Swinging Modern Sounds #12: Metal Machine

By

As I mentioned a few posts back (see: “On Repetition”), I am friendly with a writer from Santa Fe called Tim Ramick. I have never met him, but we correspond now and again on various subjects. I admire his uncompromising devotion to his aesthetic. Recently, I’ve been writing a long piece somewhat about the Velvet Underground, and in the course of that piece I stumbled on a recording I thought Ramick would like, and the following exchange ensued. Some points of information: Ramick’s wife is Laura, and his son is Reeve (who is in school in Glasgow, Scotland). My wife is Amy and my daughter is Hazel (who is 3-months old). Ramick (who is a compositional voice in which Tim Taylor, somewhat Pessoa-like, composes) has lately spawned a couple of additional voices and manners. Thus the opening of the exchange. And as it will be noted, Ramick agreed to let this correspondence be published on the condition that I change nothing. Basically, I swindled him into writing these lines (though it didn’t occur to me to post these lines until after I saw how good they were), and a doctrine on the acceptance of error was  the pound of flesh exacted.

Dear He who is no longer Ramick,

I’m having a Metal Machine Music moment. Have you heard this cover of the whole thing by Zeitkratzer? I know nothing about it except that it’s on iTunes and I got myself one. Rather sublime, rather sublime. You should get one and we can compare notes.

R.

*

Still Taylor, still Ramick, but now the two other quadrants, too, for
survival or endurance, I don’t know, but that is of small substantive
worth. Fool’s play.

I’ve been thinking of you some today, oddly enough, not sure why,
perhaps residue from the fact of Hazel Jane, wondering how the world
is now different for you, how you move through your days (and your
nights) and your pages. Laura is in Mississippi with her sister and
brother for ten days and they’ll be attending the Delta Blues Festival
while I’m taking off equal time to find another job (I’ve given June
30 notice—I want to do more physical work while my body can still
withstand some abuse). But today I’ve spent the day trying to write.
Brutal. And l.o.n.e.l.y. Cearley’s not any better at this than Ramick.
Sayes has it easy, since his task is (in essence) prescribed. Why this
persistent pursuance (silliness)?

But not silly, from what I’ve heard tell anyway, is this Zeitkratzer
stuff. I can’t listen to it here at home because of our dial up, but I
have a $15 gift card for iTunes in my wallet that I’ve been wondering
what to do with—so I’ll use it on Saturday up at the Institute and
throw it on an iPod and let you know what happens to me. Perhaps
they’ll next transcribe Merzbow’s 50CD box set of noise
(http://www.discogs.com/release/100630). I wanted to buy that set and
find a stereo that could handle 50 CDs on shuffle and start it and
then leave it on shuffle—even when away from the house and while
sleeping (or trying to sleep!)—for an entire year.

“Rather sublime” said twice itself, is itself.

Do you know the Garfield minus Garfield comic?
(http://garfieldminusgarfield.net/)

I was thinking of what that would be like for moving images—perhaps
The Brady Bunch with only Marcia. All other characters and their
actions and their voices would be removed. Marcia would talk to
herself a lot (when she was present) and inhabit her own strange world
a la Markson’s (or Wittgenstein’s) Mistress—but there would mostly
just be lots of shots and reaction shots of the (now) mostly always
empty house. Not sure what to do with the laugh track. These musings
also for some reason made me think of you.

Well, enough. You can tell I’ve been alone for the past couple days
without much sleep or esteem. I’ll get my legs under me around day six
(of sans Laura).

Tim

*

Do you want to amplify the conceptual underpinnings re: Cearley, and the other guy (guy? or indeterminate?) Sayes? Spelling correct? I’m doing it from memory in case memory is somehow relevant?

I like the idea of Bradys with just Marcia. Or maybe just Alice’s boyfriend. Wandering around that house wondering. Or wondering around the house wandering.

Writing, yes, is brutal.

The Hazel situation is hard at the moment because she has hip issues (like the Wife, who has a rather bad case of dysplasia) and they are trying to enharness her in a way that feels very Victorian or Dickensian or something. There has been much tension surrounding Hazel. Who is mostly ignorant of all this, I think, and very happy on occasion. I really do adore her in a way I have adored nothing in my life. As for work, work is now something that has to be fitted around her. And it is strange trying to finish up this novel that feels very B.H. I can already feel the outline of A.H. Which is maybe what Cearley is: A.R.W.S. or After Reeve Went to Scotland. I think my manner is about to change again. I’m going to do music essays after this novel, and then stories, perhaps, and a novel that I feel listing toward me, but it has no jokes and much less plot. Back to an older more European model, or A.H., where the prose must save lives. I tried to be nice for a while, because I felt brutalized by The Black Veil, but now I want my daughter, one day, to be proud of me.

