican Theatre this weekend.

While a band performs on stage, Young’s drones will execute choreographed flight patterns over the audience’s heads. Some will carry speakers, broadcasting individual musical parts; others will be more like dancers. Some will even be wearing costumes. And the hum they make as they fly will be part of the performance too: ‘They’re not an extension of the PA system,’ Young says, ‘they’re members of the band.’

‘The drone is the sound of an emerging generation,’ he explains. ‘We want to talk about the drone as a cultural object as opposed to a militaristic object. When this technology has left the hands of the military – when one company has figured out how to monetise the drone, whether that’s Amazon or Facebook or Google – drones are going to be as ubiquitous as pigeons. And once our skies are full of pizza delivery drones, Amazon delivery drones or drone pets, the buzz of the propellers will be the new soundscape of the city.’

In response to the web crackdown that accompanied the Arab Spring of 2012, Young created Electronic Countermeasures: a flock of flying drones that broadcast a wi-fi signal and hosted a mobile file-sharing network. Enter John Cale: singer, songwriter, viola abuser, composer and founding member of The Velvet Underground.

‘I was trawling the web,’ rumble Cale’s deep Welsh-American tones down the phone from LA, ‘and I saw a story about something he’d done, and that got my attention. Establish a wi-fi signal? That’s what they need in Aleppo.’ Young had been playing with his drones in the meantime: ‘We had just taken them to Burning Man and stuck speakers on them, flying them around playing “Ride of the Valkyries”. John found our stuff and reached out and said, “Let’s do something.”’

‘Drones are going to be as ubiquitous as pigeons’

John Cale

John Cale

John Cale is a pioneer of drone music, which uses extended and distorted tones. It may make for a decent pun, but more relevant here is his history experimenting with tape loops and fridge motors during ‘the overlap period’ between his work with radical composer La Monte Young and the early Velvet Underground sessions. ‘We used to tune to 60Hz, to the hum of the refrigerator,’ he explains, ‘because the drone of Western civilisation was a 60-cycle hum.’ Nowadays, Cale and Young believe, that hum of progress is coming from the propellers of the drone.

This is the first time that anyone has staged an art performance where drones fly right above the audience’s heads. It’s the closest that most of the audience will ever have got to a drone, which (for Young) is the whole point: ‘The impetus is about bringing people into a closer relationship with these things, being able to have one hover above your head. How can we start to demystify them a bit, and get people to ask questions about what they mean?’

Leading the ‘drone orchestra’ on stage, John Cale and his band will be performing existing material that’s been rearranged for this show. ‘You’ll be pleasantly surprised,’ he says. ‘Some of these things are really beautiful.’ But a project this ambitious isn’t as easy to pull off as a regular gig, sighs Cale: ‘It’s like turning an oil tanker around.’

Even the venue itself presented problems. ‘Certain spaces in the Barbican are listed as safe zones in the event of nuclear attack, because essentially it’s a massive reinforced concrete box four storeys underground,’ Young points out. ‘There’s not a lot of GPS signal you can get in that space, so we’ve had to develop a whole new tracking system.’

There was a long list of niggles that still needed solving with two weeks to go, and the unlikely collaborators are hoping to pull off a spectacular world-first – without any audience members getting brained by falling hardware – after only a few days of on-site rehearsal. ‘We’ll be flying by the seat of our pants,’ says Cale, ‘but it’s going to sound really amazing.’

Aside from the music, this is a rare chance for Londoners to consider a form of technology that may not be so far away. Liam Young simply wants to open your eyes: ‘Wow, fuck! That’s a drone too? I thought drones were the Predator and the Warhammer, dropping bombs. Drones can be something else. What do we want them to be?’ Keep watching the skies.

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