January 30, 2008, a New York crowd gathered at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, to hear Lou Reed reflect on his latest work, the Hudson River Wind Meditations. Reed composed this music for himself and others, ‘as an adjunct to meditation, Tai Chi, and bodywork, and as music to play in the background of life–to replace the everyday cacophony with new and ordered sounds of an unpredictable nature. New sounds freed from preconception.’ Reed’s appearance was one of the first in ‘Brainwave: Sacred Science.’ Brainwave is an interdisciplinary program that brings people from diverse walks of life together to engage with neuroscientists in one-on-one conversations in order to better understand the workings of our minds. That night, I engaged Lou Reed in a lively, topical debate on music, meditation and the plasticity of the brain, with full audience participation. The discussion ranged from the Hudson River Wind Meditations to Metal Machine Music, from exploring inner spaces through Tai Chi and Buddhist meditation to fMRI-scans of Lou Reed’s Tibetan teacher Mingyur Rinpoche. The abbreviated video of our conversation was published as an in memoriam shortly after Lou Reed passed away in 2013. Below you will find a verbatim transcript of the entire conversation.
Rob Hogendoorn (RH): To start this off I quote the liner notes to the Hudson River Wind Meditations CD, where Lou Reed himself says that with it he wanted “to replace the everyday cacaphony with new and ordered sounds of an unpredictable nature. New sounds, freed from preconceptions.” My first question would be: What was the impulse? What got you started on this?
Lou Reed (LR): I had been making some music for myself and I was working on doing music to maybe meditate to, or do Tai Chi to, and I had this piece of music I had been working on for a while. So I wanted to have this music for myself to do certain things to. I was working on this for two or three years, playing around with this thing, and I noticed that it absorbed the sounds of the city so that things that otherwise might be annoying—or something you do not want to hear, but are used to—were absorbed somehow into the tapestry. And then I had people over, sometimes, who would say: “Can you put that music on?” I worked on it some more, and I worked on it with a couple of other people. So I decided to make it available to other people, because I thought it was something that might be useful. That is where it came from.
RH: You said you were working on this. I imagine you fiddling with a thing: what is it that we hear? Where does the sound come from?
LR: I do not keep notes, so every time I try to do something I, in one sense, start from scratch. In this case, that was a very bad mistake because I could never get this single… It is a combination of sounds, coming from some different machines, mixed in with some pedals. I got a certain amount of sound from it for a certain amount of time, because I was playing it in real time. Then I stopped, and when came back I could not get it back. And I tried for a very long time to try to get this thing back, because it was really unusual and beautiful and it did exactly what I wanted it to do. It is not really in any key. It has an amorphous kind of rhythm going to it, and you can really do a lot of different things to it. So I cannot really tell you what it is made up of: it is various gadgets.
RH: You did not actually compose it in the sense of thinking about it first, and then developing it further? Is it more experimental?
LR: No, I had a very specific thing that I wanted to do. I was not sure how to do it. I was looking for this thing that actually would do exactly what it is doing. I was trying a lot of different ways to get there. I have had an interest in this for really a long time. Some of my interest in this is kind of infamous. I had in mind what I wanted, I just did not quite know how to get there. I knew a lot of things not to do, but I did not really have all the things that you should do. I know that there is a lot of music out there that does this type of thing, or tries to do this type of thing, but that was not what I wanted to hear either. I wanted to hear exactly what you are hearing.
RH: In many ways this music is inspired by your own practice of, and experience with the meditation and Tai Chi that you do. Before starting the work on the Hudson River Wind Meditations, would you try to put yourself in a certain mood through meditation or Tai Chi?
LR: I do not totally get the question.
RH: Well, I try to imagine how it works, composing and producing this.
LR: If I understood that… I have never understood that. People always say: “How do you write? What is the technique?” And there is not one in my particular case. I do not understand the process. I do not have a clue. I do not how to make it happen. When it is not working, I might as well go to the movies.
