‘Metal Machine’ museum

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” is infamous as one of the worst career moves in the history of rock stardom -- an experimental 1975 double-LP whose hour-plus of droning and buzzing guitar feedback arrived near the height of Reed’s popularity and instantly put him behind the eight ball with an audience that neither expected nor wanted anything of the sort.

Now a 21st century vindication of “Metal Machine Music” continues with “Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio: The Creation of the Universe,” an installation opening Friday at Cal State Long Beach’s University Art Museum. Reed will be on hand for the opening, then have a public conversation with famed rock record producer Bob Ezrin on Friday evening at the campus’ Carpenter Performing Arts Center.

Like Reed’s long-ago recording, the museum show deliberately confounds expectations: If “Metal Machine Music” is the album that went more or less unheard, “The Creation of the Universe” is the exhibition that will go absolutely unseen -- for the simple reason that there isn’t anything to look at. As an audio-only installation, it aims to introduce listeners to a new method of recording sound and hearing it played back as a three-dimensional, “ambisonic” spatial experience.

Reed’s interest in sound technology led him to accept an invitation from the acoustics division of Arup, a global engineering firm, to help pioneer the process. He says the sonic effect is “the best ... of that kind of thing I’ve heard in my life. It’s seriously exciting and very physical, without hurting you.”

The art museum’s 500-square-foot Project Room, darkened, unfurnished and encased in thick, cushiony, deep-blue denim fabric for sound absorption, will harbor 14 speakers playing back a 63-minute improvisational concert that the Metal Machine Trio and guest saxophonist John Zorn performed at New York’s Blender Theatre in 2009.

The performance carries forward the noise aesthetic of the “Metal Machine Music” album without trying to replicate it. Arup recorded the concert and is providing the custom playback software.

The exhibition rises from a confluence of interests: Reed’s love of musical technology and noisy sonic experiments (which had been an important but not dominant aspect of his sound before “Metal Machine Music,” especially with his groundbreaking 1960s band, the Velvet Underground); Los Angeles concert promoter Martin Fleischmann’s desire to combine experimental rock and contemporary classical music; and museum director Christopher Scoates’ belief that art museums aiming to reach today’s public need to offer more than the traditional invitation to come look.

“All of this has grown out of my thinking about what a museum is -- about the museum of the future,” says Scoates. Aiming to establish his venue as “a small museum that ... punches above [its] weight,” he has pursued a series of projects involving figures from the world of rock music.

The first was an audio-only outdoor installation on the university quad using technology developed by a firm founded by British electropop stars Martyn Ware (The Human League) and Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode). In 2009, sound, visuals and playback technology combined inside the museum with “Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings,” in which the British musician-producer deployed shifting visual art on a dozen video screens, combined with musical compositions playing on boom boxes. As editor of the 2011 book “Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was: The Lighting & Stage Design of Andi Watson,” about the concert designer for the band Radiohead, Scoates further explored the interface of rock music and contemporary art.

For the Metal Machine Trio installation, catering to the eye was a nonstarter.

“I would hate to have a visual interfere with it,” Reed said from New York in a recent conference call interview, with band mate Ulrich Krieger, a saxophonist and CalArts professor of composition and experimental sound practices also on the line. “I would fight tooth and nail against anyone putting God knows what kind of visual to it.”

“Everyone is going to have their own visuals in their head,” said Krieger, who has written an essay, “Sound Is an Entity,” for a brochure accompanying the installation.

Judging from a recent preview -- or prelisten -- at Arup’s Los Angeles office (a setup to be duplicated on a larger scale at the University Art Museum), being divebombed by saxophones is one image that might occur to listeners. Hearing the piece was more like being rained upon in sound than played to by performers.

The main microphone for the live recording was positioned behind guitarist Reed, and the idea was to render the sound as he would have heard it that evening, although some of the spatial effects were adjusted in the post-performance audio mixing process.

The music proceeds in stages from diffuse opening atmospherics to an aural storm, then to a more lyrical or aspirational feeling. Reed occasionally interjects fervent vocal mantras, including the phrases “free flying” and

“I’d be nothing without you.” Listeners who stick around for the home stretch will be able to latch onto more familiar aural anchors, such as hard-rock rhythmic guitar chugging and free-jazz sax whinnying.

“It’s the best recording of my music I’ve ever heard,” said Krieger, whose bio on CalArts’ website says he’s been involved in more than 50 CDs as a performer or composer. One of them was a 2002 live performance of the original “Metal Machine Music” by his Berlin-based group, Zeitkratzer, using an ensemble of amplified acoustical instruments rather than the electronics Reed had deployed in 1975.

Krieger transcribed Reed’s feedback screams and buzzes into musical notation, allowing the sounds to be replicated by a horn section or a furiously bowed cello and bass. Reed was so taken with the transcription that he played guitar on the recording with Zeitkratzer, striking up a friendship with Krieger. With Sarth Calhoun playing electronic devices, the Metal Machine Trio debuted in 2008 at REDCAT in downtown L.A. Arup developed the 3D SoundLab technology used in the museum installation as a tool for its acoustical design work. It can play back the sound of an existing concert hall or preview for clients how a hall-in-development will sound when built. Mike Skinner, a New York-based member of Arup’s acoustics team, knew Reed and invited him to record in the new format.

The co-curators for the museum show are Scoates and Fleischmann, the son of the late Ernest Fleischmann, who was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s top executive from 1968 to 1998. The younger Fleischmann was an executive in MCA’s classical music division before starting a concert production company, Rum & Humble. Friday marks the debut of a series called What Is Recorded Energy: talk/art/performance (WIRE:t/a/p).

Fleischmann says the idea is to “explore nontraditional, thinking-man’s pop and rock where the lines blur with contemporary classical music.” Drawing on a long association with Ezrin, Fleischmann set up Friday evening’s “in conversation” pairing with Reed. Ezrin, best known for his work with Alice Cooper, KISS and Pink Floyd, produced Reed’s 1973 album “Berlin,” an acclaimed narrative-rock opus featuring orchestral arrangements.

In booking the speaking engagement, Fleischmann and Scoates learned about Reed’s experimental recording with Arup, and that led to the audio installation -- with Reed approving details including the carpeting and wall fabric to be used.

Scoates said the installation’s budget is $80,000 -- including the estimated $30,000 rental value of JBL loudspeakers being provided without charge by the Harman audio company. The recording will play continuously, and listeners can drop in for a snippet or stay for the duration. --