The Stilling is fascinating, chilling and engrossing in equal measures and often at the same time.
Mark Van Hoen, perhaps best known for his work as Locust, and Mike Harding, co-founder of Touch, have released The Stilling, their fourth outing as drøne. As with the previous albums, The Stilling explores the complex and often invisible relationship of our species to the wider world, and the album’s title refers to the under-reported and still largely unexplained phenomenon of global terrestrial stilling, a widespread decrease in wind speeds possibly attributable to human intervention. There’s a danger with such focus that the artistic results emerge as heavy-handed finger wagging, a kind of eco-musical blame game that seeks to report on the ways in which humans are failing to cope with widespread and quickly developing ecological change while neatly avoiding recognizing that this music would not be possible without those industries and technologies which are most responsible. Thankfully, drøne are much smarter than this and The Stilling is fascinating, chilling and engrossing in equal measures and often at the same time.
“Mumming” opens with what quickly becomes the album’s signature paradox; the quiet cacophony. Street noises, birds, a radio in the distance, traffic sounds, the audible clutter of what might be a non-European place all slowly gather in strength and presence but not volume, evidencing a careful and delicate attention to the matter of soundscape construction. Van Hoen and Harding are both experts in this kind of sonic precision and there’s a deft compositional touch at play throughout the album, most noticeably in their ability to add elements without overwhelming the ear or burying detail in noise. Across this first track, drones and woodwinds emerge slowly and are woven amongst the other noises giving the entire experience a cinematic ambiance.
As “Mumming” gives way to the second track “Influence Machines,” the street sounds of people are replaced by the sterile whirs and buzzes of a more technologically focused environment, recordings of automated weather broadcasts, bursts of radio noise and the sounds of the ordinarily invisible flows of media that pass over and through us all. Again, pulses and drones hold the disparate parts together, musical elements like the pained string instruments that emerge and wail, flutter and retreat back into the hums and glitches. By the third track “Vitula,” the album’s central concerns are clear, offering a melancholy commentary on the cluttered media environment much of the West inhabits and which it offers as both progress and prize to the rest of the world. Here the cellos and violins provide an accompaniment that is highly reminiscent of John Tavener’s instrumental works and, as the album progresses, the found sounds and field recordings are increasingly guided by more straightforward musical elements, most notably clusters of strings that weave in and out of discordant moments and provide droning supports and interpretive directions for the other environmental noises. Midway through “The Stilling,” the now-familiar crackle of found radio broadcasts and overlaid hums is interrupted with a sustained squeal of off-kilter strings and its to Van Hoen and Harding’s credit that this manages to be both unsettling and still listenable. The album’s final track “Hyper Sun (Including Every Day Comes and Goes” is the mirror image of the opening track with barely any environmental sounds at all and, instead, luxurious drones, ascendant strings sections and a grand, if still melancholy, movement towards closure where, as the strings cease with a flourish, what remains is the light crackle of static, radio broadcasts and noise.
Perhaps the kinds of thoughtfulness the album seeks to encourage is this reflection where we recognize that the sounds we make as we go about our lives aren’t just overlaid on top of the natural world but emerge both as a result of our interactions with it and remain always a part of it. By necessity, as the natural world changes, so too will our music, and the shouts and screams which occur throughout The Stilling, alongside the broadcasted voices and the sounds of media technologies perpetuating discourse without intervention suggest the kinds of near-future music that will become commonplace, evidence that cultures in crisis will produce the soundtrack of that crisis simply as a matter of course.
So, if ‘mumming’ is to participate as an actor in a traditional narrative, then the album suggests that the noises of our technologies are themselves similar folk practices, as historically and culturally located as the kinds of material R. Murray Schafer sought to record and preserve with his World Soundscape Project. The difference though is that where Schafer wanted to save the sounds of butter churning and bell ringing (of course amongst a host of other traditional practices,) in The Stilling Van Hoen and Harding are recording and reporting on our current soundscape and our interactions with the world, with the knowledge that these, too, will pass.