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Lou Reed's "Machine" More Strings, Less Metal

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A real-time, chamber-music performance of an inhumanly generated composition: that was Lou Reeds Metal Machine Music as played by the Fireworks Ensemble at Miller Theater on Friday night. Mr. Reed recorded his 1975 album Metal Machine Music (RCA) by leaning guitars against amplifiers, cranking them up until the feedback screamed, playing melodies amid the sonic melee and layering and manipulating the results, including changing the tape speed of some parts. Then he chose four segments for 16-minute LP sides.

It sounded like a riot in a shortwave radio factory: a fusillade of sustained, pulsating and scurrying electronic tones that adds up to a hyperactive drone, as consonant as the overtone series. It was proudly anticommercial and defiantly arty. It was Minimalistic process music at rock volume, an impersonal wall of sound. Now, 35 years later, it also sounds unexpectedly merry.

Ulrich Krieger had the bizarre idea of transcribing that thicket of tones to be played by live musicians. It took considerable time and the help of a partner, Luca Venitucci, to analyze the welter of information; they had finished only three of the four sections when the transcription had its premiere in 2002. Now they have four. At the Miller Mr. Krieger directed a 16-member, amplified ensemble of strings, winds, guitar, accordion, piano and percussion, though there was no conductor. The music is in proportional notation, played to a clock; a violinist periodically stood up to signal.

The transcription changes everything. It corresponds to some of the more perceptible events of the original: sudden dropouts and surges of certain registers, rhythmic throbs, the squeal when a high overtone suddenly appears, the suggestion of a melodic moment. But the original Metal Machine Music has no narrative line, no direction. It simply, and wildly, exists. There are few intentional phrases or interactions between parts, and no sense of ensemble. Thats what humans bring, no matter how conceptually disciplined.

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