When Lou Reed's album Metal Machine Music came out in 1975, critics assailed it as a contemptuous joke, a smack in their faces and an immature scrape with career suicide. Now, the album, a 64-minute barrage of guitar feedback that Rolling Stone reviewed as "guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time," is considered one of the forerunners of noise music. Performance-art dilettantes wouldn't bat an eye at the album today.
Arrhythmic and discordant, it's a perfect accompaniment for abstract movement, which is why Bob Priest instinctively paired it with butoh for his March Music Moderne festival this weekend. Butoh, likewise controversial, emerged in Japan after World War II, partially as a critique of the superficiality of the contemporary dance scene at the time. Traditionally performed by dancers in white body paint with slow, grotesque movements, it's dark expressionism that resists definition. Seattle butoh artist Joan Laage, whom Priest asked to perform, calls it a "slippery fish."
"It's not about form," says Laage, who performs as Kogut Butoh. "It's about forming, and in that way it's kind of life at its most basic. Life is about change and the sense of transformation."
Laage and two other performers, Sheri Brown and Alan Sutherland, will move through Southeast Portland's Three Friends Coffee House—well-known for its radical faerie gatherings—dressed in white kimonos and surrounded by candles. To inspire their movement, they meditated on the Buddhist mudra hand positions and Japanese ukiyo-e paintings. They interpret the four sections of the album differently, even though to people who haven't developed an ear for noise music, the whole thing sounds the same.
"You have to enter a suspended-time world where the eternal present is each second as it's going by," Priest says. "If you're thinking of it as a direct progression, like we'd normally think of for a Beethoven symphony or Balanchine choreography to Stravinsky, you're going to miss the point."
Priest admits, even cautions, that the piece is not for the fussy. Most daunting is probably its length. Reed, who died last year, wrote in the album's liner notes that he hadn't actually listened to it all the way through. But for the few dozen people who decide to stay on the coffee shop's well-worn couches until the end, surrounded by puddles of candle wax, Priest promises "an experience unlike anything else they've encountered."
SEE IT: Metal Machine Music is at Three Friends Coffee House, 201 SE 12th Ave., marchmusicmoderne.org. 11 pm Saturday, March 8. Free.