Reinhold Friedl: Xenakis [a]live!

Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music

The loudest sound on zeitkratzer's ("time scratcher" in German) re-creation of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music isn't, in fact, the fifty-minute maelstrom of white noise captured in all its pulverizing glory on this remarkable and invaluable CD-DVD release. No, it's vindication that screams loudest, vindication, that is, for Reed who survived the debacle surrounding the original's 1975 appearance: at first submitted to RCA's classical label without success, the album subsequently was released by RCA, but then provoked such a firestorm of bewilderment and outrage (apparently prompting the largest number of store returns to date) that it was taken off the market three weeks after release. Perhaps no recording has ever matched it in Rorschach terms: to many listeners, the original Metal Machine Music seems an act of artistic hari-kari, to others a perverse affront, one more in an ongoing series of vindictive affronts perpetrated by Reed upon his fans, or perhaps a not-so-subtle attempt to terminate his contract with RCA, while others, cognizant of the one-time Velvet Underground member's affinity for artists like John Cage, LaMonte Young, and Iannis Xenakis, hear it as one more key moment in the history of avant-garde composition—admittedly, those in the first groups outnumber those in the latter.

The original double-album's punishing cyclone of guitar-generated feedback squalls and amplifier hums largely mystified in 1975; heard in 2007 by listeners now more attuned to noise, industrial, and drone genres and artists like Merzbow, zeitkratzer's interpretation sounds positively palatable. The mere fact of transcription alone beggars belief, yet, remarkably, the group's saxophonist, Ulrich Krieger, succeeded in creating an acoustic score for the ten-member Berlin ensemble to perform live (for the record, the new version is in three parts, each of which is of approximately seventeen-minutes duration; Reed's original includes four parts, with each indicated as being 16:01 minutes long). Strings, horns, piano, accordion, and percussion collectively roar for an exhilarating fifty minutes (applause erupts during brief pauses after each part) in a manner that matches the hellacious spirit and pitch of the original. Sonic contrasts between instruments allow the listener to isolate parts within the mass and pull fragments of melody from the vortex; violin, sax, and percussion separate themselves most audibly, while the piano and accordion are swallowed into the mass. Both the CD and DVD document the live presentation that occurred at the Maerzmusik Haus der Berliner Festpiele on March 17, 2002 with Reed himself contributing guitar to the third part; how fitting, too, that it includes a three-minute episode of Reed playing alone, a seeming gesture of tribute by zeitkratzer to the composer that returns the piece to its roots. Be forewarned, though. The seething wail produced by the group is far from easy listening, but it does bring forth the piece's musicality to a degree one might not have thought possible.

To its credit, Asphodel not only documented the performance on CD but has issued it on DVD too along with an interview with Reed conducted by Diedrich Diederichsen at the concert hall prior to zeitkratzer's performance. The DVD's presentation of the group's performance is admirably unadorned. A panoramic frontal view of the full ensemble alternates with closer shots of smaller groups or individuals, with the ten members positioned symmetrically around a central chair that Reed occupies during the concert's final minutes. When he saunters onstage forty-five minutes into the performance, the moment is dramatic, and when the band drops out, allowing Reed's solo guitar spotlight to revisit the white heat of the original, the moment is mesmerizing. His reputation as a difficult interview is well-known but, here at least, Reed is accommodating and forthcoming. He rejects the conventional notion that Metal Machine Music is a cacophony of noise and instead points out that the melodies buried within the piece can be heard if one listens closely enough. He regales the audience with anecdotes too, like the one about the euphemistic ‘metal machine music' clause that today's record companies include in contracts which stipulates that an artist must submit material to the label that sounds like the artist the company signed. In the interview, Reed also lays to rest any confusion about his own intentions with the 1975 release. Far from some self-immolating exercise in career suicide, he released it simply because he loved it, especially the physicality of the full-body sound that was generated by analogue loops hitting one another.

Xenakis [a]live!, also issued as a joint CD-DVD release and performed by zeitkratzer, makes a natural companion to Metal Machine Music. zeitkratzer pianist Reinhold Friedl's fifty-seven minute composition pays tribute to Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) by recreating acoustically what were once primarily studio-generated sounds, specifically Xenakis' tape compositions. A pioneer of electronic and computer music, the Greek composer was a one-time architectural assistant to Le Corbusier who also attended Messiaen's Paris Conservatoire classes; though Xenakis [a]live! doesn't include literal transcriptions of the composer's material, Friedl's slow-moving, monolithic homage definitely exemplifies a Xenakis-like architectural solidity. Much like Metal Machine Music, Xenakis [a]live! is an extremely challenging and exhausting listen that seldom deviates from its relentless assault, though the violent intensity level does diminish slightly at about the thirty-six minute mark, and the volume level abruptly drops to a whisper in the final minutes. What's remarkable is not so much the composition itself but zeitkratzer's impassioned realization of it.

Unlike the Metal Machine Music DVD, the video presentation by Rechenzentrum's Lillevan doesn't include footage of the ensemble. Instead, the German video artist uses photographs and film fragments of the Iranian city of Persepolis as source material, though his treatments render the material unrecognizable as such. The piece begins with vertical bars of mutating colour and pattern that expand and contract in time to the music in a style not dissimilar from the video work included in Rechenzentrum's 2003 release Director's Cut. Eventually the bars blend into a rectangular display of suggestive pictorial character where horizontals move in and out of focus and the multi-layered screen elements become copper, hair-like patterns that rapidly criss-cross at various angles. Finely-detailed black and gold details then crowd the screen, mutating like minute organisms. In its later stages, the images come into clearer focus though never so much that they can be identified as literal, real-world elements. Having flirted with recognizability, the visuals return to the abstract form of the beginning. Lillevan's piece is a spectacularly realized wedding of visuals and sound that captivates from start to finish.

September 2007