O SUPERMAN? – Lou Reed: Drones

Lou Reed Drones – UK Premiere.

The Spire (St Mark’s Chapel), Brighton. May 2016

 “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”

(Walter Pater, Fortnightly Review, 1877)

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Ray had travelled from South Wales for this gig. He had followed Lou Reed (1942-2013) around Europe for many years, as every concert was an event to enjoy and savour. Here he was, an hour early for the UK premiere of ‘Lou Reed – Drones’, part of the Brighton Festival programme devised by none other than Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson. We got talking, as strangers who share an obsession do, about where we might have experienced the same concert as each other. For example, Ray had bought a ticket for the Reading Festival in the summer of 1975, but Reed had been too ill (according to his management company) to attend. So we shared the same non-event.

However, the date is significant, for this was the year of the release of ‘Metal Machine Music’ – an art-rock proto-masterpiece of industrial flavour that few were able to comprehend, let alone listen to. MMM might, derogatively, be considered as ‘noise music’ by some: but to aficionados of the Modernist avant-garde in the twentieth century, most likely informed by Dada associate, Kurt Schwitters’, ‘Ursonata’ (strictly speaking, a sound poem) and John Cage’s enticing and challenging ‘4’33”’, via Stockhausen and La Monte Young, ‘Sound Art’ was a manifestation of music that is as revered and imperative as Contemporary Art in any other form. Via his association with John Cale (co-conspirator in The Velvet Underground) and Andy Warhol, Lou Reed enabled Rock to overlap with the experimental urges of the visual art world.

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‘Lou Reed Drones’ presented the rare opportunity to hear (experience or endure, might be better phrases), a five-hour ‘concert’, created, with the instigation of Reed’s last guitar technician, Stewart Hurwood. Not that the visitor has to stay for the full duration, as this was a drop-in session requiring no more than a willingness to suspend judgements for a while and see (or hear) what happens. It’s a ‘happening’ for the imagination and, if another fine art related classification is required to frame the piece, ‘Drones’ is probably a Sound Sculpture.

To be a little more technical, the artwork is set up on a small stage as an installation of guitars, arranged in audio feedback mode with the amplified speakers. The 36 guitar strings are set in motion from the push and vibration of magnetically driven cones (or ‘woofers’, deriving from the English word for a dog’s bark), which amounts to 360 partial harmonics aurally crashing against each other. Each guitar/amp pairing individually loops sounds within the ensemble, with a variety of electronic reverberations; interweaving, connecting, and rising up in a relentless cacophony that, paradoxically, integrates in the most unexpected way. The encounter is both aural and physical.

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Of the audience, Hurwood has commented:

”I hope that they experience the gateway of their imagination to be opened! The Drones generate so many harmonics in the air that people hear different things within the drones; some hear birds, or horns, brass bands, others hear strings, or voices. In addition the sound waves hit the body perhaps penetrating and shaking internal organs, releasing endorphins etc. I like to think of it as a sonic massage!”

However, despite the sounds being generated by electronic means, a deep throated chanting is suggestively audible at times. Intriguing and strangely comforting associations from the evolving soundscape included hints of Gregorian chant – the guitars forming a sextet, with overlapping modes and electronic cadences that eschewed conclusions. And also, intimations of Buddhist incantations such as, “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ”, for six guitars rather than syllables, are sensed. Then, at manic intervals when the imagination is pushed into scarier territory, we might have passed through Dante’s ‘Gates of Hell’ from Canto III of ‘The Divine Comedy: Inferno’, where Spirits wail somewhat inhumanely in deep pain. Then, as if the mind of the listener still searched for meaning, or an anchor of some kind, these sounds appeared to reverberate with the DNA of our ancestor’s voices: creating a primeval soundtrack that perhaps still lurks in the 40,000 year old ‘cortex’ – where the subconscious shares experiences with our forefathers. What a fanciful, even outrageous, notion. But the imagination, prompted so heavily by Drone’s gut-wrenching sonic assault, embodies this time shrinking possibility.

Still hurting from Lou Reed’s non-appearance back in the ‘70s, now over 40 years later, Ray gets to hear Lou Reed without the artist again.

The King is dead. Long live, Lou Reed.



Author: Geoff Hands

Visual Artist / Writer. Studio based at Phoenix Art Space, Brighton UK.

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