Andy Warhol's Factory has gotten a lot of bad press for being a home to hedonistic excess and a wide variety of stupidities. While there was some truth to that, beyond the hanger's on and the voyeurs real artistic experimentation was ongoing. Andy Warhol was the first painter to capture on canvass the essence of a world captivated by materialistic values and commercial imagery and left behind a substantial body of work that still influences visual artists today.
The Factory was also involved in groundbreaking theatrical presentations and film experimentation. However, aside from Andy himself, the most enduring legacy of the Factory has been the music. Birthplace of the Velvet Underground, one of the few truly experimental musical groups to come out of the late sixties and early seventies, the Factory was also home to concerts and workshops by experimental composers like John Cage.
So the only surprising thing about Lou Reed's1975 double album Metal Machine Music was that people were so shocked that he made it. Perhaps I can say that with the advantage of hindsight and retrospection, but any evidence available today of Lou's interest in experimentation was equally on display in the 1970's. He was friends with Andy Warhol for goodness sake, did they really think he was going to be happy just writing pop music?
The way Mr. Reed describes the evolution of Metal Machine Music is it sprang from his love of the guitar, and especially feedback. He was living in a warehouse at the time and had all the recording equipment that he needed to fool around and record with if he so desired.
As an experiment, he set up a guitar in one tuning and leaned it against an amp to generate feedback. He took another guitar in a different tuning and laid it against another amplifier to generate more feedback. The two feed backs reacted with each other to create a third sound wave, which in turn then interacted with the originals to create another sound wave, and the process continued until layers and layers of sound were generated.
Obviously, nobody was ready for that in 1975, especially in the world of popular music. The album was taken off the market in three weeks after generating the highest number of returns (people wanting their money back) of any album put out. RCA; his company at the time, were so pissed off, he came close to never being allowed to record again. It is somewhat ironical that twenty-five years later, in 2000, it was RCA that approached him about releasing a special anniversary edition of Metal Machine Music.
In 2002 the German avant-garde chamber orchestra, the zeitratzer ensemble (small caps are deliberate), got in touch with Lou to ask his permission to play Metal Machine Musiclive in concert. He didn't believe it was possible until they told him they had transcribed it and sent him samples of what they planned on performing. Once he gave them permission they asked if he would be willing to play electric guitar in the third act for the concert.
The stage was set for the 2002 performance of Metal Machine Music at the Berlin Opera House that has now been released in a two disc CD/DVD package on Asphodel Records. For the first two and a half movements of the piece, zeitkratzer's piano, violin, viola, cello, bass, accordion, tuba, trumpet, saxophone, and percussion recreated acoustically what had been originally done on electric guitar.
The first thing you have to remember is that this is not something to sit down and listen to casually or as something light to put on after a hard day at the office. In order to listen to this piece of music you have to be prepared to withstand an aural assault at the beginning of each movement until you get your bearings. At first, it sounds like so much noise; a screeching, howling, and moaning discordance that has no relation to music.
Gradually, as you listen, you become absorbed by the sound and start to feel the ebb and flow of patterns. The sharp edges of the violin, viola, and cello, all being bowed at a frenetic pace at the highest possible pitch, stop cutting into you as you become able to experience the new sound they generate when blended with the sounds produced by the balance of the ensemble.
I'm sure that your memory plays a part in this somehow. Remember what Lou Reed had said about new sounds being formed as the result of the meeting of original sounds? After listening to intense sounds like those produced in this piece of music you can't help but retain an echo of something previously played that will blend with any new sounds to produce yet a third tone.
You can't listen to this like you would listen to other music, trying to hear what the individual instruments are saying. Instead, you want to hear the sound that is generated by all the instruments playing together. That will only happen with the passage of time and a willingness to listen. Otherwise, it will remain a cacophonic mystery.
Included with the DVD is an interview with Lou Reed where he talks about his process in creating the original Metal Machine Music back in 1975. Unfortunately, the interviewer isn't the greatest, but Lou Reed confirms the opinion that I've always had of him as being a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and creative man. The sound for both the CD and DVD are superlative, and the option exists for 5.1 surround sound.
Metal Machine Music was never intended to be popular music, in fact Lou Reed took it to the Classical music section of RCA when he first recorded it back in 1975. Like his more recent composition, Hudson River this is an experiment in composition with sound and tone. The performance that has been recorded on this CD/DVD set is an amazing reproduction of electronic music utilizing only acoustic instruments.
To paraphrase Lou Reed, nothing beats live instruments for the immediacy and excitement that's generated. Watching and listening to this live performance of Metal Machine Music really brings that home. It might not be for everyone, but for those who are believers in the potential and possibilities of what can be created completely live, without tapes or machines, this is certainly vindication. In all honesty, I can say that you've probably never seen or heard anything quite like this.
Leave aside your preconceptions of what you think music should be, and take a step into the new and dangerous by listening to Metal Machine Music as performed by the zeitkratzer ensemble and Lou Reed live at the Berlin Opera House. You might just be in for a surprise and find yourself appreciating something new and exciting.
(Originally posted September 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.