11 February 2010

How Do You Think it Feels?

The Wall Street Journal
Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music' Performed by Fireworks Ensemble

Any concert with the title "Metal Machine Music" is bound to be loud. But when you are handed earplugs at the entrance to the concert hall, you know you are in for a full-out assault. The program notes to Feb. 5's performance at the Miller Theatre of Lou Reed's cult album of the same name, arranged by Ulrich Krieger for amplified chamber orchestra, contained the usual request to turn off cellphones. But once the music began, even a Super Bowl stadium announcer would have had trouble making himself heard.

Anyone familiar with Mr. Reed's album would have expected nothing less. The recording, released in 1975 as a double LP, consists of more than an hour of distorted guitar feedback, which Mr. Reed created by leaning two electric guitars against speakers so that the reverberations triggered a series of overtones bouncing off each other. The music, if it can be called that, was created exclusively by the machines.

Rolling Stone magazine likened the result to the "tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator"; more recently, rock critic William Ham said it "sounds like Marshall stacks being pack-raped by angry kitchen appliances." Some suspected it was just Mr. Reed giving his record company and fans the finger, but others saw in it the birth of punk, heavy metal and industrial music.

For Mr. Krieger, a German composer and conductor, the work is "the missing link between contemporary classical music and advanced rock music." By arranging it for orchestral instruments (including both acoustic and electric string instruments, each hooked up to its own amplifier) and performing it in a concert hall, he sought to bring the machine-made relic to life and give it a social, ritual dimension.

The performance by the New York-based Fireworks Ensemble was made up of four parts, each lasting between 15 and 20 minutes and consisting of a single chord, sustained at a ferocious volume, with all its shrieking, squealing, growling overtones. To imitate the sound of distorted electric guitars, Mr. Krieger drew on unusual techniques. The string players spent much of the concert sawing away at their instruments in furious
tremolo bowing, sometimes holding the bow at the wrong end. At times a cellist would hold the bow with both hands; a violinist might place his instrument on his lap, bowing it like a cello. All the while, overtones were created with the left hand sometimes fluttering, sometimes slapping, at other times limply dragging over the fingerboard. Wind players re-created the painful whistle of microphone feedback with deliberately flat, even notes, some produced with the microphones stuck inside the bells of their instruments.

Those audience members who—out of oversight or misplaced bravado—had forgone the free earplugs were soon jamming their fingers in their ears in sheer self-defense. Ears were far from the only organs being assaulted. Within the sustained, virtually unchanging overall volume—a jackhammer-like 110 decibels—subtle differences in timbre were felt in different parts of the body: The tuba announced itself as a throbbing in the diaphragm; the amplified sound of a bow being dragged over the edge of a cymbal could make your gums contract. Rib cages buzzed as the violinists dug in deep, headbanging with the effort of wrenching an additional sforzando out of their instruments. Broken bow hairs flew in the air.

The frenetic activity on stage was at odds with the static tonality of the individual "movements," each one a single, vast, terrifying chord that bloomed like a nuclear mushroom cloud. And yet somewhere in there lay the possibility for contemplation. The overtones, although machine-generated, had a way of organizing themselves into patterns that evoked different kinds of music. Layered on top of the steady drone of a chord there were echoes of Highland bagpipes and Tibetan prayer chant. Rhythms emerged, sketching the beginning of a recognizable motif before disappearing again in the general anarchy. By amplifying the texture of the sound, the work managed to explode the notion of the purity of a single chord the way a powerful microscope might reveal a seemingly pure drop of water to be teeming with weird organisms.

The audience—a mix of the hip and the gray-haired—earnestly sat through the experience. Only a handful of mostly young members slunk away at the earliest opportunity. In between parts some applauded politely; most held back the way you would in between movements of a symphony in order not to disturb the work's narrative arc. Afterward, when Mr. Krieger and Mr. Reed embraced on stage, the ovation may have been thunderous—though it was hard to tell given the context. There appeared to be a smattering of boos among the whoops and bravos, but with one's ears still ringing it was hard to say. It might have been yet more feedback.

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