RH: Would you say that your own practice of meditation or Tai Chi opens you up to new sources of inspiration, new creativity?
LR: I have been studying Tai Chi for over 25 years, and it has changed my life and made a lot of things possible. One of the things it helps you with is focus. Focus, stability, foundation. Focus in the mind. I studied a type of Tai Chi called ‘chen’. It is the first one, and it is one that is not just slow. So be careful! I do not want to mislead you: I am not an expert meditator by any stretch of the imagination. I am a layman. I had the advantage of meeting a great teacher, who showed me ways that would be useful for me to meditate. And I have been trying to do that for a number of years now. There is also a meditation that I listen to from an herbalist up town, doctor Shelley Pung. We actually recorded her meditation on the meditation music. But when I put the music out, we took her meditation off, so that you could you could have your own meditation in, rather than restrict this to just this one that I like.
RH: Could you share a bit more on the Tibetan teacher that you have, who teaches you meditation. I know his name is Mingyur Rinpoche, a very young Tibetan lama. Was he involved in any way in this process of creating this music? You let others listen to it, did he ever listen to it? Was there feedback from him?
LR: I met Mingyur Rinpoche after I had made this music. I did not actually ask what he thought of it, because I was afraid what he might say. “You mean: it does not work?” But it worked for me. Everything I do… I write for myself. My theory—it is not even a theory—is: If I like it, I figure I am not that different from you. If I like it, you might like it too. And if you do not like it, you can throw it away, not buy it. I just thought it would really work.
Mike [Michael Rathke] , could you go back to track 1 of the original Hudson River Wind Meditations? I have been in love with that sound now… My God, al those years I could not get it back! So I ended up being really happy I had that. Then I played around with that, and I did play it for Mingyur Rinpoche. And he was very positive about it, which made me very, very happy. As I far as how I did it, I know how I did it: It is just something that works. I do not know if simple is the word to use, but I do very simple meditation. By that I mean: you try to do 30 seconds. If you can do 30 seconds, maybe you can do a minute, if you can do a minute, maybe you can do… ad infinitum.
RH: You reminded me of an anecdote about someone sharing a creative product with a high Tibetan lama. It was Richard Gere, a fervent photographer. He traveled to Tibet, took many pictures and made a beautiful book of them. Some day he decided to show the pictures to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And: He did not like them at all. He thought they were awful. The Dalai Lama likes his pictures in colour, to start with, and sharp and realistic, whereas Richard Gere’s pictures are black and white, silverish, with a bit of movement. So, I guess you were lucky! There is a very thin line between what works and what does not work. How do you determine that for yourself? Is it a mood that comes up, if it is right—an emotion welling up?
LR: For me these things do not involve thinking, thank God. It is very, very quick. I either hear “yes”, or something happens to my body. And that is that. I can tell very, very quickly about most things whether there is something special happening for me. And that is the advantage of getting older.
RH: How’s that?
LR: Because when you are younger you are moving so quickly you can miss a lot of that. It is like that the Tai Chi. They will tell you a hundred times: Practice it slow. Do it slowly. With a lot of this stuff, if you do it fast it is very flashy and it really is fun. However, you are missing 70 percent, maybe 80, 85 percent of the whole thing by going fast. That is just the way it works. No one can make you slow down. I do not know if there is such a thing as fast meditation. That is a great album title: “Fast Meditation”! I should think about that one.
RH: People have these preconceptions about meditation. Some people think that meditation means sitting down in a formal posture, and getting that posture just right. But there is an endless variety of forms of meditation. You can have a 30 second meditation in elevator, if you want to. I suppose that this music will be used in all these different ways. It means to facilitate or inspire meditation.
