Panel 05 - Icons of the Electric Guitar

Event Title

Lou Reed's “Ostrich” tuning as an aesthetic point of articulation

Presenter Information

Mike Daley, York University

Start Date

28-3-2015 11:00 AM

Description

In late November of 1964, John Cale and some of his friends from La Monte Young's minimalist Theatre of Eternal Music auditioned to back up Lou Reed as his band the Primitives. Reed, working with the low-budget record label Pickwick, had a minor hit on his hands with a would-be dance craze 45 called “The Ostrich.” At the audition, Cale was particularly intrigued by Reed's guitar tuning for “The Ostrich”, a regular trivial or unison tuning (Sethares 2014:53) where the six strings are tuned to different octaves of the same pitch class.

Though Lou Reed did not invent the tuning, having learned it from fellow Pickwick staffer named Jerry Vance (Di Perna 1998:52), he seems to have been the first to record with it. He continued to use the tuning from time to time in the Velvet Underground (“Venus In Furs”; “All Tomorrow's Parties”; “Rock and Roll”) and later revived it for his album Metal Machine Music in 1975 and the MM3 Tour of 2008-09.

Because of its unusual pitch structure, “Ostrich” tuning is conducive to certain musical techniques like drones (sometimes with a monophonic melody played on one string) unisons, “false fingerings” (alternating between the same note on different strings for timbral variation) and parallel octaves. The tuning also renders certain common uses of the guitar, for example as a chording instrument playing major and minor triads, virtually impossible. “Ostrich” tuning, because of its inherent limitations and possibilities, steers the player toward certain types of musical texture and away from others. Western harmony is out of reach, but monophony and drones are easy to achieve.

In this paper, I explore the idea of the “Ostrich” tuning as a point of articulation (Hall 1987, Grossberg 1992, Rodman 1996) by which the Velvet Underground actualized their intention that they “integrate some of La Monte Young's or Andy Warhol's concepts into rock and roll” (John Cale, quoted in McNeil and McCain 1997:24). I argue that the the “Ostrich” tuning, by merit of its inherent qualities, provided a platform by which the aesthetic drives and structures of La Monte Young's drone- based minimalist music and Andy Warhol's pop art found a way into the Velvets' music.

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Mar 28th, 11:00 AM

Lou Reed's “Ostrich” tuning as an aesthetic point of articulation

In late November of 1964, John Cale and some of his friends from La Monte Young's minimalist Theatre of Eternal Music auditioned to back up Lou Reed as his band the Primitives. Reed, working with the low-budget record label Pickwick, had a minor hit on his hands with a would-be dance craze 45 called “The Ostrich.” At the audition, Cale was particularly intrigued by Reed's guitar tuning for “The Ostrich”, a regular trivial or unison tuning (Sethares 2014:53) where the six strings are tuned to different octaves of the same pitch class.

Though Lou Reed did not invent the tuning, having learned it from fellow Pickwick staffer named Jerry Vance (Di Perna 1998:52), he seems to have been the first to record with it. He continued to use the tuning from time to time in the Velvet Underground (“Venus In Furs”; “All Tomorrow's Parties”; “Rock and Roll”) and later revived it for his album Metal Machine Music in 1975 and the MM3 Tour of 2008-09.

Because of its unusual pitch structure, “Ostrich” tuning is conducive to certain musical techniques like drones (sometimes with a monophonic melody played on one string) unisons, “false fingerings” (alternating between the same note on different strings for timbral variation) and parallel octaves. The tuning also renders certain common uses of the guitar, for example as a chording instrument playing major and minor triads, virtually impossible. “Ostrich” tuning, because of its inherent limitations and possibilities, steers the player toward certain types of musical texture and away from others. Western harmony is out of reach, but monophony and drones are easy to achieve.

In this paper, I explore the idea of the “Ostrich” tuning as a point of articulation (Hall 1987, Grossberg 1992, Rodman 1996) by which the Velvet Underground actualized their intention that they “integrate some of La Monte Young's or Andy Warhol's concepts into rock and roll” (John Cale, quoted in McNeil and McCain 1997:24). I argue that the the “Ostrich” tuning, by merit of its inherent qualities, provided a platform by which the aesthetic drives and structures of La Monte Young's drone- based minimalist music and Andy Warhol's pop art found a way into the Velvets' music.