The shorter answer is: when am I going to write? I have no time to write.

R.

P.S. I’ll go check Garfield(less).

(later) Garfield(less) is most excellent.

*

Rick,

First of all, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’d heard
about it early last year and had absently failed to follow up. That
would have been my loss. So, primarily, despite any spew below, thanks
so much.

I’ve listened to Zeitkratzer’s MMM twice now. I liked it better the
first time, but I still liked it the second time, so I’m not sure what
subsequent listens will bring. I also listened to Ascension and
Crippled Symmetry and OV and Music for 18 Musicians today for sake of
comparison.

The textures are wondrous. It’s almost unimaginable that it’s all
acoustic and that it’s done live (more on this aspect later). And I
think it would have quickly jumped to my top shelf of favorite
compositions if not for the following problems (for me):

I don’t care about its history. I wish I didn’t know. I’ve only heard
Reed’s MMM once, long ago, and wasn’t that impressed (although it was
before I had much of an internal lexicon for these sorts of things).
So its “rock star” origins don’t do anything for me. The fact that
Krieger transcribed it in its entirety is such an astonishing fact
that it somewhat pollutes the experience for me. This knowledge will
become less problematic with future listens, I’m sure. I don’t like
the way it’s presented, live in three sections with applause
interruption (though it must be exhausting for the performers and they
probably couldn’t go 45 minutes without stopping). It’s very jarring
to suddenly hear the audience and realize I’m not alone in all that
glorious sound but am a voyeur to their experience. Why not a
definitive studio recording (sans crowd and sans Reed) so that it
could stand as a piece of music and not as a remarkable performance
event (stunt)? I don’t at all care for Reed’s guitar solo that nearly
finishes the work and it isn’t even up to the original’s standards (if
memory serves).

Do you have the original MMM? Is it worth purchasing for comparison?

Zeitkratzer’s version certainly holds up to Orthrelm’s OV (or anything
I’ve heard from Merzbow or Earth or Sun O))) or Dead C for sustained
noise-throb). But it doesn’t match Ascension’s palpability, Feldman’s
endless tension-weaves, or Reich’s pulses and flows.

The best parts of it all make me think a little of Xenakis’ plateau-like slabs.

In the end, I’d say it lacks the resonances of intention (a private
inner life). Still, I’m quite grateful to have made its acquaintance.
And will seek out more like it, if such exists. Please let me know if
you get wind of anything.

Tim

*

Tim, you are, as always, a remarkable hard ass. This is, I expect, one of your adorable qualities. I agree that any participation of Lou in the piece is problematic. I also agree that Lou cannot play very well anymore. Lou remains a challenging character. (I’m writing about New York underground music right now, and that’s what led me in this direction in the first place. And he certainly doesn’t come off too well in those accounts, the accounts of the Velvets.) Part of the problem IS the sort of “authorized” quality of the Metal Machine Music recording we have at hand. Maybe they couldn’t get the rights unless Lou got his grimy fingers all over it. And I recommend not believing everything he has to say on the subject. In a way, for me, the best analogue for this recording is the Bang on a Can All-Stars recording of Music For Airports, which was one of the very first of these “classical” covers of popular music (there are many others: Alarm Will Sound covering Aphex Twin (great in spots); that jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (sp) covering Radiohead (not terribly interesting to me, as Radiohead is only fleetingly compelling, I think); Ensemble Moderne doing Frank Zappa (quite spectacular on the first disc)). In the Music For Airports performance the balancing act is just as intense, because it too is really loop-oriented. On the original MMM, the piece is recorded in loops, but it’s really hard to tell where the loops begin and end, as the piece has no melodic center. It would be easy to duplicate this piece, in a way, by saying: okay the drone lasts for 48 minutes, or however long the original LP would have lasted. With Music For Airports, the loops are melodic, so you have to score out the whole thing for the exact number of repetitions that you have on the original. What was great about the Bang on a Can recording is that as the album wears on, they take greater liberties with the original, so that by the final piece (“2/2”) they have a clarinet adding these filigrees of new melody expanding on what was, originally, a piece for analogue synthesizer. This is a hallmark of the sub-genre (serious music renderings of pop), and I think, as with Proust’s description of metaphor (in Proust on Ruskin, I think), serious music achieves best when the rendering is at the greatest possible distance from the original. Clarinet and analogue synthesizer, e.g. Anyway, for me, this recording of MMM has a similar feel, and the transcription must have been arduous, yes, and the performance was probably arduous, yes, but remember that the original piece was four sides of an LP, and thus had breaks in it too. So there’s a rationale for pauses. And as far as doing it before a live audience goes, there’s the issue of how “classical” ensembles get paid. Usually, a piece is a commissioned for a specific venue (the Berlin Opera House, e.g.), and it’s possible that Zeitkratzer didn’t record the piece first because they had the arrangement with Berlin Opera House to perform it. One of my very favorite recent albums, A Crimson Grail by Rhys Chatham, is scored for 400 electric guitars, and that piece was performed first (in fact, I don’t think it would be possible to do it in a studio setting, unless you rented out an entire concert hall), in a church (can’t remember which right now) in Paris. I think Zeitkratzer sort of had that piece in mind when doing this one, or that’s my guess.

