Lou Reed, cofounder, singer, and songwriter of the Velvet Underground, passed away today at the age of 71. He was a key figure in the pre-punk era of rock’n’roll, which stripped artifice in favor of rudimentary chord progressions and urban narrative. But because contradictions are at the heart of culture, Reed and his band also provided an important bridge between the worlds of rock’n’roll and contemporary art.
Much has been made of Reed having said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” The comment is often referenced in favor of rock music that has an distinct disinterest in melodic, harmonic, and structural complexity. But one chord, at least in the metaphoric sense, also provided the foundation of some of Reed’s least rock-like recordings, music that aspired to an ambient state: his 1975 noise classic, Metal Machine Music, and his 2007 collection of contemplative soundscapes, Hudson River Wind Meditations.
The latter is a collection of meditative recordings — white noise in contrast with Metal Machine Music’s white heat — that he composed for his own tai chi practice:
The former is one of the most debated albums by a major rock musician. Many see it as a prank, an album of sonic violence that goes beyond merely challenging the ears of its audience. Such dismissal doesn’t explain why Reed returned to the music decades later, or how industrial rock, free improvisation, and noise music made good on the once isolated manifesto. That said, the perception of it as a prank assists in setting Metal Machine Music alongside John Cage’s 4’33”, another perennially reviled work: a wall of impenetrable sound to match Cage’s transparent silence: