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The Essay
Show #344
The Drone
David Gunn

In 1925, celebrated silent film actress Gloria Swanson married Henri, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye. All of Hollywood was abuzz over the prospects of this union--her third, his second--because they seemed to have so little in common. She was 26, he was 107; he aspired to electric shoe design and manufacturing, she detested the color yellow; she spoke no Labradorian, he had a zenlike fondness for quilts. But they shared one overriding factor that drew them together like miniature Scottie magnets to a refrigerator door: they both droned.

Not "drone" as in donning colorful bee costumes and seeking intimate relations with a queen bee, but as in emitting continuous low, dull humming sounds--with an emphasis on the "continuous" part. Sometimes they droned for half-days at a time. And it only happened when they were together. While Gloria was on a movie set, she was the consummate actress. Likewise, when Henri was discussing foreign affairs with heads of snakes, he was the supremely gifted diplomat. But the moment they were within six feet of each other, an overpowering, deep-rooted urge caused them to drone uncontrollably. Sometimes the sound was so loud that sympathetic vibrations caused nearby fish to compress into two-dimensional shadowy images of themselves.

Gloria's fans didnít know what to make of this behavior anomaly, so they ignored it. But one person saw it differently. Hanco Sarcophagini, a musicologist at Winston State College in Abilene, Texas, understood droning to be a fundamental component of human interaction. He knew that earliest man--which, according to paleoanthropologists, is any guy who gets up before 7:30--droned as a primitive form of communication. Gradually, body twitches, hand shadows, simple charades and later writing accompanied the drone, from which a verbal language evolved. Unexpected fluctuations in pitch spawned rudimentary speech, after which the comparative limitations of mere droning doomed it to obsolescence. It sneaked back into fashion during the renaissance of ancient Greek music when popular singers of the heyday accompanied themselves by tapping rhythms on their thoraxes, a technique called humdrumming. Then it went back out of fashion, reaching an unfashionable peak in 1431 upon the death of a member of the Choir of the St. Rouen Magisterial Cathedral. Drone of Arc had been a tenor in the choir for eight years but had never been able to sing in anything but a monotone. The choir director trumped up charges of heresy and sorcery against him and Drone was burned at the stake. And although the choral product improved greatly thereafter, a backlash from human rights activists ultimately shut down the choir.

Four hundred and ninety-five years later, Hanco Sarcophagini thought that the musical world was again ready for a droning revival. Untrained as a composer, he felt he could nevertheless employ the drone as a musical device in lieu of any legitimate musical or acoustic idea. Well, he couldn't. His idea died, just like Gloria Swanson.

When Gloria Swanson died in 1989, a bond between her and her antiquated third husband was severed. Henri, now a venerable 171, rapidly began to fail in health. His drones came in short spurts, and were often accompanied by a racking Labradorian cough. He may have sensed his own mortality, because as soon as he finished carving an inscription on his former wife's tombstone, "Sic Transit Gloria Swanson," his own drone mechanism at last ceased.

I'm happy to report the cessation of this essay part of the 344th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, an essay that seemed to drone on and on without establishing either plot or denouement, but which may improve with age, or at least may be soon forgotten following the impending microphonic revelations of Kalvos.