Ulrich Krieger by Jeremy Mage

Jeremy Mage interviews conductor/arranger Ulrich Krieger about his experience working with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music for a performance at Columbia’s Miller Theater this month.

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Fireworks Ensemble performing Metal Machine Music. Photo by Diana Wong.

My sophomore year of college, I walked past my housemate’s door. Out of sight in his loft, he was engaged with someone in an intense philosophical discussion. Music, like crisscrossing beams of uninterrupted white light, streamed from the room, almost drowning their voices in its wail of barely controlled guitar feedback. It reminded me of the most abstract moments of the psychedelic hardcore of my teen years (Early Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers, late Black Flag), combined with the Icarus-like energy of free jazz and extended indefinitely, almost unbearably. I was fascinated, and, as a tremendous Velvet Underground fan, was blown away when I later learned that it was a Lou Reed album, Metal Machine Music ( MMM ).

I was excited when I learned that there would be an orchestral rendition of the piece this month at Columbia’s Miller Theater , featuring the Fireworks Ensemble. The original piece was created by leaning two guitars, in open tunings, against two amps, and manipulating them to control the feedback. How would the conductor/arranger Ulrich Krieger translate this sonic maelstrom to orchestral instruments? I met him at the dress rehearsal of the performance, and we crossed the street for a Chinese lunch.

We started out informally talking about the contemporary Berlin art and music scene (Ulrich, who now teaches at Cal Arts, was long based in Berlin). I mentioned the American envy for German public funding for the arts, and Ulrich described the historical difficulties in obtaining European public funding when one works between categories of composer/performer/improviser.

Ulrich Krieger If you want to tap into the funds, you have to be very clearly categorized; either performer, improviser, or composer.

Jeremy Mage Not crossing any lines.

UK Yeah! And that’s since the Second World War. That created a certain type of culture. It was only after unification that that changed a little bit, not totally, it’s still there, but it got better. Which had to do with two aspects. One, you had composer-performers in the East, simply because if a composer wanted to be more radical, more experimental, they had to work with improvisers, and a lot of Eastern performers did that. They started doing graphical scores for improvisers, and there was a culture of composer-performer in the East. Second, I think in the last ten, fifteen years, a lot of younger composers left the so-called new music scene because they felt it too closed in. Once you start using a beat, you’re out, because a serious composer doesn’t use a beat. A serious composer doesn’t use traditional harmony, doesn’t use melody…there are all these unwritten rules. Studying composition at Manhattan School of Music, my teacher, Elias Tanenbaum, told me that my pieces didn’t include melody or rhythm. I told him, “Yeah, they do include rhythm,” and he said,“Yeah, but that’s more ratios I mean rhythm.” For my next assignment I wrote a chamber piece which clearly had melody and was clearly rhythmical. It was kind of minimal, but more in the Dutch minimal style…

JM Like Andriessen.

UK Exactly. More aggressive, a little more dissonant, but still minimal, very clearly beat orientated. Years later, that piece was performed at a more or less prestigious concert in Berlin, and afterwards I approached a string quartet, and asked if they’d like to play it, and they said, “No, we don’t play that kind of pop music.” So there’s a very clear idea of what is good music, and it’s fixed on material you use more than anything. As soon as you start using C major, you’re not a serious composer.

JM Interesting. The high-art/low-art distinction is alive and well in Europe, though it’s more confused here in the States. Metal Machine Music sits right at the crossroads of all that…especially your rendition.

UK So many ensembles in Germany refuse to play minimal music. They still think that it’s not serious art music. If anything it’s elaborate pop music, and they just don’t want to play it. Up until the Ensemble Modern did some collaboration with Steve Reich, there was very little minimal music being programmed, and this is still the case. My interest in Metal Machine was really as a result of that; I heard an orchestralness in there. I heard Xenakis in there, and I heard Coltrane and Albert Ayler in there! So for me, it was bringing together that density I liked from that orchestral music, and the timbral refinement of that…the spontaneity of late free jazz, but also that rock punch.

JM Tell me about your first experience with MMM.

UK It was either the very late ’70s or very early ’80s…I only had read about the piece, and couldn’t find a copy. I was living in my hometown in Southern Germany, Freiburg. I was just finishing high school, and, on one hand, I was really into all the new stuff there, punk and especially the whole industrial scene, Throbbing Gristle….And on the other hand contemporary new music….Nono, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage…So I always had those two worlds. I had only read about MMM but it just was not out there anymore…and one day I walked into the record store where I bought most of my vinyl, and there was a copy so I immediately bought it.