If you can set aside the contextual issues, which I agree are genuine issues, is it possible to enjoy the piece? I admit that I love drones, and I don’t experience drones as difficult listening at all. They calm me down. In the same way that we have both agreed that “extreme” repetition works on the limbic system. I’m thinking for example of La Monte Young’s tamboura-only piece, which lasts for an hour. Or many of his other pieces, or the very long Feldman pieces (which I don’t think count, really, because they actually have melodic development, if extremely slow and repetitious melodic development). The original recording of MMM was actually, however, slightly irritating. I think there was some kind of tritone or minor-second harmonic thing therein that was designed to impede your ability to “enjoy” the drone. My tolerance for dissonance has increased dramatically since I was a young person, since first hearing the piece, and I confess that there’s a lot that I like about MMM now. The original that is. I still find it challenging for some reason (I think it really screeches), but I like it in some ways. I don’t have a deep abiding desire to listen to it all the way through. And I think listening to drones all the way through is sort of being completist about it, and slightly anal. Coming in and out of the piece is just as reasonable an approach, and listener-centered to boot. There WERE contextual issues for me, with respect to the initial recording of MMM. Lou was in the midst of his solo career, having made recently, I think, the very lackluster Sally Can’t Dance, or the very commercial Transformer, and then he released this helping of fuck off to the fans, and it was never quite clear if it was a deliberate fuck off, or if he thought he was actually making art. There’s some very good Lester Bangs writing on the subject (in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung), and it’s in there that Lou says that there are all kinds of serious music “samples” (though this was the era before samples) buried in the mix of MMM. I resist this boast. I bet Lou recorded the piece quickly, probably not in a state that was free of intoxicants, and he wasn’t thinking at all about the long term ramifications of the piece. The Velvets were just in the process of becoming recognized for their legitimate greatness, though a lot of the reputation of that greatness was being lofted upon the shoulders of John Cale, who DID come from the La Monte Young school of drones, and maybe Lou wanted to serve some of the big fuck you in the direction of that high art stuff. He wanted to indicate that he could think “avant-garde” and that he thought it was all pretentious nonsense at the same time.

The Zeitkratzer recording pries the music loose from its earlier reputation. Or more exactly it represents an interpretation of the meaning of MMM. A very different interpretation. For me, the meaning of Zeitkratzer is in the realm of “serious” music. And partly that’s because of the textures. Lou’s piece is scored for electric guitar (feedback) and nothing but. The Zeitkratzer piece is scored for chamber orchestra, with lots of amplified strings and brass, and so on. That is “virtuosic,” which is a hallmark of serious music, especially serious music played in concert halls, and it is also performed live, which again signifies its seriousness. But if you can set that stuff aside, for me it’s actually the better and more interesting rendering off MMM, because everyone knows the guitar feeds back at certain intervals and with certain frequencies. And because the string textures are richer and more powerful than just guitar timbres. In away, Zeitkratzer interprets MMM as though it’s a Velvet Underground piece, instead of a Lou Reed piece, and in particular, a Velvet Underground piece from the Cale period. It leaves out the fuck off portion of the thing (even when Lou plays with them on the third part).

