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Hudson River Wind Meditations

Lou Reed Hudson River Wind Meditations


Best New Reissue

  • Genre:


  • Label:

    Light in the Attic

  • Reviewed:

    January 13, 2024

A new reissue of Lou Reed’s final solo album spotlights a side of the New York icon that few ever got to see: a quiet ambient composer.

For all the chaos in his music—and despite his famously combative reputation—Lou Reed was a dedicated practitioner of yoga, meditation, and martial arts. He began studying tai chi as part of an effort to get off speed and booze and strengthen his wrecked body as the 1970s drew to a close. An early teacher recalls Reed’s hands shaking so hard he could barely hold the positions, but he stuck with it. When he toured, he brought along his swords and instructional VHS tapes, practicing in hotel gyms and conference rooms; upon returning home he was known to take the taxi straight from the airport to class. In the final six years of his life, he intensified his focus, doing six days of tai chi followed by one day of yoga, week in and week out. Laurie Anderson, his partner of 21 years, said he was “looking for magic.” He was doing breathwork when he died, in fact—eyes wide open and hands in a tai chi position, with Anderson’s arms around him.

Newly remastered and reissued with extensive liner notes by Light in the Attic, Hudson River Wind Meditations was first released in 2007, on a small Louisville, Colorado, label specializing in self-help and spirituality. But in the beginning, it wasn’t meant for public consumption at all. According to Anderson, Reed made early versions of these pieces to accompany guided meditations recited by Shelley Peng, an herbalist and acupuncturist. The music eventually morphed into a soundtrack for his tai chi practice, although not all his classmates were on board. Some fellow students preferred the traditional Chinese music that their teacher, Master Ren GuangYi, typically played, and asked for Reed’s tape to be turned off. One student walked out the door and never came back. (Reed’s drone music always did have a polarizing effect on listeners.)

But Reed and Ren kept playing the tape, and according to Anderson, anyway, some of his classmates eventually came around, saying that it was the best tai chi music they’d ever heard. One wonders to what extent Reed’s fame—or perhaps simply his legendary stubbornness—greased the wheels. In an amusing anecdote in the liner notes, yoga instructor Eddie Stern says that when he worked with Reed, “Whether we were doing yoga or meditating, the Hudson River Wind Meditations came on, and even though I am a silent meditator and don’t normally recommend listening to music when meditating, I would let it slide for Lou.”

The bulk of the release is taken up by two long tracks offering markedly different visions of what ambient music could be. The opening “Move Your Heart” is the more minimal of the two. It consists of a single oscillating tone, or cluster of tones, that opens and closes, over and over, for nearly 29 minutes, with very little evident variation. Rooted in a bassy throb, it begins throwing off sparks as a growling, high-resonance filter combs through the frequencies; for a brief moment, it’s a softly reassuring major triad, and then the filter clamps down once again, grinding everything into the rumbling muck. The cycle moves like waves, or breathing, yet despite its seeming steadiness, the repetition is never quite exact, and that almost imperceptible sense of uncertainty heightens its power. You never know quite what the music is going to do next, even though it never really does anything. It’s calming yet never fully subdued: The piece seems to move with a life of its own, and its raw, unburnished sonics feel far away from the politeness of more placid relaxation music. At times, as the bass tones thicken and congeal, it feels downright unruly.

“Find Your Note” is both wilier and more skeletal. Here, Reed dials up the uncertainty. While a bassy hum scours the low end, eerie tendrils flit across the upper register as ghostly harmonics materialize from out of nowhere. It sounds like a chorus of worried tea kettles, maybe, or a very lonely spaceship whistling to itself, long after its crew has died. More concretely, it recalls the work of drone titans like Éliane Radigue, Folke Rabe, and Kevin Drumm. Filaments flare up without warning and are snuffed out just as swiftly; trembling tones join to form fleeting harmonies, then spin away as if magnetically repulsed. The sense of movement is remarkable. I gave it a meditative test drive on headphones recently, sitting at the wooded edge of a grassy clearing, and was struck by how neatly it complemented the scene playing out before me: hawks circling warily in the distance; sunbeams grazing the flat bottoms of slow-moving clouds; wind rustling in the branches of the trees. When a flock of starlings streaked above my head, the shape of their formation—a kind of controlled chaos, a single organism moving as an elastic assemblage of points in space—felt mirrored in Reed’s trembling, unpredictable tone clusters. Two short closing tracks on the album incorporate the sounds of wind recorded from the window of Reed’s apartment, underscoring the music’s link to the rhythms of the natural world.

There are obvious parallels between Hudson River Wind Meditations and Metal Machine Music, Reed’s infamous 1975 album of multi-tracked guitar feedback—which, depending on your perspective, was either a nastily sarcastic way of fulfilling a record-label contract, or the angel song accompanying the birth of noise music. Both are durational, instrumental works that flirt with atonality. But the similarities end there. Metal Machine Music is abrasive and amphetamine fueled, as cozy as an icepick to the eye socket; Hudson River Wind Meditations is gentle and enveloping, in keeping with Brian Eno’s vision of ambient as something like a kind of musical incense, subtly flavoring the air wherever it plays. “The idea is to make things better, to make things more beautiful,” Reed said in an interview with the spirituality website Beliefnet around the time of the album’s release; to “be able to ground yourself, be able to experience something in a more agreeable environment.” Of course, “agreeable” isn’t a word one often hears in relation to Reed; the album’s most fascinating, and moving, aspect may be the glimpse it offers of a side of the musician that few ever got to see.

To hear Reed tell it, the creation of the music was a fluke. He was working with a Minimoog Voyager and assorted effects pedals; producer Hal Willner says that Reed also played with the feedback from a guitar leaning against his amplifier, much as he had on Metal Machine Music. But Reed claimed that he didn’t know exactly how he came up with the sounds. “I'm not sure what exactly did it, but I’ve never been able to get it back, because I didn’t write it down,” he told Pitchfork in 2007. That kind of caginess is perfectly in character for an unabashed self-mythologist like Reed, but the music really does sound like it was pulled from thin air. It’s easy to imagine him slipping into a trance-like state as he twisted knobs, then coming to and wondering exactly how those sounds found their way to the tape. If Reed was looking for magic in tai chi, he found something very much like it in these bewitching, evanescent transmissions from the ether.

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Lou Reed: Hudson River Wind Meditations