JM So you took it home, put it on…did you listen to it all the way through, the first time?

UK I think so, yeah. As I said, I was kind of accustomed to that music, listening to Throbbing Gristle. Although I must say, I was a little surprised about what I would call the ambient structure of the piece, you know? Composed contemporary music as well of a lot of the industrial music (not all of it) has more form to it….

JM Rock and Roll folklore and criticism offers many explanations of Lou Reed’s intent with Metal Machine Music. In fact, most of the discussion of the work revolves around intent. Some claim that it was Reed’s attempt to get out of a bad record contract, or to deliberately subvert his own image and stardom. You’ve spent some time with Lou Reed and this music. What is your sense of his intent? Does your understanding of his intent make a difference to how you interpret the music?

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Ulrich Krieger and Lou Reed. Photo by Diana Wong.

UK It doesn’t matter what his intent was. What matters is the result, what’s out there. But then, Lou’s someone who does not like the press. He likes to play games with them, and he’s a joker in a way that people often don’t know he’s joking. They take him dead seriously, and he just smiles internally. So I don’t know where that mythology came from, and it might be something he actually put out there. But, as far as I can say, the truth is, this was a very serious piece of music for him. It was a continuation of his work with the Velvet Underground. You listen to pieces like “European Son,” which is eight minutes, and after two and a half minutes the song falls apart, and all you have is noise…

JM Like in “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

UK Or “Sister Ray,” or “White Light/White Heat.”

JM Even sections of “Heroin”…

UK Even in his more commercial recordings, his main interest is sound. He has a real sound fetish. This was a really serious piece for him, and he was heartbroken and frustrated about the very bad reception the piece had. It nearly destroyed his career—the record company threatened that he’d never make another record in America again. Now, there are some record companies that have in their contract a paragraph that within the music scene is known as a “Metal Machine Music Clause,” that says, “You’re supposed to do three records for us and they’re supposed to be like this first one.”

The bad reception, I think, was really what kept him from continuing MMM for many years to come. Interviewer’s note: Lou Reed was clearly moved by the standing ovation the piece received later that evening in Miller Theater

JM You’ve noted elsewhere that other acoustic, new-music transcriptions of popular, electronically generated music often fail to capture the sound, motivation, and “philosophy behind the music.” Your recording and transcription captures much of the barely controlled, wild spirit and momentum that animates Rock and Roll, and is at the heart of Metal Machine Music. What experiences or sensibility prepared you to recreate and re-imagine the essence of the music so effectively?

UK Listening to experimental rock music and my training in contemporary new music as a composer and a performer has made me quite familiar with all of the extended playing techniques you can get on acoustic instruments. I find transcribing rock music for classical instruments a very interesting thing. It fails so often because most transcriptions are transcribed harmony, rhythm and pitch. And I find that the most important aspect of rock music is sound. If you sit in your car, turn on your car radio, and there’s a song you don’t know, but you recognize the band…what do you recognize? Not the chord progression. Not the form of the melody, not the type of rhythm. It’s the sound.

JM Right.

UK I mean, you turn it on, you know it’s The Rolling Stones. It’s the sound of the band and the sound of the voice. You know it’s The Doors. Again, it’s the sound of the band and the sound of the voice. The sound defines. Similarly, if you talk to a rock guitar player, and you talk to a jazz guitar player, the jazz guitar player will tell you “Oh, I got this new chord, it’s a B nine, uh, sus 4 sharp 11, it sounds great, listen.” You talk to a rock guitar player, they’re like, “Look, this new stomp box I got, it sounds so cool! If I combine it with that stomp box, and that, I get this cool sound I’ve never heard before!” All they talk about is sound.

JM What were some of the technical challenges in creating a “soundcentric” transcription?

UK It means you have to transcribe the sound. I heard about a British brass band that transcribed house and techno tunes. I found it very interesting but I was very disappointed with the result. Because, again, you can transcribe the sound of a techno tune for brass band, but all the transcriber did was transcribe rhythm and melody. And then I read the liner notes, and this guy said, “Oh, when they asked me to do this, I didn’t know anything about this music, it was the first time I listened to techno.” Ok, so he can’t do it, he doesn’t know the essence. (Bang on a Can’s “Eno” works much better. But that’s also because the original already is very acoustic, there’s piano in there, strings in there, choirs in there, no matter whether they’re acoustically or electrically created. So that’s easier to transport.) But in the case of a lot of the sounds, you have to listen to their overtone structure, their temporal structure, to understand how to get it. Maybe a C major chord is not just a C major chord, you have to listen to what that producer did to the overtone structure of that C major chord, does he emphasize the lows or the highs?

