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“Earthly” meditation accessible to anyone

Published March, 2024
by Terezia Klasova

The drone landscape of Line Gate 

Line Gate, currently a one-person project of Michalovce-born and Prague-based musician Michal Vaľko, started with first public performance in 2011 and later reformed as quintet consisting of Marta Laurincová (cello), Ľubor Kučera (bass), Jakub Lysý (piano), Michal Vaľko (guitar, vocals), Martina Mazániková (drums), which released their first album Split Lines in 2013. Already here, LG’s post-rock alluded to a future, more radical development of the project’s sound towards drone. The change in instrumentation and the band’s membership manifested in the first album after LG’s relocation to Prague, Den (2017), consisting of a 42-minute-long drone, hurdy-gurdy-, violin- and voice-centred track. On the following albums (Apex (2020), Trap (2023)), the sound further developed towards profound minimalism comprising predominantly of hurdy-gurdy, voice samples and, in the case of the existentialist and sombre last album, glasses.

We met with Michal to discuss his work, musical influences and compositional approaches in more detail.

TK: To what extent was the current drone version of Line Gate present at its post-rock beginnings around 2011? What led to the externally radical change of the instrumentation and the choice of your instrument, hurdy-gurdy?

MV: On the first album, the influences of post-rock (mostly bands such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and Pink Floyd, which were essential for me, especially in my youth, were mainly present. Around 2012, I discovered drone through a more detailed study of the history of post-rock and minimalism and tried to incorporate it into the musical work of the then still 5-member post-rock band. In the transitional period around 2014, with the guitars, keyboards, and cello line-up, we started to play drone/minimalism. When I left for Prague in 2015, I “abandoned” the guitar. I found it overused and uninteresting. I was already immersed in the drone and wanted to play acoustic drone, so I was searching for a new instrument; at first, I ordered a harmonium from India, but it took 5 months to deliver and when it was finally delivered, I already discovered microtonal music and realised that I can’t play microtones on this type of keyboard. I was thus searching further and stumbled upon Oldřich Bauer in Plzeň who makes mediaeval instruments and had a hurdy-gurdy with a fingerboard made by him. 

TK: When approaching the hurdy-gurdy, to what extent do you work with its tuning ?

MV: I have four strings tuned to prime, fifth/fourth and two equal strings (octave), which allows me to play all intervals; the lowest one is tuned to 120 Hz. Working with tuning is crucial for me, especially since I started to delve more into microtonal music and just intonation. Fredrik Rasten (composer and guitarist) is very important to me; thanks to him, I partly returned to the guitar and realised that the instrument is less decisive than the approach to it.

TK: In your work, what is your approach towards working with voice as an instrument?

MV: I used to have a negative perception of singers who don’t play another instrument; however, through studying minimalism, I started to perceive the voice as a regular instrument, and it became my primary instrument alongside the hurdy-gurdy. The vocals make up most of my melodic lines, and I also rely predominantly on voice during the process of composing. I approach it intuitively, humming and wailing, and to some extent, I am working with methods based on overtone singing. A significant inspiration source for me is voice soloing over the drone in Indian ragas.

TK: To what extent was the history of drone connected to Indian traditional music inspirational for Line Gate? What are your other inspirational sources, the most influential musicians, etc? 

MV: La Monte Young changed my life; I’ve been trying to be a minimalist ever since, not only in music but in life, then Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock, Catherine Christer Hennix, Yoshi Wada, the more melodic and rhythmic branch of minimalism: Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and my personal queen of music, Éliane Radigue.

From contemporary musicians, I’d say, Kali Malone, Caterina Barbieri, Ellen Arkbro, Sarah Davachi, Sarah Hennies, Michael Harrison, Frederik Rasten, Irena a Vojtěch Havlovi and many others. 

I am also inspired by traditional music, especially from India (currently, I am obsessed with an instrument called rudra veena), gamelan, everything involving bagpipes, compositions of Hildegard of Bingen, mediaeval church music, and Gregorian chants. Then, Charles Curtis and his work with violoncello and, of course, Pauline Oliveros and her practice of deep listening.

The origin of drone in Indian music can be traced back to the 5th century CE, referenced in the play Kumãrasambhavan by the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Since at least the 15th century, the drone has been an integral part of Indian classical music traditions, Hindustani and Carnatic, devotional, and other music from the subcontinent. Produced using instruments such as the tanpura, shruti box, or harmonium, the concept of a drone is deeply rooted in Indian spiritual and philosophical traditions, as well as music theory and thought about sound in general. 

