Tuesday, August 14, 2007


This piece, a soundtrack to the film Eat by Andy Warhol, was composed by Cale in the early 90s and, along with its companion, Kiss, was first performed with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison at the Warhol Museum in 1994. It was recorded with some revisions the next year, after Morrison's death. I'm regarding it as a single work and only as an audio track, since I haven't seen the film.

The first movement, for pedal steel and 12-string guitar, is a glacial exploration of minor chords. After the first few notes sound in the silence, like a Bach fugal theme, the 12-string plucks through one chord after another, slowly, disconnectedly. An synth or organ interjects "boat horn" sounds (yes, John Cale is on keyboards). Weird, rippling infinite guitar hangs like a canopy over the middle of the movement before gaining its own voice and injecting a new melody into the last quarter of the movement, as the boat horn is silenced.

The transition into the second movement is imperceptible. Suddenly, Cale's voice rings out - the first time on the disc, so it's all the more surprising. The slide guitar gains a more sinister metallic edge, and moves into the back left; the 12-string moves right (but keeps playing the same sort of arpeggiations). Cale's voice hangs at center, the central instrument of the movement.

He dispassionately and thoughtfully reads the parable "Melanethon", by Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century renaissance man, amateur mystic/theologian, and accidental founder of a religion. It's an excerpt from Swedenborg's most famous work, Heaven and Hell, detailing the damnation of a theologian for his belittling of the virtue of Charity. In tone, the writing is closer to Kafka or Stanley Donwood than Christ. It's a haunting little vignette.

After the final word ("demons") has passed from Cale's lips, sinister strummed chords sound. You know, like the "dun dun duhhhh" of movie soundtrack cliché. The infinite guitar spirals around like a metallic buzzard. But then the 12-string modulates up, begins strumming nice, comfortable major chords. A violin joins, banishing the slide guitar, and starts singing a pretty song. Soon enough, Moe is adding a light drumbeat and the rest of the strings join. Yes, movement three is an elegant little hot club shuffle. (Well, on downers - this is all very slow music.)

It all fades for the last movement. The slide guitar started singing at the end of the third movement, and it oversees the transition into Cale piano work. It's pensive and graceful and slight, this waltz duet. And then it's over, the audience claps and we can all go home.

I don't know how this music matched a home video of a guy eating a mushroom, but maybe you had to be there. It's interesting that Cale's mentor and nemesis, La Monte Young, did the soundtrack for a group of Warhol excerpts including Eat and Kiss. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not?

It's interesting music, but the first two movements are a little too loose and the last two are rather conventional. It's fine listening, but it doesn't really stand up to "Kiss." Cale's reading of "Melanethon," though, is definitely worth a listen for Kafka fans and lovers of creepy radio serials. The guy's voice is just mesmerising.

By popular demand, here's the 'Melanethon' segment. High quality flash player, low quality MP3.


Ian said...

I'm immensely fascinated by your description of this one and really want to hear it, especially the Swedenborg (not the first time I've heard his name, although certainly the first time it's been in a musical context!). How long is the piece, all four movements together?

Inverarity said...

Twenty-one minutes. Which is rather mysterious, as the film is thirty-nine. Hm.

Ian said...

It's all down to the three Rs.

Inverarity said...

... it is?