Saturday, February 13, 2010
Lou Reed’s ‘Machine’: Now More Strings, Less Metal
Fireworks Ensemble performing "Metal Machine Music," a 1975 work transcribed by Ulrich Krieger and Luca Venitucci, at Miller Theater.
A real-time, chamber-music performance of an inhumanly generated composition: that was Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” as played by the Fireworks Ensemble at Miller Theater on Friday night.
Mr. Reed recorded his 1975 album “Metal Machine Music” (RCA) by leaning guitars against amplifiers, cranking them up until the feedback screamed, playing melodies amid the sonic melee and layering and manipulating the results, including changing the tape speed of some parts. Then he chose four segments for 16-minute LP sides.
It sounded like a riot in a shortwave radio factory: a fusillade of sustained, pulsating and scurrying electronic tones that adds up to a hyperactive drone, as consonant as the overtone series. It was proudly anticommercial and defiantly arty. It was Minimalistic process music at rock volume, an impersonal wall of sound. Now, 35 years later, it also sounds unexpectedly merry.
Ulrich Krieger had the bizarre idea of transcribing that thicket of tones to be played by live musicians. It took considerable time and the help of a partner, Luca Venitucci, to analyze the welter of information; they had finished only three of the four sections when the transcription had its premiere in 2002. Now they have four. At the Miller Mr. Krieger directed a 16-member, amplified ensemble of strings, winds, guitar, accordion, piano and percussion, though there was no conductor. The music is in proportional notation, played to a clock; a violinist periodically stood up to signal.
The transcription changes everything. It corresponds to some of the more perceptible events of the original: sudden dropouts and surges of certain registers, rhythmic throbs, the squeal when a high overtone suddenly appears, the suggestion of a melodic moment. But the original “Metal Machine Music” has no narrative line, no direction. It simply, and wildly, exists. There are few intentional phrases or interactions between parts, and no sense of ensemble. That’s what humans bring, no matter how conceptually disciplined.
On the album “Metal Machine Music” sounds frenetic. In performance the Fireworks Ensemble musicians were just that, with the string players in the front row sawing away at nearly constant tremolos. (One violinist’s bow trailed a hank of loose horsehair less than halfway through the piece.) Yet their combined efforts brought out something richer and more meditative than the album. Each of the four sections became an endless tremolo chord, oceanic and Wagnerian, with recognizable instruments adding dabs of melody and glimmers of allusion: a Celtic accordion phrase, a brass fanfare.
The music was still unremitting; there were a few walkouts. It was also electrifying, a perceptual overload, with notes fluttering at points all over the frequency spectrum and tiny inner parts peeking out. The transcribed “Metal Machine Music” no longer reflects its title. Now it’s more string than metal, and it’s flesh rather than machine. It’s a world away from the original in both execution and intent; it’s social rather than solitary, respectful rather than irritating. But in its own much more formal way, it’s just as maniacal.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 12:18 AM