LR: When we first thought of putting it out so that people could use it, we asked the people who were going to put it out: “What are people listening to it on? Earbuds? Headphones? iPods? Computers?” I made it to be listened to on speakers. They had said “speakers”, because there is so much bass. If you listen to it on an iPod or on a computer, it distorts. There is no earbud in the world that can carry that kind of bass. I had envisioned it on speakers because there is a lot of activity in the low end. When you think “Ohm” and all that, and try to get down here, this is what this music is supposed to get down: into the lower level over here, where your dan tian is. That does not happen on earbuds. But, guess what everybody listens to it on?
RH: I told Lou that I first got the Hudson River Wind Meditations through the iTunes Music Store. Those are low bit rate mp3’s. Lou immediately said: “You know, in this way you do not get the low”. I told him that I bought the CD later. What does the low do for you?
LR: It is one of the reasons that people like hip hop. That bass kicks you right there! That is really not kidding around! There are other approaches to that, but there is a reason for bass. There is a reason that when you go to a club, they have that bass up, and the foot pedal of the drum. It is not missing. It is there for a reason: Because you are physical, and it is fun to have the physicality of the body. That is why with this music for the meditation I thought you would be encompassed in this cocoon of vibrating, moving bass. Instead, people are running around with these little earbuds, having a little cocoon around one lobe. Maybe they want to ask a question? Or maybe they do not want to?
Audience (AUD): What made you pursue Tai Chi meditation?
LR: I have been doing Tai Chi for over 25 years. Why? I wanted to have a form of exercise that was not like running on a treadmill, chasing a carrot. I wanted something that would occupy the mind a bit more. Tai chi is very beautiful, and I am astonished to this day after all this time. I am just beginning to realize how little I know about it.
AUD: I find it fascinating, and it makes a lot of sense to me, what you say about the bass. I wonder what the other ingredients are of what we are listening to?
LR: It is a bunch of different kind of instruments, none of which are analogue. That is what you are listening to. I do not want to say “proces”. It is being played in real time. It is a thing I did on another piece of music a long time ago, where a certain harmonic hits another harmonic, and causes a third harmonic and that causes this other thing to happen. But it is under control, so it is not cacaphonous or atonal.
AUD: There is an element in your music that, I think, goes all the way back to Metal Machine Music, and I wonder: Is this like a progression or a development?
LR: I suppose so. I would hope so. I cannot imagine how the answer to that can be no. I think everything is evolving, including me, hopefully.
AUD: Were you thinking about Metal Machine Music at all, when you were working on this?
LR: O yeah! Sure, I was. I had done a bunch of other kinds of music and an album called “The Raven”. I wanted to see if I could do certain things that I did in an analogue way on Metal Machine Music, I could do something similarly in a digital domain, and what kind of technical problems that would bring up. Which were a lot. And then it went from there, “The Raven”, into this other place where I wanted to do a construct that could be used for bodywork, any kind of bodywork and meditation. Or, the other thing we would find ourselves doing, is just to leave it on all day. It just absorbs these other sounds. Which in the city is, I think, kind of great. No siren.
RH: Looking back on Metal Machine Music, through the lens of Hudson River Wind Meditations, what would the parallels be? You said you wanted “new and ordered sounds of an unpredictable nature”. Does this have something to do with defying the expectations that you or other listeners might have?
LR: It is a way of taking expectations and making it so that you do not have to bother with them. To free up your mind from: “Where is the verse?”, “Where is the chorus?”, “What is the tempo?”, “What is the this?”, “What is the that?” You cannot think that way with this, which is great. I love to have music that is that way, but I also did not want it to be atonal, where it draws attention to itself because you think it is out of key. I also wanted to find something that is kind of keyless, which is another expectation that could go away.
RH: There is the field of music cognition, neurologists and neuroscientists doing research on music. It is a new, rapidly developing field. One thing they found, was that music that does not defy expectations at all is not liked. The general listener is very savvy in listening to music. Most of us will not be able to articulate whatever this sentiment we have about music being ‘right’ is, but we are savvy at putting our finger on good music. So, defying listeners expectations is pretty much your job as a skilled musician. That is what makes music work.
