What Lou Reed Gave Classical Music

Sunday, October 27, 2013 - 05:00 PM

Lou Reed performs at the Pohoda Music Festival at the Trencin Airport in Trencin, Slovakia on July 7, 2012. (Michal Durinik/Shutterstock)

Lou Reed never dabbled in symphonic music and he steered clear of writing a grandiose rock opera. But the rock 'n' roll iconoclast, who died on Sunday at age 71, was more than punk's most important ancestor. His career, both with the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, inspired many classical musicians who yearned to walk on the wild side.

Among them is David Lang, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and co-founder of Bang on a Can. About a decade ago Lang wrote several arrangements of Reed’s music, starting with the Velvet Underground classic, "Heroin." Listen to his arrangement below, performed by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and cellist Felix Fan.

Lang once told New York magazine, "You know, I grew up in a squeaky-clean, bookish environment, really interested in classical music. And then I got hooked by the Velvet Underground—the Andy Warhol yellow-banana record—in junior high. It was the first time that I’d ever heard anything say, Art is dangerous and scary, and people live lives which include crime and sex and drugs and danger and New York."

WNYC's John Schaefer echoed Lang's point in a remembrance on Sunday. "Of all the rock musicians associated with New York, perhaps none reflected the city’s dark corners and shadowy subcultures the way Lou Reed did in his songs," he wrote. "Perhaps none reflected the city’s hard edge and take-no-prisoners attitude the way he did in his onstage or on-screen persona."

Referring to the rocker's shape-shifting career, Schaefer added that "being a Lou Reed fan meant constantly re-evaluating your fandom."

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson in The Greene Space at WQXR in 2011 (Stephanie Black)

In his later years, Reed became a frequent presence at New York's cultural venues, both on stage and off. He twice collaborated with Robert Wilson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; there he could also be seen sitting in the audience with his wife, Laurie Anderson. In 2006, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus joined Reed at St. Ann's Warehouse to perform his 1973 album "Berlin." Julian Schnabel filmed the performance:

One couldn't discuss Reed’s classical impact without acknowledging to his most disputed work, "Metal Machine Music," a 1975 double-LP in which Reed served up 64 minutes of dense feedback, distortion and tuneless guitar. Some critics suggested parallels to composers like Varese and Ligeti; others panned it as an obnoxious provocation. In an interview with rock journalist Lester Bangs, Reed claimed (perhaps jokingly) that he inserted references to works such as Beethoven's “Eroica” and “Pastoral” Symphonies in the distortion, and that he had attempted to have the album released on RCA's Red Seal classical label.

The German saxophonist Ulrich Krieger transcribed the music for traditional orchestral instruments and it has been played several times to remarkable acclaim. Below is a 2010 performance by the Fireworks Ensemble at Columbia University's Miller Theater:

UPDATE - 9:45 pm: Reed's influence extended to yet other corners of contemporary music – including to saxophonist/composer John Zorn, whose song "Of Wonder and Certainty" is dedicated to the rocker, and to Daniel Felsenfeld, the Brooklyn-based composer whose chamber work "All Tomorrow's Parties," was based on the Velvet Underground song of the same name.


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Comments [9]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Madison from Manhattan, I am glad to see that someone else out there has the same opinion of Gelb that I do.
He forgets that he is no longer a record company producer and has the responsibility of running one of the most famous Opera Houses in the world. I would just like to know if Gelb ever collaborated with Mr. Levine during his absence before choosing some of the trash he is producing at the Met.
He has already taken a secured loan using the Chagall's in the grand lobby as collateral, soon he may be looking for lower East Side pawn shops to take some of his sets for collateral on even more loans.
If he keeps it up he may bring the Met to the same fate as The City Opera, just look at the Met web site and see how many empty seats there are for most mid week performances. Cutting ticket prices by a few dollars will not fill seats. Producing quality Opera will. Gelb started his career as an usher at the Met, and as far as I am concerned he should go back to ushering and leave management to someone skilled at running an Opera House.
Another problem I can see at the top Met management is continuing to have Mr. Levine as Artistic Director. He is in constant pain and has major mobility issues.
I personally know how difficult it is to focus on a task when you are in pain. For five years before a major surgery I was in Pain Management taking over 300mg morphine daily and needing a power wheelchair or scooter to get around the house and farm.
I could not fully concentrate on my Cello studies during that time. Even focusing on listening to an Opera was difficult. It was only after i went to Hospital For Special Surgery in New York City and had major reconstructive surgery that I could get off the pain pills and focus again.
Mr. Levine has given his life to the Met, and he deserves a good pension from them but he is like an athlete who keeps going on beyond his prime. Someone needs to tell him that with all his health issues it is time to move on.
The way Gelb treated Mr. Luisi is borderline criminal and I am sure Mr. Levine had a role in it. Great Post re Gelb. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 30 2013 09:47 AM
EB Mullen from Grand Junction, CO

That was music he made? I never heard him until his obits crowded the airwaves and am glad of it. Such cacophonous sounds! It must be that people enjoyed the words to his songs; it was surely not any musicality in his voice that drew them. There's no accounting for tastes.

Oct. 29 2013 06:55 PM

And it would have gotten "remarkable acclaim"!

Oct. 29 2013 01:48 PM
Madison from Manhattan

Good thing he didn't write an opera. Mr.Gelb would probably have put it on at the Met.

Oct. 29 2013 11:46 AM
madison from Manhattan

Sounds like the radiator pipes in my apt.when the heat goes on. Pure noise. And this man is an influence! On whom?

Oct. 29 2013 11:17 AM
Hendrik E. Sadi from Yonkers, New York

What is the purpose of this music?
Give me some aspirins,please, quick!

Oct. 29 2013 09:51 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Regarding "Metal Machine Music", which supposedly "has been played several times to remarkable acclaim" - how does one tell whether the piece is being played well or not? Frankly, I could only take about 3 minutes before I had to stop listening; it was starting to give me a headache!

Oct. 28 2013 09:52 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Very interesting Cello part, would like to find an arrangement for piano and cello so I could work it with my teacher. Extremely melodic and straight forward for a cross over piece by a rock musician. Never though I would say that, learned something new today listening to it.. Interesting to hear. Thanks, God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 28 2013 06:29 PM
joan from Sarasota

Outstanding review/essay. Thank you.

Oct. 28 2013 03:31 PM

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