Even in New York, where a routine weekend includes dozens of can’t-miss arts events, it’s rare for a single presenter to swing from orchestral noise rock to a cappella motets within 24 hours. That’s exactly how I spent my weekend, though—my fourth since joining the marketing department at Miller Theatre.
On February 5 and 6, Miller hosted a pretty unique double-header: a Composer Portrait of Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on Friday and an Early Music series concert by Vox Vocal Ensemble on Saturday. It sounds like a weekend that might induce musical whiplash, but the concerts were oddly complementary.
When Metal Machine Music was released in 1975, it was greeted with widespread critical disdain. I don’t think Reed could’ve imagined that 35 years later he’d find himself fêted on the Miller stage, receiving a standing ovation from an audience of hundreds that had turned out to hear a live orchestral performance of his legendary sound experiment. Fireworks Ensemble performed the piece, artfully transcribed for amplified classical instruments by musical director Ulrich Krieger.
In a word, the concert was remarkable. For about 75 minutes, the audience was confronted with an almost constant wall of sound that averaged about 110 decibels. (For reference, that’s somewhere between a jackhammer and a jet takeoff at close range, in terms of sheer volume.) It was loud, but it was also immersive, almost meditative. Every once in a while, a string harmonic or an overblown woodwind, imitating the high-pitched feedback of a guitar, would cut through the roar of noise. But for more than an hour, we were bathed in sound that was impossible to ignore and difficult to wander from mentally, the musical equivalent of Bikram yoga. Precisely because the piece had little identifiable musical form, I found my mind letting go of the anticipation that often distracts me in classical concerts; there was no listening for the recapitulation, no trying to trace the harmonic progression. For a while, time seemed to stand still.
When the performance ended, around 9:15, we all leapt to our feet, and I was taken by the incredible diversity of my fellow listeners. The 20-something guy behind me sported a nose ring and a spiky black hairstyle, the couple to my right were seniors who regularly attended new music concerts at Miller. Whatever our individual experience, we’d all had an evening we wouldn’t soon forget.
The next night was notably softer, but no less memorable. In a program of a dozen or so bite-sized choral works, Vox surveyed the evolution of the musical canon over seven centuries, exploring works by Byrd, Tallis, Mozart, Brahms, and Webern. Fleeting dissonant cross-relations in the earlier works gave way to Webern’s barely-tonal canon, which ended on a surprisingly consonant G major chord, as if to say, “We are playing with the limits. How far can we take it?” It’s the same question Reed would ask a few decades later, when he decided to release a record of guitar feedback.
I hope you’ll come push your own limits with us at Miller Theatre this spring. There are still a number of exciting programs—jazz, early music, world premieres—all listed on our website. Best of all, this exploration will not set you back much: tickets for Columbia students are just $7. I hope to see you soon.
Associate Director of Marketing and Outreach
Photos by Diana Wong