This Artist Is Using Drone Music to Help People With Anxiety and Depression

Kristel Jax's drone therapy combines personal stories about mental health and drone music.

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Dec 8 2017, 3:00pm

Image: Courtesy Kristel Jax

On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.


On a warm, drizzly August weekend in the quiet town of Meaford, Ontario, musicians prepared to take the stage. This past summer marked the twelfth year of Electric Eclectics, a festival celebrating experimental music on a farm two hours outside of Toronto. A short distance away from the main performance area, Kristel Jax administered drone therapy under the sprawling branches of a large tree. To her left, a stark white sheet printed with jagged block letters fluttered in the wind.

Drone therapy is a performance art series that combines deeply personal narratives of mental illness over a backdrop of drone music. Topics of discussion are often guided by the techniques found in clinical therapy workbooks Jax has collected over the years—she has been navigating the mental health care system since she was 16—and her goal is to help people who may be struggling to access an overburdened health care system.

Drone has appeared in traditional folk music around the world for centuries, from the tanpura, an Indian instrument, to Scottish bagpipes. In 1984, musicologist Wilfrid Mellers described ambient musician Terry Riley’s drone music as sustained, minimalistic, and monophonic tones that stretch over long periods of time, inducing a trance in the listener. Music therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for patients suffering from pain, depression, or anxiety, but it is atypical for music therapists to use experimental music, as Jax is doing.

Image: Kristel Jax

At Electric Eclectics, Jax asked her participants to sign a waiver—she isn’t a trained clinician, she’s a performance artist. A handful of people joined her to share stories about mental health in the damp grass during her marathon sets, which lasted three houfrs on Saturday and Sunday. She kept her loop pedals dry under a crinkling sheet of plastic.

“Drone therapy is always comedy, and it’s always therapeutic—the way I know a performance is successful is when I’m getting laughs,” she said.

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The concept of drone therapy was born in 2015 while Jax was in the middle of a 16-week cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), a hospital in downtown Toronto. According to Jax, CBT focuses on helping patients identify the triggers for their anxiety so that they can improve their functionality over time.

Equal parts performance art, whispered confessional, and sage advice, Jax divulges the good, bad, and ugly of the Canadian mental health care system over cascading waves of ambient drone music. It’s a self-care resource in a landscape where few patients can afford therapy—or afford to wait long enough to get it for free. Jax also regularly updates a free, downloadable PDF of health care resources on her website and gathers resources in a binder under her bed.

Read More: 'Side Effects May Include': The Search for an Antidepressant That Works

Jax is candid about her diagnoses: general anxiety, agoraphobia, generalized major depression, and cluster B traits (the category can include borderline personality disorder). “Accessing mental health care is a nightmare and I just want it to not be such a nightmare for other people,” Jax told me.

According to a January 2017 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Canadians face overburdened, aging psychiatrists with rising patient numbers and smaller practices. Doctors are concentrated in urban areas such as Ottawa and Toronto, leaving rural areas underserved.

Jax’s work plays with the idea of feminizing a traditionally masculine style of music that was popularized in 1960s Western canon by La Monte Young and The Theatre of Eternal Music. The genre has since experienced a resurgence in popularity, with the advent of national Drone Day in 2014. Founded by Marie LeBlanc Flanagan, the Executive Director of Weird Canada, the holiday encourages improvised group performances across the country, bringing experienced and novice musicians together in a low-pressure environment.

When Jax wrote about Drone Day for Vice in 2015, she received numerous internet comments criticizing her work. “A bunch of brones—basically, bros who like drone music—got really mad at me for writing about ‘their’ music,” laughed Jax. “But it’s my music too! I’m here.”

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Music therapy has been successfully proven to ease the pain of patients receiving postoperative care. It is used to help patients seeking treatment for eating disorders and smoking cessation. A 2004 study in PAIN found that music therapy decreased anxiety in open-heart patients by 72 percent.

