Ulrich Krieger all rights reserved. Last updated 03/2016 contact
METAL MACHINE MUSIC
An 1975 album by Lou Reed
An amazing project which is still ongoing.
The mission: transfer 100% electronical feedback noise into scores for electrified acoustic instruments. Then perform this with a bunch of bold performers who are not afraid to go beyond usual playing techniques and beyond the usual friendly treatment of their instruments.
Performances so far by:
zeitkratzer, Berlin and Venice (together with Lou Reed)
The Great Learning Orchestra, Stockholm
Sonic Boom, Valencia
California Ear Unit w/ Sonic Boom, Los Angeles
Fireworks, New York
What would you say is the main difference between the original and your
reworking - how would you decsribe both to someone who had never heard either?!
I think that the arrangement emphasises more the orchestral side of MMM, while the original more the Rock music side of it. Although I think that both versions have both sides in it, it is the 'matter of the beast' that the two versions have different emphasis. Otherwise an ensemble arrangement wouldn't have made sense to start with, if it would be exactly like Lou's guitar original. And to come back to the beginning, my idea of transcribing MMM came out of the 'orchestral-ness' I hear in Lou's original.
What gave you the idea of arranging and performing Metal Machine Music in
The idea to transcribe it came natural to me. The other side of my musical upbringing beside Rock music was so-called 'New Music'/'Classical Contemporary Avantgarde Music'. From very early on I listend to composers like Schönberg, Xenakis, Nono, Stockhausen (but not pre-20th century classical music). The same thing that interests me in Rock, Industrial Music, No Wave, and Noise music, is what interests me in New Music: sound, soundscapes and structure, which is the large scale format of rhythm. For me these are the essentials of music - not harmony, not melody. So music is coming full circle today: archaic ritual music consists mostly of theses two parameter: sound and rhythm - and long durations and so does a lot of contemporary music of any style, even dance music like Techno.
And I found all of this in MMM: intricate, beautiful, complex and daring soundcolors like in New Music, the rough, sheer force of real Rock music, and a ritual, archaic, long duration intensity. So Lou brought this together from the rock guitar side of things and I wanted to emphasize the orchestral side of it and the human touch and group experience by having it performed live.
Am I right in thinking Lou Reed said it couldn't be done? What was his
reaction when you proved him wrong?
Lou was blown away and he loved it. After what he went through with the original MMM, which nearly could have killed his career, there were suddenly a bunch of young musicians taking this music and him serious, and then took it even a step further, made it into a piece, which could be performed live by a group in concert. For me it was giving back something, because MMM had been a big influence on me.
How would you judge whether you had succeeded or not?
For me it is if I succeeded in being as close as possible to the original with this new instrumentation, specially sound wise and as a sonic experience. And on the other hand, if I was able to bring out the orchestral dimension of the original MMM as talked about above.
The problem of orchestral or string quartet arrangements of rock music, which seem to be popular today, is that the arrangers often don't have a knowledge of rock music, nor do they actually love it.
They just transcribe the pitches and the rhythms, but they miss the whole point. They don't transcribe the sounds of Rock, which for me is the ultimate essential, nor its intensity, nor its social component. If you turn on the radio in your car, how do you know that you listen to, let's say: The Rolling Stone, also when Jagger is not singing ? It is not the harmonies, it is not the melodies, it is not the rhythms, because these all are used by uncountable other bands as well, they are kind of blue prints. It is the sound and the way the play it and with it. So if you don't transcribe this you miss it, you fail. Another example is a CD of House and Techno pieces performed by a British brass band. The idea is great, but it doesn't work. The arranger himself says in the liner notes, that he didn't know this kind of music before, he's purely classical. The transcriptions are accurate, in terms of pitch and rhythm, but he ignored the sound and he didn't get the style and specially not the philosophy behind the music. He couldn't make the brass band sound like an old 808 and he couldn't make them sound as ritual as the original. And actually I think that a brass band would be great for playing House tunes. You can hear the same problem when listening to projects like: Metallica and Orchestra, etc. The orchestra never moves towards the sounds and style of playing of the group it is playing with, which is a problem of the arranger and the conductor. It is doable. Another failure was the Warp project with chamber orchestra. Same problem: the arrangers were classical composers, not knowing, loving the music they arranged. And the players were not fluent in the style of Warp. In the concert they mixed Warp arrangements with New Music pieces. The New Music were performed fantastically, the Warp pieces sounded dull. A slightly better project is 'Apocalyptica' the scandinavian cello quartet. They started out playing Metallica and Metal tunes, because they love this music, they know it and they play and make sound their celli in a way closer to Rock than classical.
What did you hope to bring to the piece that was not already there?
As already said above, it is the orchestral depth and the human touch of classical instruments and a 10-piece ensemble. Also I wanted to emphasize MMM as a 'missing link' between so-called contemporary classical art music/New Music and avant- or advanced-rock music. Another motivation was to make it into a live event to be experienced by a group audience, instead of a studio production to be experienced alone at home under headphones. The social, ritual aspect of it.
I imagine this is all part of a consistent philosophy which underlies other Zeitkraster projects too?
