How might we visualise a drone? Perhaps a long unbroken line. Better yet, a continuous circle of sound. Or a series of circles rippling over water. New albums from Susana López and Manja Ristić both use circular motifs to envision their music. Both artists are inspired by touchstones of religious literature, giving spiritual and cosmic significance to their encircling tones.
With her 2020 album, Crónica de un secuestro, Susana López tackled the hijacking of reality by the pandemic. Her music looked unflinchingly inward, earning a place on our Top Ten Drone list of that year. The Edge of the Circle covers some shared ground, with both albums nodding to Ibn ʿArabī (1165–1240), the Sufi writer and mystic from López’s native Murcia. The earlier album had one track named after ʿArabī, seeming to draw parallels between the sustained concentration of drone music and the inward reflection of Sufi practice. The new album places the soul within the wider cosmos, with artwork based on ʿArabī’s cosmograms. The programme is described as a “sound cycle”. The individual tracks also feel cyclical, with looping synth and recorded textures propelling listeners into the dizzying whirl of a dancing dervish. With each sonic turn, we move through space. But inside the ecstatic spinning, it is hard to keep track of our position.
Since Islam generally avoids figural art, geometric patterns and shapes have complex significance. Concentric circles are particularly important in Sufism, with the central circle representing proximity to divinity. Conversely, some of ʿArabī’s maps of the cosmic order depict the human Earth at the centre, with each ring leading outward toward the eternal. There is some ambiguity in López’s title. At the edge of the circle, are we at the start of a long journey towards the divine, or have we ascended to the celestial limits of the cosmos? The penultimate track, “Valhalla”, suggests it is the latter. Pulsating, cerebral drones are joined by birdsong, voice, a rattling of cupboards. Then López spirals upward, a Valkyrie leading us to Odin’s hall. Glinting bursts of sound mark other travellers arriving in spirit.
Whilst diagrams of the cosmos offer outward-facing maps, they are also tools for reflective practice. Likewise, López’s enormous soundscapes guide us through vast geographies, but the gradual progression also sharpens our inner gaze. “A Swarm of Drones” opens a surprisingly active space, with sounds of buzzing machinery, babbling announcements, and bellowing alarms. A backdrop of continuous sound is served by a swarm of lesser worker drones, brightly glinting in the foreground. Their busyness gradually falls back into a buzzing mass, with the click and pop of insectoid movement blown up to enormous proportions.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) depicts a cosmology of celestial orbs, like that of ʿArabī’s diagrams. Beginning his approach to tempt Adam and Eve, Satan finds himself in limbo, on the outer edge of a circle, “whose first convex divides / The luminous inferior Orbs” (Book III, lines 419–20). He then descends through the spheres of our universe, to reach Earth at the centre. Manja Ristić takes inspiration from a smaller set of circles: the coils of the snake which Satan inhabits in Book IX (lines 182–83 give the album its title), and which Gustave Doré’s illustration depicts. In an epic poem which pits angel against angel and God against Chaos, the meagre serpent might seem an odd place to focus. However, the corruption of the sleeping snake allows Satan to hiss in the ear of sleeping Eve, paving the way for original sin.
In this narrative, the centre of the serpentine circle is definitely furthest from God. Inhabiting the snake is debasing for a fallen angel. Satan bemoans “that I who erst contended / With Gods to sit the highest, am now constraind / Into a Beast, and mixt with bestial slime” (Book IX, lines 163–65). Ristić’s opening track captures the conflicted drama of this Eden. Ominous ambience pervades, whilst a figure can be heard crunching through undergrowth. Is this Satan approaching? (Eve “heard the sound / Of rusling Leaves, but minded not” (lines 518–19).) Or is the fiend eavesdropping on human activity? Flies buzz and (like López) Ristić expands the insect noise to a tangible presence. We hear an Eden of heat and decay, an uncomfortably bodily place for a creature of heaven. Whilst Milton’s narrative informs this album, Ristić’s drone-based compositions have no storytelling structure. Instead, the skill of each track is to rapidly create a space, enhanced by field recordings and atmospheric tones. To listen is to inhabit and embody those spaces, with all their uncertainties and tensions.
In the guise of a snake, Satan’s job is to persuade and corrupt. But before that, he is a watcher and a listener. Perhaps this is what most appealed to Ristić, who positions herself as a conduit for environmental sounds. Atop a reliable bedrock of clean tones, the album builds its miniature sound-worlds. The expressive song of whales drags us to inhuman depths. (We wonder where the whales lived in Eden.) Electrified surf crashes fuzzily. Metal taps on metal. A menagerie of other animals calls out: birds, dogs, crickets, cicadas. Perhaps the relevance of Milton’s Eden is not as part of a religious fable, but as the archetype of a threatened environment. As we listen to each troubled paradise, do we prevent or expedite its loss? (Samuel Rogers)