LR: I have never thought of it that way. I am just trying to write something I would like. It is so simple. No one ever believes me. “You must be more complicated than that.” No, I am really way simpler, you have no idea! Way, way simpler than you might imagine. And the basic idea is always the same: Make something I could listen to, that I would go buy, that I would like, that I would get something of. Whatever it is. In whatever style it is, because I do not care. When I say I do not care, I mean I do not care where it comes from or what form it is, and this, that and the other thing. Does it work for me? That is all.
Hey Michael, would you turn up that thing a little louder so that they get to hear the bottom end that I go on about? Listen to the bottom! For fun! You hear the movement in the bottom, it is so great! You can just let yourself go into that. OK, Mike, thank you, switch to the other thing. Not the guitar piece, one of the other ones, track 5 or 6. I did this with another musician named Sarth Calhoun. So there is two people now, trying to do essentially the same thing. I very much want to do modern music for this. Go to the next track, Mike.
RH: For you there is no real theory underlying all this, but I am sure there are researchers around who could take this apart.
LR: Why don’t you tell them some of your background, so that they know. This guy has quite a background, he is just being very modest.
RH: I think I heard Tim McHenry say in his introduction that I do some research on the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists. These are cross-cultural dialogues and there is a certain intellectual and philosophical dynamic right there that I look into. For that reason I interact with many of the Tibetans and scientists involved.
LR: Are you a techhead?
RH: No, I am not. My research is mainly philosophical. I am not a great meditator. I have my experience with meditation. But, I am pretty much like Lou: I love it, and I do it, but I am not a yogi. This involvement with the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and the scientists has brought me a lot, because I learned, for instance, about this new phenomenon, or rather, a new field of research, the plasticity of the mind. Researchers try to see how meditation can make your brain adapt itself in such a way that it will show structural changes which, for instance, would make it easier to be compassionate. This is a major field of research going on right now. These are the preliminary stages, but it opens up all these interesting questions.
LR: Shall we tell them about the test on Mingyur Rinpoche?
RH: This is exactly where I was going. Mingyur Rinpoche was involved in one study in the lab. He was one of those monks in the lab who did certain forms of meditation. Measurements were made through EEG, fMRI and such, basically looking how how certain regions in his brain lit up during these meditations. And his score were off the charts.
LR: 800 percent more than a normal person. They put him in a fMRI-tank, piping in the sound of people screaming. And there he is: 800 percent. So you would say: “That might be a nice thing to know, how did you do that?” Well, the answer is meditation. And what he said to me was, that they did a test with novices. Novices did an hour a day for eight months, and when they tested them they were fifteen percent happier, whatever part of the brain lights up when they are measuring that. That is novices doing meditation. So, when you say “What is meditation?”, Mingyur Rinpoche says that this has a lot to do with what is called mind training. Training the mind, teaching your mind, controlling your mind in meditation is a doorway to that.
AUD: Control the mind to do what?
LR: To be able to control and focus it wherever you want. To be able to control your thoughts, what they call ‘crazy monkey’, all that chattering going on, to be able to deal with that.
AUD: I was wondering: In this process, there is sort of a no-mind that you are stumbling accidentally upon, a sound that resonates without you being in the middle of it. Was there other music that you heard along this process that made you feel similarly?
LR: There has been certain kinds of music that have always been the world to me. One way or another. This particular kind of music, I could not give you the name of anything of this type that does that for me. I am sure it is out there, it is just I am limited. Go to the next track, Mike.
RH: The story about Mingyur Rinpoche being put in the lab to have his mind or brain researched on the impact of meditation gave me the following thought: Within music cognition people are starting to recognize that the mind and the brain might be plastic for the experience of music also. Very little research has been done on this. It would mean that your brain will adapt itself structurally through the experience of music. Just like they put expert meditators in the lab to test them on the impact of meditation, they would need consummate performers and expert musicians in the lab to test their minds and brains on the plasticity for music. So I had this thought of having Lou being put in the lab, similarly.