Yes, it is also a lot about the redefinition of instrumental, acoustic playing through the (re-)influence of electronic music. Arrangements of electronic and Rock music like: Noise-Merzbow, Karkowski, 'Glitch Electronica'-alva noto, Terre Thaemlitz, Rock-Lee Ranaldo, Deicide, Industrial-Throbbing Gristle were always a part of the zeitkratzer repertoire, beside modern composition, silent music, and many other contemporary musical styles also exploring that path. I never accepted these arbitrary style definitions. They are not used so much to identify a style in order to be able to talk about it, but to actually divide music into easy to consume portions and to make one style of contemporary artistic musical expression better than another. This is for the people, who need easy-to-identify guidelines, for companies to sell products. But our world is very complex and we should embrase the diversity and the fantastic juxtapositions possible. I want to bridging the gap between so-called art music, rock and many other styles of expression. The three styles I am most interested in is advanced-Rock, electronica and contemporary composition, using the 'best-of-all-worlds'.
How did you approach the task of transcribing Metal Machine Music for
classical instruments? Did you work first on the large-scale structure and then
fill in the details later, or did you work through from beginning to end? Did
you use conventional notation?
Yes, first large scale. Mainly I first listened to MMM trying to identify which of the sounds in MMM could be played/taken over by which instruments of our group zeitkratzer.
Thus generating a general draft/idea/map of the instrumentation: who/which player/instrument can do what and in which way. Then Luca Venitucci, back then the accordion player of the group, and me separately did a rough transcription of the piece - two pair of ears hear more than one. Then we compared what we heard and put it together. We did several rounds on several speaker systems, always getting more and more into details: main tonal field (MMM is not atonal !), details, durations, melodies, etc. We used several sound systems and pairs of headphones, because on each system you hear different aspects of MMM better or worse. After that I wrote out the score in proportional time notation with Luca's assistance. My experience as a contemporary composer helped, of course. I know instrumentation and I know how to get strange, unusual sounds out of classical instruments and how to notate that. The notation is more or less conventional. Not as in classical music, but as in standard 'New Music'. Amplification plays an important role as well. Most of my own (chamber) music is amplified, so I know how to use amplification to put to further use in getting weird sounds out of classical instruments.
Am I right in thinking MMM is key-less? Did that make it more difficult or
easier to transcribe/rework for orchestra?
Actually you are not right. Keyless would mean atonal. MMM is not atonal, but modal, that means it has a fundamental key. It is based on an open fifth to which the guitars were tuned and the overtones thereof. Having found that out, transcribing became easier, because we, Luca Venitucci and me, knew what we were supposed to listen to and easily could also identify pitches, which would not match the main mode.
Does guitar feedback consist of various notes, or one or two predominant
notes - ie can be be tuned, or 'played'?
Feedback in general consists of a fundamental pitch and its overtones. So if you hear a feedback and it jumps into higher tones you can be pretty sure it is one of the overtones of the main pitch. Therefore it actually is not much different than any other tone in music, which all follow the same rule. Therefore it can be 'played', because specific pitches can be attributed to a feedback and its deviants. And specially wind instruments can 'mimic' feedback sounds, if the play very purely, without noise components in the tone and without vibrato, very steady, nearly emotionless.
It seems that your score employs some very unconventional playing
techniques. Could you describe some of these techniques, and explain how you
used them to recreate the tones from Metal Machine Music?
Yes, there are many playing techniques used in 'New Music', techniques developed by the inventive, individual players of zeitkratzer, I could use and techniques developed by me, also using the way we work with microphones. Maybe just two examples: the strings are amplified with pick-ups and microphones. They play a lot 'sul ponticello' (at the bridge) in order to bring out more of the overtones, which is strongly emphasized by the pick-ups. So we get a very rich string sound with many overtones clashing at each other, much like the guitars leant against the amplifiers. But they use very refined sul ponticello, always changing the distance to the bridge, the pressure of the bow, speed of the bowing, etc. so the overtone clouds move and change and live. The wind instruments often play rather soft, but very close to the mic or even with the mic in the bell, so we get a very sine tone like quality, which sounds a lot like feedback.
I imagine that such a challenging piece must have required a lot of
rehearsal. Did it evolve much during the rehearsal period?
Of course it did. The musicians needed to get acquainted with the material and also find their position in the overall structure of the piece. In standard classical or even avantgarde music the long time experience of the musicians let one know, if you have to be upfront, accompanying in the back, solo, etc. with what you do. With MMM it was very different. Although all of this exists and is relevant to MMM, you need to define your role anew. Specially, because it is a no-ego music. You might not be heard as a individual player with your part, but you still bring an important aspect to the piece, which adds up to the overall sound and experience. If you don't play, it will be heard. If you play, the audience might not recognize you playing. This is a very new and a different experience for a musician.
Did you use electronic treatments and processing on the live instruments,
or were the mics and so on purely for amplification?
There is no electronic treatment or processing. The only treatment, if you like to call it that, was the amplification and the microphones, plus some standard tools you even use for normal big hall or
outdoor orchestra concerts like a bit of compression. The only compromise, if you want to call it that, was that we used guitar distortion on the strings. But this was mainly due to that we only had 4 string players and we needed to fill up the sound. In the GLO performance in Stockholm I had nearly 16 strings and we could do without the distortion pedals. And it sounds great.
I don’t see any conductor on the DVD. How is everyone staying in time?
What time signature is this in? What does the score look like?
There is no conductor. The score is written in a proportional time notation, so there is no time signature. One page equals a minute, subdivided in seconds. There are several big clocks on stage the musicians have to watch and follow. This is a technique we didn't develop. It was used already in the early 60s by John Cage and today by many composers, although not very often for larger ensembles. Everybody reads from the score, so you can and have to follow also what the others are doing as well as following the clock. The score looks more or less traditional (not as in classical music, but as in contemporary music), but using many new notation symbols, some common in contemporary music, many of my own invention. The musicians need to learn the new symbols, but once they are understood it is pretty straight ahead.