Artists performing with wind instruments amid neolithic ruins
Photography by Philip Sherburne

When Right-Wing Extremists Crashed the French Drone Festival

Set among ruins that predate Stonehenge, You Origin festival reshaped the work of Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, Kali Malone, and more around meditative surroundings—despite some unwanted guests.

Time, space, and myth converged last weekend in a seaside village in Western France, where Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley held a one-of-a-kind festival, You Origin, amid neolithic ruins. For three days, O’Malley and a small group of collaborators immersed themselves in the Carnac Alignments, a prehistoric structure stretching two and a half miles long, and estimated to be some 7,000 years old. 

A procession of bells and gongs carved a serpentine path from a mammoth burial mound to a breathtaking expanse of standing stones, where O’Malley and French composer François J. Bonnet conjured waves of electric guitar feedback. Indigenous artists Raven Chacon and Timothy Archambault performed an ambulatory piece alongside O’Malley with flute and percussion, following the site’s geometric lines and improvising according to the contours of certain menhirs along the way. The foundation of the event was a series of hour-long performances held at dusk and dawn, in which an alphorn ensemble played against an ambient lattice of birdsong and cricket chirps—an otherworldly experience for the 70 or 80 lucky souls splayed out in the grass among these ancient boulders.

The entire weekend was shot through with an uncommon spirit of openness, as if everyone realized how rare an opportunity it was to see music in this meditative context. All the events converged upon an overlapping set of themes: the intersection of sound and landscape, space and time, presence and ephemerality. Above all, it felt like a tribute to the idea that music is, at its heart, a shared experience. 

Unfortunately, one outside group tried to ruin that experience. On Saturday night, as the crowd made its way to the 17th-century church of Saint-Cornély for a performance by the avant-garde organist and composer Kali Malone, roughly 15 far-right Catholic protestors blocked the entrance to the church. They chanted prayers and held signs: “ELECTRO CONCERT IN A CHURCH—WHAT ARE OUR BISHOPS DOING,” and “MY HOUSE IS A HOUSE OF PRAYER.” Another contingent of extremists, roughly the same size, had already made their way inside the church, where Malone’s gear was set up for the show. (Malone was not on the premises; having seen the protestors upon pulling up to the church, organizers had taken her offsite, fearing for her safety.) 

They were following the example of extremists who shut down an Anna von Hausswolff church concert in Nantes, France, in late 2021. Police positioned themselves between the protestors and attendees, firmly admonishing those in the crowd who jeered at the blockaders, as though they were the ones causing problems. What at first felt surreal grew tense. When one showgoer approached the protestors, attempting to speak with them, a woman carrying a sign pushed her back and pointed a finger: “Satan!” The crowd laughed, but it was a bitter tonic.

For an hour, Carnac’s mayor, Olivier Lepick—who had vigorously supported the You Origin project, O’Malley later emphasized—attempted to negotiate with the protestors, described as a group of far-right integralists from outside the local parish. In the end, fearing violence, Lepick agreed to call off the performance, and the protestors—many of them strong men in their twenties and thirties with bulky coats zipped to the collar, leading some to wonder if they were concealing weapons—filed out. 

Afterward, Lepick spoke to frustrated festival attendees in front of the church. To cancel the concert, he acknowledged, was to let the extremists win. “I tried to explain myself to these young people, but I think there are not many neurons in their little heads,” he lamented. But as mayor, he couldn’t take the risk of letting the show go on. “No cultural event is worth the violence that these young people were ready to use,” AFP quoted him as saying. 

Then O’Malley spoke. “Kali Malone is not canceling the concert,” he stressed. “There was a negotiation that had nothing to do with the artist or our team. And it was between the mayor, the father [of the church], and the protestors. And they made the decision in that negotiation to cancel the concert because of the violence from the fucking far-right, extreme Catholic protestors. We’re very sorry about that. I’m very angry.”

Kali Malone

What is particularly ironic about the protestors’ actions is that two transcendent events had already occurred in sacred spaces. Malone had performed in the Saint-Cornély church the night before, playing unreleased solo organ music imbued with all the characteristic warmth of her cult hit The Sacrificial Code. Male singers from Nantes’ Macadam Ensemble also performed a brand-new set of choral pieces—Malone’s first writing for voice—that vaguely reminded me, in the searching harmonies and spiraling counterpoints, of Arvo Pärt, while their modal twists and turns evoked Georgian or Bulgarian folk music. There was a deep sense of mystery there, just not pegged to any single creed.

