New Museum Exhibit Turns Lou Reed’s Most Hated Album Into a Work of Art

University technology reimagines controversial album

lou reed metal machine music
RCA
Lou Reed, 'Metal Machine Music'
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Lou Reed will not often reminisce about the past, but this Friday, the former Velvet Underground frontman will relive his 1975 solo album, Metal Machine Music. The University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach has commissioned The Creation of the Universe, a post-post-modern audio installation that reimagines Metal, an experimental album that Rolling Stone has called one of the boldest career moves in rock history.

When it was released in 1975, Metal Machine Music – a 64-minute blast of deafening, distorted, unstructured guitar feedback – caused an equally noisy uproar from fans of Reed's previous hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." Some even tried to return the vinyl, assuming it was a defective recording. Lou Reed never recorded another "hit" after that, but Metal still stands as his most unconventional musical effort. Released by RCA right at the height of Reed's popularity, the double-album can be considered his loud and somewhat unclear, one-fingered salute to commercial success.

But today, engineers at Arup, the global tech and design firm responsible for The Creation of the Universe, don't think there is anything defective about Metal Machine Music and have drawn inspiration from its squalor. Using custom playback software, Arup's acoustic branch recorded a live performance of the album in 2009. Starting Friday, they will play it back using 14 speakers installed in the museum's dark and denim-padded Project Room. There are no visuals accompanying the installation. "I would fight tooth and nail against anyone putting God-knows-what kind of visual to it," Reed said in a conference call.

The Creation of the Universe aims to introduce listeners to what Arup audiophiles refer to as a three-dimensional ambisonic spatial experience. Or in Reed's words, "The best… I've heard in my life. It's seriously exciting and very physical without hurting you."

Lou Reed will attend the opening this Friday at Cal State Long Beach and join record producer Bob Ezrin in a conversation that is open to the public. The reluctant rock star accepted Arup's invitation to personally participate in the project given his long-held interest in experimental and groundbreaking sound technology. Ever since recording with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed has been a sonic avant-gardist, and this museum stint should exonerate his biggest flop.

This installation is not the first time that CSULB's museum director Christopher Scoates has explored the intersection of rock music and contemporary art. In 2009, Scoates welcomed producer Brian Eno to do a video art installation set to original compositions. In 2011, he edited a book on Andi Watson, the set designer for Radiohead.

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