However, Jax’s project may be unique: When I reached out to CAMH about it, their spokesperson was not aware of anyone else who is adapting formal therapeutic techniques into performance art.

Jax’s work has attracted a number of admirers within the experimental scene. Ottawa-based musician and community organizer Elsa Mirzaei first met Jax in 2015 at MEGAPHONO, an Ottawa music festival, where they bonded over their shared work in making arts communities safer. They were reunited this past summer at Electric Eclectics. “We were droning into the valley, sharing our stories with the environment,” they recalled. “It was unreal.”

“Living under white supremacy in Canada, navigating the everyday with a personality disorder—that shit sucks,” explained Mirzaei, who has been diagnosed with PTSD and borderline personality disorder. “The waiting is too long. People are just gonna get sicker and sicker waiting.”

Mirzaei has been registered on a group therapy waiting list for the past year, even opting to be placed into a French program, despite it being their third language. “There’s nothing really available,” they said. “You can really only be put on waitlists once you’re almost dead; it took hospitalization for me to be even considered for it.”

“My first impression was: Why are these people talking over the music?’”

Drone therapy is an appealing alternative for individuals who are unable to financially or emotionally commit to a full course of therapy, which can range from 5-20 weeks. Although the efficacy of drone therapy has not been evaluated in a clinical setting, Jax’s friends believe it has been beneficial.

“It’s really common for artists to struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues, but it’s not talked about,” explained Mirzaei.

Promoter Joe Strutt has been documenting and recording live music on his blog, Mechanical Forest Sound, since 2009. He first witnessed drone therapy on Drone Day in 2016 at the Music Gallery, an experimental music hub where Jax works as a marketing coordinator. That day, musicians brought armfuls of pedals, keyboards, and circuit boards for a drop-in group performance while Jax invited brave audience members to the mic to share their mental health stories.

“My first impression was: Why are these people talking over the music?’” said Strutt. “My generation is much more likely to tamp down their problems than broadcast everything, but healing works in different ways for different people.”

Tom Beedham is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer who helps organize Long Winter, a monthly presentation of music, art, and dance that occurs during Toronto’s darkest months. He’s been a fan of Jax’s online work since before her Music Gallery performance. “She puts in emotional labour, she’s really forthcoming and very funny,” he said. Her dark sense of humour is starkly contrasted with the severity of the issues being discussed, but Beedham feels that this helps disarm viewers.

Jax has no ambitions to become a certified art therapist. “That's a lot of trust right? To actually claim that you can help somebody and not just be joking around anymore,” she said solemnly.

“That's a big deal.”

Image: Kate Young

Jax is now working on adapting her video series, which she stopped producing in 2016, into a podcast. Each episode will explore a dialectical behavior therapy workbook developed by researcher and DBT founder Marsha M. Linehan. Although CBT and DBT are similar, Jax told me that DBT is geared towards helping patients evaluate their core values and interpersonal relationships with the goal of helping them see their self-worth. “I hope that people who are having trouble accessing help can come along with me for the ride,” smiled Jax.

“The joke is that I've never turned to drone music for therapy,” laughed Jax, who often listens to lyric-based music like Lana Del Rey for comfort. Jax has been performing experimental noise as Brigitte Bardon’t for the last few years. “Drone music is supposed to be chill, but it makes me anxious sometimes—even the beautiful stuff can be really scary.”

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Disclaimer: Kristel Jax has written about this author for Broken Pencil Magazine and attended the author’s Inclusive Podcast Workshop series.

Correction: Jax has been diagnosed with cluster B traits, not with cluster B, as the article initially stated. In addition, Jax's performance at Electric Eclectics wasn't a six-hour set. Rather, it was two three-hour sets, held on Saturday and Sunday. The piece initially stated she received Facebook messages criticizing her work in 2015, which was inaccurate—rather, they were internet comments more generally. Motherboard regrets these errors.

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