This may be a good time to opine that Lou Reed’s last two albums now, are a) an ambient electronic album for meditators (or so he says) called Hudson River Wind Meditations, and b) a trio recording called Metal Machine Trio. The latter is a clear attempt to capitalize on what was learned from the ZeitKratzer recording and for Reed to return to his roots as a droning primitivist. I think the Hudson River Wind Meditations piece is only fleetingly interesting, and I don’t find New Age electronic music relaxing. It makes me nervous (in a way that MMM, in either rendering, does not). The Metal Machine Trio album, however, is occasionally interesting. But there’s also an element of exhaustion about it, as if the idea no longer has the provocative aspect it once had (there are much more provocative players of drones, these days, than a Lou Reed in his late sixties). With the result that is sounds almost refined, kind of the way, say, that Robert Fripp sounds now, improvised, sure, virtuosic, sure, but kind of polite, too. As if what Lou Reed learned from Zeitkratzer was how to be a concert musician. Of the serious sort. That said, I like Metal Machine Trio. It’s not hard to listen to.

Maybe part of the issue is that history has passed the minimalist idea by, now, and it’s no longer possible to make a truly minimalist recording, by which I mean a recording in the style of La Monte Young, or In C, without sounding like you are quaintly associating yourself with a historical notion of counterculture and all its ancient trappings. This would depress me, if true. I still love La Monte Young and think of a performance I saw of his Second Dream brass piece as one of the great listening moments of my life. Maybe, therefore, I’m arguing for MMM, because I want to believe that you can still make music like this.

Peace,
r.

*

Rick,

I enjoy reading your thoughts on music (and look forward to the future
essays and more blog posts, both because of your insights around music
and your skills with language, but also because of some wide-field or
even freckle-level affinity). And I accept all of your clarifications
and adjustments of my granite-reared position on Zeitkratzer’s version
of Metal Machine Music, except one: I very much appreciate various
Peel Sessions because they were generally done live with some
spontaneity, but without an audience (a crowd of clappers and hooters
and whistlers),* so I assume Rhys Chatham and his four hundred
guitarists could have recorded a live performance in the Sacré-Coeur
without an audience (or at least not a significant or audible one).
Same with the Zeitkratzer ensemble. But, as usual, I’m leaving out the
economic portion (a paying crowd offsets the costs of the production),
not to mention the energy an audience provides for the performers (as
if the piece of music and one’s fellow performers aren’t sufficient
energy in and of themselves). And my bias is such that I’d always
prefer to listen to an ensemble or band practicing in the next room
(or even just listen to a recording of the session, or just feel the
resonance of the sound through the wall with my hand) than ever have
to deal with the social milieu of a live concert setting.

I still have some iTunes credit so I’ll see if any of the works you
mention (A Crimson Grail, the Ensemble Moderne’s Zappa covers, Bang on
a Can’s Eno-ing) are available next time I’m up at SFI. I agree with
your feelings regarding New Age Music (about it making you nervous),
but I would recommend one work: Steve Roach’s Structures From Silence
(not the whole album, just the title track). It’s sublime when
listened to alone in bed in the middle of the night. It’s not La Monte
Young
, but it’s singular nevertheless.

Your email was stunningly generous (humbling to receive). I assume you
can/will modify/amplify it for a blog entry or music essay.

I’m listening to Dirty Three’s entire career output on shuffle today
(in all its shadow-soar and shambolic lumber).

Cheer and time,
Tim

*

perhaps someone could transcribe (for orchestra) the sounds of
various massive audience appreciation moments (encore appeals) and
make an hour long drone of that…

PS No one has tried to sneak the word “adorable” on to my property
before, not even Laura, so I found your deployment of it amusing
(although I still had the thing shot before it got ten yards past the
hedge).

*

Can I run the exchange as is on the blog? Or would that violate the Ramick code?

r.

*

Um. Okay. I’m happy to help you out, provided (as long as it wouldn’t
break your code) you mention in some sort of quick (even
parenthetical) intro that I wasn’t aware this exhange would go public
while I was writing my half, but agreed to let it appear AS IS after
the fact. That said, I trust you to do what seems true and fair to
you, as I approve of your notion of running it exactly as is (our
modest little version of an impromptu and unrehearshed Peel Session).
However, if you’re able to tidy matters for readers by italicizing (or
standardizing in some way) all titles, that strikes me as a reasonable
non-violation of the “as is” declaration. – Tim

*

Tim, I was listening to the demos of the pre-Velvets (the Warlocks?), just Reed, Cale, Morrison, rehearsing the early songs. Disc one of the box set. And it seems to be just what you want: like a John Peel session before there was John Peel. Lots of stops and starts. And beautifully skewed renderings of songs that later became classics, like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” with a Johnny Cash feel.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →