Monday, August 20, 2007

The Second Fortress

I haven't reviewed any of these yet. They're intimidating. There are more questions in the New York in the 1960s series than answers, and I don't have the training in Stockhausen and Xenakis and friends to speak meaningfully about how or if this stuff fits into the detonation of the Western music tradition that occurred in the middle part of the 20th century. I'm not really sure that La Monte Young & Co's drony antics really had a meaningful connection to their mathematical forebears, for that matter.

Questions I wish I could answer:

  • Is it music?
  • Is it really meant to be listened to?
  • Was the performance the point and the recording just chaff?
  • Is it some kind of practical joke? (Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music undeniably has a significant "joke" component, but this stuff was recorded before the Velvet Underground, before John Cale had anyone to piss off except his friends and neighbors.)
  • If you listen to eleven minutes of the same electronic organ chord, distorted this way and that, are you opening your mind or boring a hole in it?
You have to understand, too, the state your mind is in by the time you get to the final track of the first disc of the New York in the 1960s box set, Sun Blindness Music. You've heard 43 minutes of the same incredibly overdriven electric organ chord. You've heard a solid eleven minutes of an electric guitar chord being thrashed to death. Your nervous system has done things that it really shouldn't be doing: chills going this way, chills going that way, some atavistic tingling at the back of your skull, all in response to changes in the sound that you can't really perceive directly.

And then Cale takes a drill to your ears. While the so-called "Sun Blindness Music," the 43-minute track, adds and removes tones from the chord, providing a more accessible listen (at least in any given 11-minute block), "The Second Fortress" is a more direct aural equivalent of staring fixedly into the sun. You hear the same set of tones throughout, but there are some phase differences you hear as the track wears on. The sound is filtered, cut up, strangled, shaken. Any structure in this piece all comes from what is done to the sound. It's inexorable and meaningless. It fades out, but you still hear the tone in the surrounding silence, just as you see the sun after it has burned into your retinas.

It is very easy to make fun of attempts in all the arts to make things as primitive and stark as they can be. I've been known to do it. Blank canvases and Rothko don't move me. Last Year at Marienbad seemed so pretentious and stupid I couldn't even keep up a running parody after the first hour. I haven't heard many of the premier musical minimalists, but I don't see why musical minimalism or structuralism would be any less risible. (Iannis Xenakis seeming much smarter than me notwithstanding.) But this stuff directly engages my nervous system in a way that less devolved music doesn't. It's uncomfortable, it's rather frightening, and I don't know that it's healthy, but it's undeniable.


Cucumber Jones said...

Interesting comments about Metal Machine Music as "a joke". Interestingly, Reed is about to release "Metal Machine Music Live" with German chamber music ensemble, Zeitkratzer. The CD/DVD will be released on September 4th by Asphodel Records. Twenty-seven years after it's original release in '75, Berlin-based sax player Ulrich Krieger transcribed MMM into a classical contemporary acoustic score. The results are impressive, making what was originally an album of guitar feedback and analogue loops into an exciting classical make-over. Reed even performs drone guitar on the third movement. It's recorded and filmed at the Berlin Opera House in 2002. But don't take my word for it -

Inverarity said...

Thanks for the info! I'm a fan of Metal Machine Music, and have listened to it in whole probably more times than a person should. I'll pick up this new version when it's released. (The name of the label, dear readers, is purely coincidental - our Asphodel has only listened to MMM through ceilings and walls.)

Whether he intended it as a joke at his label's and listeners' expense or not, MMM has a certain something. However, Reed's nonsense liner notes and spurious technical specs hint very strongly at mischief.

Cucumber Jones said...

Didn't Cale record an album called Caribbean Sunset? I don't think it ever got released on CD (vinyl only). Did you ever hear it? Is it any good?

Anonymous said...

Okay, there seems to be a bit of confusion about the original Metal Machine Music. I remember buying it and hating it because I thought I was buying Rock and Roll Animal part 3. What I got was guitar feedback, which at the time, was unlistenable. Word on the street was Lou gave RCA the album because he wanted to get dropped from the label, but now, with the Zeitkratzer live album of Metal Machine, he seems to be championing the very concept of Metal Machine as a legimate form of music. I've had the please of hearing the new live album and it is far superior to Lou's original '75 album. Zeitkratzer have given Lou's original vision some new insight and musical purpose. I think you will be surprised when you hear it.

Inverarity said...

I'll believe it when I hear it. The original Metal Machine Music has as much intensity and purpose as Fripp/Eno's best ambient work. Whether it's accidental or by design doesn't really matter to me. I worry that, by choosing the "threads" of sound that show up in the orchestral transcription, they will lose the threads of sound that I value. Only time will tell.

Mr. Jones:
Caribbean Sunset is one of two Cale albums that haven't seen CD release (the other is the Terry Riley collaboration Church of Anthrax, but that was ripped and made available online by some kind soul). It's a decent little album, but slight. One of these days I really need to get around to ripping it from vinyl.

Anonymous said...

Church of Anthrax was issued on CD. Two albums never released on CD are Caribbean Sunset & John Cale Comes Alive

Inverarity said...

Wow, so it was. Only in the UK, though, and not for very long.