That same afternoon, the 16th-century Chapelle de Kergroix had hosted a pair of duo performances that were among the weekend’s most stirring. First, Raven Chacon, who won a Pulitzer in 2021 for Voiceless Mass, a site-specific piece to be performed in houses of worship, played tabletop electronics—inscrutable gizmos and noisemakers, handheld cassette recorder, ocarina, even the familiar red Audobon bird call—while Timothy Archambault paced up and down the aisle of the chapel, wringing breathtaking overtones and glissandi from his alderwood flute, a traditional Algonquin design. Archambault has rhapsodized over the “mechanized” sound of Indigenous flutes, and here, in dialogue with Chacon’s piercing digital frequencies and eerie tape loops, it took on an almost cyborgian texture.

After them, vocalist Jessika Kenney and viola player Eyvind Kang sat side by side in front of the pews, moving in union through eerie chromatic progressions. “Eclipse inside the eclipse,” Kenney sang, tracing dark circles within the scales. Halfway through the second song, voice and viola finally diverged from their unison path, and at what I could swear was that exact moment of newfound harmony, the sun came streaming through a stained-glass window, creating a pool of colors on the chapel floor. 

In the pew behind me, a woman wept while her boyfriend held her, and I was struck by the strange power music can have. Here was an event so small and ephemeral—there were no more than 80 people in the chapel—it was almost as if it did not exist at all. And yet the music, like her grief, arrowed through everyone that heard it, changing each of us who had walked into the chapel that day in some small but irrevocable way.

The morning after the protest fiasco, I joined Malone and O’Malley at 5:30 a.m. to drive to the site of the final dawn concert. Their mood was one of infuriated disbelief and profound disappointment; Malone hadn’t slept, so where a few hours of shut-eye had washed away some of the immediate bitterness for the rest of us, she was still living out her Saturday night. “The concert at the church the previous night was so peaceful,” she marveled. “I have such a quiet and respectful audience everywhere I go. Everyone’s all in for the experience, it’s insane to try to stop that. Especially yesterday, after the concerts and walks and all the things we went through as a group, that show how powerful music is, and how we can work together—why would you want to stop that?”

The scene that morning I can only describe as magical. A waning crescent moon hung low over the treeline. It was a more remote patch of terrain, the underbrush fuller and wilder. Asphodels—in Greek myth, a flower deeply associated with the underworld—shot up everywhere. I crouched against a stone and shivered in the dampness. The audience, just a few dozen people, stood on the far side of a low fence, while the alphorn players staked out positions among the stones. As before, they faced each other in pairs, their horns crisscrossing, forming a golden “X” in the space between them. Despite how titanically heavy Sunn O))) can be, this was a music of profound lightness—tone clusters as ethereal as the mist over the fields, rising and falling in a slow, patient rhythm. Every now and then you’d hear a lovely major triad, like the bittersweet memory of a faraway freight train.

This time, half of the alphorn players traded their instruments for conch shells, which lent the scene an even more prehistoric aura. Much like the music’s slow, gradual timekeeping, in which a single chord might be held unchanged for minutes on end, the conch shells invited us to consider a different temporality, a form of ancestral time. It invited us to consider the kinds of traditions that might have been performed here thousands of years ago, and how sound-making might have offered a bridge between humanity and the natural world. The repetition of O’Malley’s piece traced the cycles of days, moons, seasons; its linear passage mimicked the sky’s journey from darkness to light, a journey once believed to be the stuff of gods.

Gradually, the sun rose in the sky, orange light leaching through the trees. The outlines of the stones came into sharper relief. Almost imperceptibly, pairs of horns and conch shells dropped out, leaving just one soft filament of barely audible tone. When it was done, a crow marked the conclusion of the piece with a resonant caw and the air remained alive with birdsong, birdsong as vivid and detailed as I have ever heard. 

Held in this matrix of sound, it occurred to me that O’Malley’s composition was not so much a musical performance as an intervention in the landscape, an earthwork in the tradition of Robert Smithson or Walter De Maria. These drones were not the foreground, they were merely a filter, a frame with which to capture everything that was happening around us already. And no protester could take that away.