JM Some argue that the public’s attention span for music has gotten shorter with each passing year. We confront a market where many people shop for music electronically, making fast choices based on short snippets. How does the performance of a slowly evolving work like Metal Machine Music interact with this aspect of contemporary reality?

UK It’s an interesting question. You’re right and you’re wrong at the same time. If you look at the development of more advanced contemporary rock music, let’s just call it: it’s not true! A regular techno tune normally lasts seven minutes or eight minutes.

JMTrue.

UK We’ve seen an incredible boom of ambient music over the last 10 or 15 years. I work with Room40, the label in Australia. Most of their CDs are one whole piece. Noise music, same thing, they’re long pieces. Look at doom metal, Earth, or Sunn O))): an average piece is 20 minutes long. Look at newer death metal styles that use a lot of formal elements in a twelve minute piece. Even hip-hop pieces are easily six, seven minutes each. While teaching at Cal Arts, I’ve been listening to a lot of older pop music from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s…the pop music piece at that time was two and a half minutes! A pop music piece today is seldom under four minutes, even if it’s a radio edit or a single. So in a certain way, I think, people think that we have shorter musical attention spans, but it’s not true! The standard pop music piece these days is double the length that it used to be 50 years ago.

JM Interesting.

UK You’re right about the snippets. And you see that noise and doom metal and all of that is still kind of underground….But you see that Merzbow easily gets a thousand people for a show, or SunnO))) draws eight hundred. There’s a younger generation that grew up with techno and noise, or ambient, who don’t mind those lengths.

JM And is that borne out in audience response to MMM?

UK So far we’ve had really good responses. Of course there are always people who leave. And…I understand that! There are always a couple of boos, but in general, we’ve had a lot of standing ovations for MMM.

JMElsewhere you’ve talked about an interest in ritual. When we talk about “art music” and the European standard of art music, “innovation” is the highest priority. How does tonight’s performance sit at the intersection of innovation and ritual?

UK I think that’s one thing that also made me move away from European art music. It’s very intellectual. People still follow Adorno; they want music to be a discourse with the audience, an intellectual discourse, and think that emotions evoked by music are dangerous. That goes back to like the Second World War, and fascism, where music was used as a propaganda and manipulation tool.

After the Second World War, European composers tried to come up with music that speaks on an intellectual level to the audience. They felt that getting audience to just let go and participate in sound is dangerous. I understand that, but I find it to be a shortcoming. Rituals are an important aspect of human life. They always have been, and even in our society they exist…we might not call them that, but they’re there. They bring us to a different level of perception, by letting go…and definitely an extended time length is important for rituals. That’s where minimal music comes in again…That’s also I think why minimal music was so hated in Europe. Because, you know, you play Philip Glass, it’s an open fifth, going on and on; you “understand” what the piece is about after half a minute. There’s nothing new going on in that sense. So if you’re not able to feel the sound and let yourself go, you’re missing something. Interestingly enough, extended lengths are really an American thing….La Monte Young, Feldman five hour string quartets, you know? Repetitions are very American. And repetitions are an important aspect of ritual.

JM Right.

UK I like to call, not all, but a lot of my music, “ritual music without a rite.” MMM, when being played live, has a ritual aspect to it. Which does not for me counteract with innovation. Especially today we need to develop new rituals. ‘Cause rituals are all associated with a certain type of ceremony or religion. That’s why I call it without a rite, you know? Ritual music without a defined ceremony, or defined religion, or defined belief, or defined spirituality. And maybe you know, people are looking for that and that’s why they go to Scientology, or all those cults, and stuff like that…and I think why do we need that, why can’t you have your rite, and I have mine, and someone else has their own? And to me, that’s an important aspect of music, which somehow got lost in Western Classical music. And it seems to be coming back.

Check out Ulrich Krieger’s website here. Find out more about Metal Machine Music performances at the Miller Theater here.


Jeremy Mage is a writer and musician living in New York City. Check out his website here.