The tanpura, a long-necked, lute-like instrument, is the most common and one of the oldest drone instruments in Indian classical music. It typically has four strings tuned to the notes Sa (the tonic), Pa (the fifth), and two notes called Ma (the fourth) that are usually tuned to either the lower or higher octave of the tonic. The continuous sound of the tanpura provides a reference pitch and creates a harmonic background to perform or improvise the melodic (rāga) and rhythmic (tāla) aspects of the music.

In the West, the emergence of drone music as a separate genre (it had been previously present as part of musical compositions or a technique of playing an instrument) is often associated with the American minimal music movement, mainly La Monte Young (and his performance group The Theatre of Eternal Music at various times comprising of Marian Zazeela, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, John Cale, Billy Name, Jon Hassel and Alex Dea from backgrounds ranging from classical composition and performance to mathematics, poetry and painting). La Monte Young was a student of Pran Nath and a master singer in Kirana’s Hindustani gharana (stylistic tradition). The Kirana gharana is concerned first and foremost with pitch (swara), its expression and fluidity – the meend (microtonal glissando) is a frequently used technique, creating ornate melodic lines frequently improvised in an ālāp (slow, rhythmless movement within the raga), see e.g. Abdul Karim Khan, one of the originators of the style.

Pran Nath studied under Karim Khan’s cousin Abdul Wahid Khan, who represents a distinct lineage of the Kirana tradition, focusing on a slow, solemn and meditative elaboration of the raga. Nath was obsessed with elaborating tonal nuances of the raga, along with its emotional and spiritual aspects; by the time he arrived in New York in 1970, Young was writing ritualistic music in just intonation – he became a student of Nath along with Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Jon Hassell and others. 

TK: What compositional principles and approaches are central to your work?

MV: Repetition is crucial for my work; it makes the music predictable, allowing complete relaxation and immersion into the sound, melody, and harmony by removing the expectation of dynamic changes in the piece. I create mainly static pieces, mostly with one changing track. I also use repetition of 2-3 melodies asynchronously, overlapping and counterpointing them, inspired by Steve Reich’s phasing, however approaching it more intuitively. From a compositional point of view, I don’t plan the whole piece; I compose the individual components, adding melodies (voice), tunes, and sound figures operatively; this process sometimes takes a year, and I am very critical towards my work. I record mostly at home, do the mixing process myself, and the publisher handles the mastering. Before recording, I also play the final forms of the tracks at gigs.

TK: In your first album, Split Lines, one of the tracks involved lyrics; what is your current attitude towards working with text? 

MV: I don’t shy away from working with lyrics. On the album Apex, I used a sentence as a mantra. I can imagine working with, e.g. a rapper telling verses over a monotonous, hypnotic drony background or a combination of drone and poetry (as done by Éliane Radigue in her album Songs of Milarepa, where she very interestingly approaches text and incorporates it into the composition). However, I’m not planning to work with lyrics anytime soon.

TK: How do you approach the creative and compositional process regarding the album’s sound, visual and thematic concepts? What is your attitude towards temporality in your work? Are you theoretically interested in this aspect? 

MV: Regarding the sound, I’m drawing primarily on sonic inspiration. In terms of the conceptual and visual aspects of the albums, each of them has its theme. In the album Den, I’ve thematised loneliness and darkness. On Apex, the cover art of which features the Vihorlat mountain, I deal mainly with seeing and perceiving beauty, using the verse “See the beauty” as a mantra; the peak then represents higher consciousness. The last album, Trap, is about the feeling of being trapped and about anxiety in reaction to the state of the world, climate change, and helplessness. I approach drone as an “earthly” meditation accessible to anyone listening to music. In my work, I try to achieve a sense of timelessness; I used to tend towards an orthodox drone approach, I felt I needed to create long pieces… Now I tend to shorten them. However, I don’t deal with the theme of temporality in any theoretical or philosophical way; it’s mainly a preference for long pieces, allowing for deep immersion into them. 

TK: What are your current plans with the project?

MV: I am working on new music, but at the moment, I’m dealing with the limits of the hurdy-gurdy as an instrument. I don’t want to copy myself, but the possibilities of combining voice and hurdy-gurdy are limited, so I’m trying to improve my playing technique and immerse myself deeper into the sound. I’m not going to change the instrument yet. Maybe I will add some guitar; in one new song, I’m using a harpsichord sample; the new sounds are, however, more like ornamentation.


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Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.