Drone Mass

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson performed his Drone Mass with ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Theatre of Voices. This performance was held at Duke University and was conducted by Donato Cabrera. Drone Mass is a contemporary oratorio with eight movements sung by a vocal ensemble (TOV) accompanied by a string quartet (ACME). The string quartet had one cellist, two violinists, and one violist. The vocal ensemble had two sopranos, one mezzo, one alto, two tenors, and two bass. The movements included a drone produced either by Jóhannsson’s modular synthesizer or by voices and instruments that would mimic the sound of a drone. Jóhannsson’s drone would often produce a deep, rumbling effect. Most, if not all, of the movements were in a natural minor key or mode. The vocalists used limited vibrato and would often continue without rest, producing a haunting or hypnotic effect. The hymn they sang was a series of vowels inspired by Gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi Library.

In the first movement, voices alternated the theme in F# natural minor. Strings accompanied with a rhythmic bass and then strings played the theme with the voices, and then returned to rhythmic bass, all ending on I7.

The second movements showcased the importance all of voices and instruments. The voices sang vowels on the beat. As the strings and voices alternated in similar repeated themes, never resting together, so it began to sound like a fugue.

The third movement had the first appearance of the drone. A low drone tone on E faded in. Bass sang alongside the drone, then the tenors. Strings slurred in an upward motion producing a very sharp sound like faint squeaking in the background. Then the strings repeated an E natural minor arpeggio as the altos alternated tones of E minors with different vowels. The tenors and bass repeated a syncopated bass rhythm as the drone faded out.

In the fourth movement the bass sang alone, slurring tones in a downward motion and would rest. The cellist slurred tones up and down, pushing hard on the bow, creating a tense, unpleasant sound. The other strings joined in doing the same creating dissonant tones. The bass, tenors, and alto repeated this slurring theme with “Ahs.” The voices then called out and answered with the theme several times, in a crescendo.

The fifth movement was in B minor. One violin repeated a simple 4-note motif and then the cello joined for harmony. The second violin played the theme in sync with the first violin. The violins would gradually go in and out of sync while the cello played its own theme. The voices sang vowels on the tones of B minor.

The sixth movement was more about the dynamics. Voices sing vowels in F major as strings sustain tones for the bass. The violins repeated a melancholy theme in F major. All crescendo then one by one the voices and instruments very gradually decrescendo.

In the seventh movement, the drone fades in on D. Individual voices would take turns connecting one interval to create the melody. The deep, rumbling drone bent in and out of D, becoming more rough and thick before it faded out.

The final movement was in E minor. The voices sounded together in an improvisational way in which no rhythm could be heard. The voices alternated sustained tones from the key of E minor. One voice singing a high A# created an unexpected texture. The cello created a drone effect but would slur in a downward motion from B, scaling down a major third, and then a perfect fifth. Voices in tutti repeated this slur, creating more tension, and suddenly ended on the lone cello on G, slurring down to E, to B, then down to E. This would repeat as violins created an unpleasant high pitch sound. The strings alternated in downward slurring. Voices layered on more texture and dissonance by alternated the same slurring motion but beginning on different tones. One by one the voices would call out different tones of the chromatic scale. The voices fade out and the piece ended as the high pitch strings faded out.

Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass was moving with a sense of stillness and mystery. The vocalists were very good but not as virtuosic as I would expect in a work so vocally focused. This work catered to my love of vocal music from the Baroque era. The drone added foundation and an ancient sound to an otherwise modern work. Jóhannsson is better recognized for his original scores for the films, The Theory of Everything (2014) and Arrival (2016).


  1. Shayna Cody says:

    I clicked on the first video link and that is NOT at all what I expected this music to sound like. When I saw the word ‘vocal’ I thought of singing, or a ‘pleasant’ melody. This sounded more like a siren to me. The low rumbling in the back is interesting too. The screeching violin gave the piece a distinctly eerie sound and made me uncomfortable. Is that low sound in the beginning made by a person or a cello or a machine? Also, the second video sounds much more ‘pleasant’ to the ear so I wonder: did the piece you saw feel more like the first or second video?

    • Rose Kaufman says:

      Shayna: The low rumbling is created by a modular synthesizer; an instrument used to generate electronic signals which can produce synthetic sound waves; in this case Jóhannsson generated a sustained buzzing, rumbling sound at a fixed pitch. Both videos are from the same work, “Drone Mass.” The movements are very different. I had never heard Johannson’s music before the concert so I was pleasantly surprised by the various textures of voices.

      Dr. Tilley: I agree, I wouldn’t consider this composition a Mass, but a contemporary oratorio. Maybe “Mass” is used in a more broad sense here; a large work inspired by any sacred liturgy. The work is definitely influenced by medieval music and minimalism — those are major points I neglected to add in my post.

  2. I wondered, at first, what sort of “drone” this piece might be referring to, and after listening, I do still wonder. Are we supposed to think about the flying drone (aircraft) as much as we might the musical device of a held note (drone)?
    Those voices sound amazing–not human at all, but buzzy and nasal at time, very machine-like.
    And yet this is a “Mass” so it is a piece that refers to the Christian (Catholic) liturgy? But with Gnostic texts, I suppose it is pushing the boundaries of a “Mass”.
    The second video seemed to capture a little more of that religiosity–contrapuntal, long melodic lines with harmonies that seem to reference the simple consonances of Medieval Music. Influenced by minimalism?

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