metal / machine / music


While Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music may have originally been conceived as a contract-fulfilling middle finger directed at the music industry, it’s afterlife as a kind of urtext for the noise music scene has seen it experience a remarkable resurrection over the last decade or so.  An album that was once listed as one of Q magazine’s “Top Ten Career Suicides” is now seen, at least among the subcult of noise aficionados, as one of the progenitors for an entirely new class of music.  Reed’s album was composed by leaning a pair of guitars against their amplification sources and recording the resulting feedback loops, essentially creating an almost entirely author-free form of music.  The fourth side of the album, which was originally released as two LPs, ended in a locked groove, effectively producing an infinite feedback loop.  I like to imagine that somewhere there’s an apartment in NYC where an unsuspecting rock fan died from feedback trauma while listening to side four in 1975, leaving the record to play continuously ever since.  Why the neighbors haven’t called the cops is a complete mystery.

I once got to experience this kind of effect live at the tail end of a GWAR concert (RIP Oderus Urungus) when the band walked off stage leaving their instruments leaning against stacks of amplification.  This created an awesome feedback drone that generated it’s own form of rhythm and pulse.  It lasted for about twenty minutes, but nobody left — everyone hanging around waiting for an encore (or maybe a second encore — I don’t really remember).  Then they pulled the plug.

While these self-generating electrical pulses might be considered a kind of un-authored electronic music, it’s really the pioneers of composed electronic music — including a host of incredibly talented and visionary women musicians — who have opened the door to the almost infinite possibilities of auto-electro creative expression.

This video, made by YouTube user Gigawipf, features a small orchestra of floppy disc drives programmed to play Soft Cell’s 1981 remake of Gloria Jones’s 1964 version of “Tainted Love,” a song written by Ed Cobb of The Four Preps.  There seems to be an obvious and interesting progression here that begins with live musicians using analogue instruments to create music that’s reproduced via vacuum tubes and vinyl, then moves through a phase in which live musicians use keyboards and drum machines to cover a song that is then listened to via transistors and cassette (and yes, vinyl too), and finally to a phase in which musicians and instruments are eliminated altogether as a massed junkpile of programmed electronics speaks the voice of robotic nostalgia.

The invention of Vocaloid (ボーカロイド) music and the rise of virtual idols such as Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) perhaps marks the apotheosis of music performed by machine.  Vocaloid, a singing-voice synthesizer, absolutely destroys Auto-Tune when it comes to creating vocals that sound as if they’ve come straight from a midnight lounge run by the Cylons.  Judging by the popularity of Hatsune Miku concerts, it might seem that the human performer has become virtually obsolete.

And yet behind all of these productions there are still, ultimately, human hands at work.  The execution might involve electronic pulses and the mediating brain of a CPU, but at the far end of it all the ghost in the machine turns out to be firmly grounded in meatspace.  In fact, it might not be too much of a stretch to wonder if there’s actually very much difference at all between virtual idols such as Hatsune Miku and Japanese idol groups such as AKB48 and the 10 trillion different boy bands spawned by Johnny & Associates (社ジャニーズ事務所).  After all, in both cases neither set of performers is engaged in the original or spontaneous production of music: these are concerts and videos that are entirely orchestrated from behind the scenes and — as the interchangeability of AKB48 members goes to show — individual talent isn’t the necessary factor in become a ‘face’ in the idol factory.

This isn’t to say that idol groups can’t be vastly entertaining.  The recent international popularity of Baby Metal, for example, owes as much to the quality execution of the material being proffered as it does to the knowingly sly hilarity of fusing metallic doom with idol innocence.  Still, as can be seen below, though the idols may be the face of the musical product on offer, it’s the bones in the background — a skeleton army of studio musicians — that are actually responsible for the metal licks that make this pop click.

The idea of programming music for non-human performers has, however, been around since long before the digital revolution.  Player pianos, for example, have been around since about the middle of the 1800s.  These pianos, which use rolls of perforated paper to control the automatic playing of the piano, reached the peak of their sales in 1924 before the rise of the shellac record made the player piano obsolete.  The player piano was just one of a number of automatic devices for making music that began to be produced in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which featured incredibly sophisticated mechanisms that enabled them to play complex orchestral music.  Siegfried’s Mechanischem Musikkabinett museum of mechanical instruments — located in Rüdesheim, Germany — features a stunning display of these instruments.

However, much more interesting than the idea of using machines to replicate music that would normally be played by live musicians is the idea of using machines to perform musical pieces impossible for the human performer.  One of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century, Conlon Nancarrow, wrote over fifty Studies for player piano, none of which can be played by the human hand.  Nancarrow’s music, which was always too rhythmically complex to be played except by the most skilled musicians, discovered its freedom in the mechanical potential of the player piano.  It was my cousin, Annelise DeVore, who pointed me toward Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano 41a, which just happens to have a time signature of 1/√π/√⅔ .  (Because math.)

The artist and composer Pedro Reyes has initiated a project in which he transforms guns — the weapons that have helped fuel Mexico’s incredibly violent drug war — into musical instruments.  His latest piece, titled “Disarm,” is  a computer-controlled orchestra of defunct firearms.  Reyes — whose work you can read about more extensively at the creators project site — has this to say about the process of transforming instruments of death into instruments of sound:

Technology is neither good nor bad.  It all depends on how you use it.  The spiritual work here is like saying: “I’m taking this piece of metal that represents our instinct of killing each other, and I’m turning into a musical instrument, which is the most sophisticated form of communication on the planet.”

Reyes’s work reminds me very much of the TAE project (Transformaçaõ de Armas em Enxadas — Transforming Arms into Tools), which was founded in order to do the work of turning the deadly firearms of the Mozambican Civil War — which resulted in the deaths of some one million people between 1977 and 1992 — into objects of artistic utility.  The Throne of Weapons, constructed by the by the artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) is a fine example of the way in which the instruments of violence can be transformed into disarmingly beautiful pieces of art.


One Response to “metal / machine / music”

  1. 1 DeVore

    Yo, CousinTrane! I’ve found a practical use for the late Mr. Reed’s endeavor. When I’m stuck in traffic and a vehicle pulls up beside me blaring the latest cultural offering of Kanye West, I just crank up Metal Machine Music and the occupants abandon the vehicle and run down the street, frantically clutching themselves. It’s quite a sight. The light changes and bopping I go. I thought about posting this as a reply on your blog, but I don’t want to offend any of the Youth of Today since they’ll eventually be needed as cannon fodder in the next American misadventure. (I don’t think anywhere near the Black Sea or the Baltics…I predict Katanga. Those dark people have lots of minerals…) No need to thank me! I’m always glad to help! love, Cousin Glen


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