Arguably, one of the problems with Lou Reed's 1975 electro-acoustic piece "Metal Machine Music" (the first iteration of which was released on the eponymous double LP by Reed) is that it does too much. The recording is of four tracks feeding-back electric guitar; the mix puts two stacked tracks in the right and left channel. The timbres of the feedback are in some cases determined by the tuning of the guitar plugged into the amplifier. Reed also manipulated tape speed and so on. The result is not (and again this is an arguable point) sufficiently drony to be classified as "minimal" or "minimalist." As Reed observed—in a perhaps more sober frame of mind than which he conceived and executed the composition—to David Fricke, "the harmonics would start mixing, going into something else." There's a lot of action in the sound, enough so that some more credulous listeners might have reason to have taken Reed at his rather vehement word back in 1975 when he protested to critic Lester Bangs that you can hear sections of famous classical works buried in the aforementioned harmonics. "There's like tons of those things in there, but if you don't know them you wouldn't catch it. Just sit down and you can hear Beethoven right in the opening pat of it." Mmm hmm. Below, in order of relative listenability (from most difficult to almost pleasant, depending) are five more possible lease-breakers, or party-enders, or IMPORTANT PIECES OF 20TH CENTURY CLASSICAL MUSIC!
Lou's forebears, and contemporaries, preferred a less busy approach to their sonic monoliths. Take 1) "Fantastic Glissando", a piece realized in 1969 by Tony Conrad. Conrad is of course the artist and musician who actually played with Reed as a "member" of The Primitives, the ad-hoc trash-rock band that cut "Do The Ostrich," and which tuned all their guitar strings to the same note for a drone effect. Conrad was also, with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, a member of LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music. Made with a sine-wave oscillator and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, Conrad's piece is as the title indicates: a glissando, first reproduced as recorded, then reiterated three times, each time at about a quarter of the speed of the prior version. I don't have the math right, probably. I only listened to it once before filing it somewhere that I don't want to go fetch it from again. It's a toughie. 2) "Bohor 1," by Iannis Xenakis, first featured on a nifty Nonesuch vinyl selection of the great composer's electro-acoustic music, in not a walk in the park either, but its ever-building noise component at times makes it function almost like apocalyptic soundtrack music. While Xenakis never entirely revealed the "instrumentation" for the piece, it's believed he used a mouth organ, and some kind of bells, those of the kind found in ornamental jewelry, perhaps, and shook them in close proximity to a microphone and amplified the sound through a mixing board to produce unholy loudness and distortion. Ginchy. 3) "Modulation With 2 Electric Guitars And 2 Amplifiers," by Japanese super-genius Otomo Yoshihide, is, for all intents and purposes, "Metal Machine Music" only without overdubbing and tape manipulation; the 40-minute piece was recorded live, as it happened, in concert in Hiroshima, of all places. Extremely clean where "MMM" is dirty and teeming with harmonic activity, the drones produced by the amplifiers actually seem to change depending on where you're sitting listening. A fascinating effect, provided you can hang with the sounds themselves.
The only music I ever played on my stereo that made my late, beloved cat Pinky visibly nervous was 4) "The Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1962)" by LaMonte Young. It caused Mr. Young, an animal lover, actual distress when I informed him of this, which made me feel bad. Actually, compared to the other pieces discussed above, Young's work, one of the scant officially sanctioned recordings of his groundbreaking music, is relatively pastoral. Trumpeter Ben Neill, leading a horn ensemble, goes through the piece's four pitches ("isolated in the harmonic structures of the sounds of power plants and telephone poles," per Young) over and over again, holding them for long durations. The microtones in the harmonics that emerge during these drones might hit certain cat-unfriendly frequencies, but for hardcore meditating humans, the piece can conceivably serve as a readymade mantra. This kinda nirvana ain't cheap, though; the out-of-print Gramavision CD fetches pretty high prices on Amazon and elsewhere. Finally, Tod Dockstader's epic three-CD set 5) Aerial takes electric/electronic drone into an arena I won't call New Age...but the stuff here, basically edits of shortwave radio signals that the composer has picked up over a series of years, is certainly good potential late-night listening for those with adventurous tastes. As Dockstader (whose '60s electro-acoustic masterpiece is titled "Quatermass," hmm) himself puts it, "airwaves allow for a silence that is not dead, representing a presence even without a signal." Ghosts in the (metal) machine (music), if you will.