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Metal Machine Music (In Four Movements)
California E.A.R. Unit/Sonic Boom
at REDCAT April 20

California Ear Unit: Metal machine Music 1 California Ear Unit: Metal machine Music 2

California Ear Unit: Metal machine Music 3 California Ear Unit: Metal machine Music 4

Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music is often blamed for spawning the ear-throttling genre collectively known as noise. While musique concrète, city traffic and various 20th-century avant-garde composers were Reed’s inspirations as well, his 64-minute monsterpiece was largely improvised, and the fact that anyone — in this case, CalArts professor of Composition and Experimental Sound Ulrich Krieger (with help from Luca Venitucci) — would take the time to transcribe it into sheet music is both baffling and historic.

In the program, Krieger stated that “Metal Machine Music is a missing link between contemporary classic music and advanced rock,” and, hearing an even number of rock and orchestral elements in it, he figured out how to transpose Reed's reel-to-reels and detuned guitars to the instruments of his own outfit, Sonic Boom, as well as those of the California E.A.R. Unit, an orchestral repertory ensemble which has been in residence at REDCAT since 2004.

Sans conductor, and with the music written in time notation, the musicians' eyes darted frantically to a digital timer (a method first employed by John Cage in the '60s). MMM came across as far more musical than it does on disc; the transcription was madly inventive. Never had a trumpet player broken such a sweat onstage, nor had a tuba packed such a Mac truck wallop. Distinct bits stood out among the wash, which sounded like the inside of a barb-wired sea shell. Stringed instruments were amplified with pickups and microphones, and the rapidity of movement shredded bows. One viola player was so convulsive it looked as though she was going to fall out of her chair. Styrofoam was mic'd; velvet stretched like a trampoline and assaulted with lengths of heavy chain served as percussion. The effect — what an amplified pile of writhing nightcrawlers on amphetamines might sound like — was bliss or torment, depending on the lobes, an unholy din, an avant-horror movie score, hairraising in that maniac-around-the-bend kind of way. And like the music in Hell's dentist's office, it was uncomfortably soothing.

The performance reminded one of Gunther von Hagens’ “Bodyworks” exhibits, wherein human corpses were preserved and sliced paper-thin, so that viewers could observe in detail the delicate inner workings of the human body. It was refreshing to eyeball the mechanics of a composition such as MMM. Although something more people would prefer to chime in about at an art opening than actually attend, experiencing MMM live was cathartic. The sonic residue, however, led me to toddle home, the racket having eaten through my earplugs, and pull out the collected works of the Turtles.

–– Skylaire Alfvegren