The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

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APR 2010 Issue


…the window detaches itself from the wall & departs into another world,
have a good trip, for I am drawing another window.

…the wood exhaled itself into a petrified rose.

— Max Blecher

(translated from the Romanian by Valery Oisteanu)

Photo: Christoph Tautscher
Photo: Christoph Tautscher

It took me years to acquire a vinyl copy of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music at a reasonable price. A friend found it for me upstate in a used book store for a “mere” 20 bucks, and eventually I got Lou to sign it. After his “success” with Transformer, RCA let Reed do whatever he wanted, a syndrome not uncommon in the arts. (Take, for instance, Dennis Hopper after Easy Rider or Michael Cimino after The Deer Hunter.) The results were MMM, which, upon its release, was immediately relegated to the cut-out bin, then the dust bin, then to obscurity by head-scratchers who couldn’t figure out what to do with it, making it an instant collector’s item. Oddly enough, Reed originally suggested that RCA release it on Red Seal, their Classical imprint (ha!), so it’s an odd coincidence that some 30 years later it was transformed into a “classical” piece and performed for its New York premiere at Columbia’s Miller Theater.

But why transcribe it in the first place? Fireworks Ensemble conductor and musical director Ulrich Krieger states that it came out of his hearing “orchestralness” in the original, as well as an array of “intricate, beautiful, complex, and daring sounds [and] colors.” There was also the fact that “music today is coming full circle.” With that said I still ask, “WHY?”

Though the ensemble and Krieger are known for their daring exploits, I found that in their hands the music became less essential, less unique than the original, and perhaps too much an unintentional derivative of other compositions that exist independently yet side-by-side in some surreal way with Reed’s piece. What came to mind was Chatham and Branca’s mammoth guitar explorations, Niblock’s sheets of sound, and the raspiness of Tony Conrad.

Reed’s original concept works, albeit scarily. It is a breath-holding, pioneering feat of feedback, filling four sides of vinyl, and the orchestral version held closely to this concept. Krieger also contends that “wind instruments are especially good at mimicking feedback sounds,” but what I could not hear, or at least thought I wasn’t hearing, were the winds, brass, and piano. What I did seem to hear throughout, and pronouncedly so, were the sounds produced by the abundant strings, including electric guitars, which indeed do mimic noise very easily.

I must also ask, “Does Lou Reed, whose work I love, deserve to be raised to the status of Classical composer, just as many great rockers yearn to be great poets?” And I echo an answer: “Rock has permeated high culture for better or worse, Steve, so give it a rest already.”

Overall the piece was very intense. It played to an almost full house, most of whom seemed mesmerized. And—though 20 years ago I would have dismissed it primarily as noise—for the most part I got some satisfaction out of it. But I still ask, “Why bother?” I’d rather listen to the vinyl in my tiny, dark, cluttered living room, being driven mad by Reed’s inventiveness and where-no-man-has-trod-before singularity. I also missed the annoyance of having to get up to change the record not once but three times. Alas, the one thing I can’t do in my living room is invite Lou up to take a bow.

Among other noteworthy events, Giuseppi Logan recently released his first recording in over 40 years, featuring the stellar cast of Matt Lavelle on trumpet and bass clarinet, Francois Grillot on bass, Warren Smith on drums, the legendary Dave Burrell on piano, and Logan on sax and piano. Along with many originals such as “Steppin’,” based on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” there are heartfelt versions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Blue Moon.” Though the elder statesman is still at times wobbly, this recording is full of warmth and soul.

An outstanding recent evening for me was the exquisite dance piece L’Homme Assis dans le Couloir, based on a Marguerite Duras story, directed, designed, and choreographed at the Baryshnikov Center by Razerka Ben Sadia-Lavant (who brought me so much pleasure in Paris with her slam adaptation of Timon of Athens), and featuring the incredible young dancer Sarah Crépin. The soundtrack consisted of male and female voices unfolding a story of love, sex, and violent death (in French) that went from pastoral to brutal. It later incorporated a heavily breathing voice and sensuous music that would suddenly burst into bits of 60s hits like “Sunny” and “These Boots” (the latter causing the dancer’s moods and strides to alter drastically). Lavant’s set, as in Timon, was simple and brilliant, consisting of a chair, clothing cast off and strewn about by Crépin, white curtains on strings manipulated to great effect, and a convex mirror that allowed part of the audience to view itself (one theme of the piece being voyeurism). The only drawback was my having to turn my attention to the monitors where the dialogue was translated into English to get the gist of the story.

Finally, the past two months have been a feast for the eyes and ears for Xenakis fans, with a major show of sound and sight at the Drawing Center and various panels and concerts throughout the city. These included a reconstructed virtual video of Poème Electronique, his collaboration with Varèse under the direction of Le Corbousier, at Judson Church. Five works were presented at Judson, including an electronic soundscape, several dance pieces, and a closing shakuhachi piece written by Yuji Takahashi. There was a tense moment in the evening when a stagehand stepped on one of the fluorescent bulbs used as a prop and it shattered with a great Xenakis-type pop, resulting in a big delay until the shards were cleaned up. It caused much concern amongst all present, because none of the dancers were wearing shoes.

Another Xenakis concert, at NYU’s Loewe Auditorium, consisted of five of his percussion pieces, three solo, one trio, and a massive group composition in which most of the audience sat on stage in the midst of the ensemble as they blew our eardrums out one moment and tantalized and teased us (with marimba-like sounds, wood, and paper) the next.

It’s always been a dream of mine to sit in the dark in the middle of surround-sound and be bombarded by deafening architectural tectonics, i.e. DRUMS and lots of ’em—not unlike being alone in your living room listening to feedback, having your head drilled full of holes while getting stoned from the music and from nothing else


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues