The Fireworks Ensemble playing “Metal Machine Music,” Photo by Diana Wong
The Composer Portraits concert of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was a musical event that had a context and importance far beyond the music itself. It questioned and upended a lot of ideas about how we experience music, the line between music as a practice and a performance, and between music as an art and a commodity. In some important ways, it was deeply old-fashioned even though it would appear to have been something ultra-new and contemporary.
Musicians took the stage and played their instruments, and what they played had originally been produced by Reed. Unlike the standard pop music concert, this wasn’t a band trying to recreate their record live. Nor were the musicians playing their own versions of a pop artist’s songs, or even anything in the vernacular of pop music. For all this to make sense, I need to start at the beginning.
Lou Reed made “Metal Machine Music,” but he didn’t write it in any classical or pop sense, nor did he play it. The record is a double-album of electric guitar feedback music, and Reed did assemble it. He began by placing guitars in front of amps, where they would generate feedback, then recording the results, finally putting the tapes together into their final album form with some editing techniques. More than anything, it’s musique concrète, except it’s unintentional. I would argue, without prejudice, that it is not music at all, although it is an exercise in sound, a document of experimental/conceptual techniques for making sound made possible by a person but free of control and purpose. It is the lack of purpose (except perhaps to piss off some Venn diagram of record executives, critics and fans) and intention that make it, to me, not-music. Reed didn’t actually produce the raw material; he just put a guitar on the stand and flipped a switch, allowing it to happen. Two inanimate objects made the sounds, altered by their own feedback loop and any other physical phenomena that would have altered the strings on the instrument, like a breeze or vibration in the building. He could have gone out for a stroll, and the results would have been the same. The finished record is, frankly, lousy and dated at the time of its release. While it may have opened up new vistas to rock audiences, the Art of Noises was more than sixty years old by that time, and tape music was already an advanced art by the time as well, with many real masterpieces. And in the context of pop culture, it doesn’t even begin to occupy the same universe as the playing/tape-editing process that Miles Davis and Teo Macero used to make some profound musical art.
But this is where the story begins. The album has endured as a cultural artifact, and has had its fans. One of them is the musician and composer Ulrich Krieger, who sat down one day and began the painstaking, onerous process of transcribing the noise on the record into an ordered, codified text that musicians could read and play from. The two keys here are the act of transcription of an oral/aural process into text, which goes back to Homer, and the realization that what Krieger produced was not the recreation of the album but the creation of a new, different version of it designed, like the piano transcriptions that spread orchestral masterpieces into 19th century parlors, to take something from one medium and bring it to new audiences in a different one. The noise album and the group of musicians playing onstage are entirely different things.
And the musicians, the Fireworks Ensemble at Miller Theater, were playing, with a combination of energy and physical effort that are rarely seen. Krieger was able to discern the tonal center at the heart of the noise (There would be one; the feedback produced is essentially a mashing together of overtones, waves combining and annihilating each other. The waves are measured in frequency, and somewhere at the core is the ur-frequency from which they spawned). He scored this for a small group of strings with guitar, flute, alto sax, trumpet, tuba, piano, accordion and percussion. The strings sawed away ferociously at open intervals, mostly fifths, but pushed their intonation back and forth to give the sensation of frequencies that drift, as feedback does. The accordion, brass and winds piped in with short, quasi-coherent fragments, the percussion placed occasional tuned notes into the mass. Like the four sides of the album, the transcription is divided into four sections, roughly sixteen minutes each. The musicians took a short pause in between each – they needed to catch their breath – and it felt like turning the record over. Each section sounded pretty much the same as the others, with the exception of the concluding moments when a repeated phrase appeared in the percussion. It was loud. It began, went on to no place in particular, and ended, without verse, chorus, bridge, vamp or any development.
But it worked. It’s meant to be experienced, where you witness the event with others and feel it in your body. It does take a while to alter the usual method of listening, which often is listening for something familiar then anticipating what comes next and following along. In Metal Machine Music nothing comes next. All the moments are now, this object made out of sound. It leads to a meditative sense of stillness. A few people left, but most of the audience stuck with it. They are important at an event like this, they must bear witness to the making of a cultural object, and this was a great audience, with Reed and Laurie Anderson in attendance, a truly hip movie star and especially the people who subscribe to the Composer Portraits series because they are interested in the variety and serious commitment it offers them. I spoke with several for whom this was something that they had never really imagined, but they stuck with it. They came with intention.
And it is intention that is the key to all this. It is the lack of intention in Reed’s original process that makes the original a significant object but an aesthetic nullity. “Metal Machine Music,” the album, has no thought or directed purpose behind it. Many people found pleasure in it, but many people find pleasure in seeing the sunset and that is not a work made for anyone in particular. Not everyone is an artist, and not everything sold under an artist’s name is art, and if Lou Reed had set a microphone in his home and recorded the sound of his refrigerator going off and on, the result would have had a different sound but the same meaninglessness. Bravely, and fortunately, Krieger found personal significance in “Metal Machine Music,” and used it as material with which to make a piece of intentional art, which may be good or bad but which has its own meaning. And the meaning is the intention; he intended for musicians to take the stage, the musicians intended to perform for the audience, a transaction that was meant to take place occurred. And that made all the difference.
Ulrich Krieger and Lou Reed, Photo by Diana Wong