The Ambient Music of Lou Reed (RIP)

From metal machines to a score for tai chi

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:

4 thoughts on “The Ambient Music of Lou Reed (RIP)

  1. “Reed and his band also provided an important bridge between the worlds of rock’n’roll and contemporary art. ” I don’t know how important MMM is for noise scene, but for ambient scene HRWM ain’t important at all. I’ve listened to this & for me it’s the album that everybody can make by himself on modern computers…even smartphones too. Basically it’s sine wave passed through LFO controlling volume of sine with low rate speed – and it stands like that for 30 minutes or more. This “thing” was made by Reed to practice meditation or stuff like that. His friends tell him that it should go public. And that’s it. Maybe it fitted for them, but for me – not. I’d got a headache after listen to this, seriously.

    If anyone who feels offended after reading my “for ambient scene HRWM ain’t important at all” statement, please ask your fellow ambient listeners about important people in this genre. I guarantee the percentage of these mentioning Lou Reed will be low as f… (if any).

    1. I tend not to prioritize responding to seemingly anonymous comments that employ seemingly non-existent email addresses, but some points below, in the interest of clarification.

      First, though, I will mention that if the reader’s detailed response was in some manner, at an emotional level, related to the seeming overkill of the wide coverage of Lou Reed’s passing, then I am somewhat — somewhat — sympathetic. If, as Brian Eno has been said to have once said, the 10,000 people who bought the first run of the first Velvet Underground album all started bands, then that has extrapolated vastly as the years have proceeded.

      I think the key issue may be related to the word “important” as it appears in the quote that opens the reader’s response: “Reed and his band also provided an important bridge between the worlds of rock’n’roll and contemporary art.” To be clear, the “important bridge” and “contemporary art” bit is about Reed’s associations with Andy Warhol and Robert Wilson, among numerous other contemporary art figures. The phrase “contemporary art,” in other words, is not intended as a direct synonym for “ambient” — though the stasis of Hudson River Wind Meditations certainly does bring to mind Warhol’s film of the Empire State Building:

      The relative complexity of a given music’s production holds very little interest to me as a gauge of quality or intent or seriousness or depth. If it did, then Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet would be my favorite album. If anything, I do have a predilection for music that has a sense of utility and simplicity, which Reed’s album does — utility and simplicity being core tenets of ambient music, as originally defined by Brian Eno. I recently wrote liner notes for a record album consisting entirely of sine waves of closely related dimensions, so maybe this stuff is simply more up my alley. Those notes will be posted on when the album is released.

      As for this “ambient scene,” I’m not sure what to say. The world of sound and music is much larger and diverse than a group of musicians who happen to share a specific bin in a record shop.

  2. Huh, I’ve never heard of, let alone heard Hudson Wind Meditations. Now queued on rdio.

    For the record, I happen to like Metal Machine Music, 4’33” and Helicopter String Quartet. I certainly like “simple” music; less sure about “utility.”

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