by Mark McGowan
In a 1975 review in Rolling Stone, critic James Wolcott proclaims it “an act of provocation, a jab of contempt” and a work of “droning, shapeless indifference.”
Mark Deming, a reviewer for allmusic.com, believes listeners “brave enough to listen to the whole thing” will encounter “an experience that’s both brutal and numbing.”
And when those legendary and infamous sounds are reproduced at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, NIU School of Music Professor James Phelps expects it will enlighten some and maybe repel others.
The piece in question is Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music,” a 32-year-old double album featuring an atonal hour’s worth of distorted electronic guitar squeals and feedback melded with the rumble of amplifiers and the occasional chirps of electronic gadgets.
Regarded as perhaps an insolent prank, maybe a contractual obligation or quite possibly the birth of “noise” and industrial music, “MMM” remains an intensely debated source of conversation among critics and fans.
After only three weeks on the market, Reed’s record company yanked the album off the shelves.
But in 2002, it became an orchestral work, transcribed, arranged and scored by Ulrich Krieger and Luca Venitucci. Both are members of Zeitkratzer, a Berlin-based ensemble that also includes cellist Ulrich Maiss.
Maiss later transformed the Zeitkratzer score into an opus for solo cello.
His appearance at NIU will mark the last North American performance of “Cello Machine,” slated to follow the intermission. The first half of the concert features the U.S. premieres of two works: Krieger’s “naglfar” and “Cello Titan” by Kasper T. Toeplitz, both from Maiss’ “ZenMan Project” of 2005.
Staff from the NIU School of Music will make a professional audio recording of the concert while three to six others located strategically among the seats will film with digital cameras.
The evening is free to the public, including the brave, the curious and all others.
“It’s not a pops concert,” laughs Phelps, a professor of computer music studies. “Some might be seriously challenged. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few left. I wouldn’t be surprised if no one left. But the people who are looking for tunes and harmonies to sing on their way out to the car might not want to attend.”
Yet Phelps hopes that all who come arrive with open minds eager for something new and different.
The professor himself often spends good money for admission to concerts that he expects to dislike – simply to experience the music for himself, to become aware of it and to observe how others in the same audience absorb the art.
“As a professor dealing with students, I consider it a major part of my responsibility to suggest that we do need to broaden our horizons, that we challenge ourselves to change the way we view things, to change the way we create things and to change the way we consider things,” he says. “I am not an evangelist for new music. I do what I do. If people like it, I’m pleased. If they don’t, I understand. But I believe there’s something gained by showing up and experiencing it.”
The professor, of course, is excited for the opportunity. He has heard a good portion “Cello Machine,” but not in its entirety, so the Sept. 30 event will provide a true awakening.
“I’ve been a fan of Lou Reed going back to my teenage years,” says Phelps, whose love of music is rooted in rock ’n’ roll and pioneering bands such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
“His work very often is not traditionally commercial, going back to Velvet Underground or just taking any slice of his music, but ‘Metal Machine Music’ is the most perfect example,” Phelps adds. “That a famous commercial artist would do this, knowing his other work – who knows why? I’m glad that it came about. It’s famous, and infamous. Clearly it is a work that you immerse yourself into.”
The Zeitkratzer interpretation certainly enlightened Reed, who played guitar with the group for a March 17, 2002, concert in the Berlin Opera House. A CD/DVD of the concert, including a 25-minute interview with Reed as a bonus feature, was released earlier this month on the Asphodel label.
When group members originally contacted Reed in search of permission to play “MMM” live, he told them such a feat was impossible. A recording they sent changed his mind.
“I listened to it, and the results were unbelievable,” Reed says in a Zeitkratzer press release. “It’s extraordinary, because all those years ago, it was considered a career ender.”
That obviously didn’t happen.
“Coney Island Baby,” Reed’s 1976 follow-up, “began to move into warmer, more compassionate territory,” according to allmusic.com. “Reed stripped his band back down to guitar, bass and drums, and the results were both leaner and a lot more comfortable.”
But Reed has never disavowed “MMM,” says Phelps, who remembers reading accounts where Reed could not believe how some listeners regarded his intentions on that album.
“It’s not just noise – not that there’s anything wrong with noise. It’s awash in harmonies,” Phelps says. “Many people will walk out of this concert with maybe a little different kind of head, so to speak, even if they’re saying ‘I absolutely hated the music’ or ‘I absolutely loved the music.’ ”
The Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, located in the NIU Music Building, is accessible to all. Call (815) 753-1551 for more information.