LR: I do not think so.
RH: I thought so. Why not?
LR: I just… Well, you know, that is an inter… I tell you what: If Mingyur Rinpoche said to me “I’m going to be tested for compassion, we want you to be right next to me, and they will test both of us for whatever”, then I would probably say “Ah, if you tell me the secret to the universe, sure”.
RH: Well, there is this research going on on a certain sonata by Mozart, which is supposed to make you smarter. The more…
LR: Is this really true? You were telling me this, is this true?
RH: This is really true. I am not saying that listening to this sonata is making you smarter. I am telling you that they are researching that.
LR: They must be researching it for a reason!
RH: The jury is still out.
LR: They say that about my records.
RH: I will get to that. The research is going on, and the intuitions that scientists have right now is that the music itself does not make you smarter, but the mood change that the music gives you tends to make you smarter. And you would have to research that further. And for that you would use expert listeners, expert performers of music. They call music a “mood regulator”, but more research is needed to establish that. And music is indeed a mood regulator, you could put it to use in beneficial ways.
LR: I made a lot of people smarter!
LR: But we know it is a mood regulator! I mean, you walk into a club or a restaurant and the mood is set by the music that you hear the minute you walk in. Go to the next track, Michael, please?
RH: You put out a CD, which is supposed to facilitate a mood change, is it not?
LR: Well, I do not know about that. It is supposed to be something that you could use to do whatever you want.
RH: To feel better, worse, or neutral?
LR: I certainly would not want to put something out to make you feel worse. I mean, you have got the world to do that.
RH: OK, now imagine a neuroscientist being able to tell you what will in fact make moods better. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
RH: So, wouldn’t you want to collaborate in such research? I am talking him into the lab, you can hear it!
LR: I think I would rather stay a musician.
AUD: The music you are talking about using one of our senses to alter a mood or bring calm to the mind. Could you also use another sense? What came to mind listening to this music is walking…
LR: Do you meditate?
LR: How long?
AUD: I was talking about the use of light…
LR: Do you meditate, I said.
AUD: I try thirty seconds, that is about it.
LR: What type of technique do you use? Where did you learn it?
LR: Great! And what was the rest of the question?
AUD: Would light give you a similar experience, [inaudible]? I was thinking of walking into the dark rooms that James Turell… How that feels to me like the way this music feels.
LR: There are a number of exercises that I was given that involve candles and the light from a candle, ways of looking at it, at what you are trying to do with the light and the candle. There is also an exercise you can do that has to do with dreams. One of the exercises is: if you have a dream, try to put your present self in the dream, knowingly. So, that is the conscious/unconscious mind, put your conscious mind in the subconscious situation. I have never been able to do that.
RH: From the perspective of science you would say that music is produced by the mind. Sound waves don’t have sound. Like light waves don’t have colour. We produce sound, and we bring to that the context and the entire specter of whatever our mind does. There will be cultural influences, expectations, and they are all brought to bear on these sound waves hitting your eardrums. Yes, there is much more involved in experiencing music than just sound waves. You bring more to it.
AUD: Those who are working with this in the lab, why is it Mozart in stead of Bo Diddley or LR:?
LR: You have to start somewhere.
RH: Actually, it started off in 1993, I think. There was an article in Nature by someone who did research on this Mozart sonata. And they said there was the “Mozart effect” of improving your cognitive skills. I do not know why this person started with Mozart. He may just have liked Mozart. But the effect has been repeated with other music. Now they talk about the “Blur effect”, which is another band that I do not know. They took many pieces of music and did the test, but it is still unclear why it works. As I said, one of the intuitions is that the mood changes that are affected by music are responsible for this. There could be many types of music affecting mood changes that will improve your cognitive skills.
AUD: You mentioned that they are measuring compassion. How do they try to measure, or scientifically see compassion?
RH: I am not a neuroscientist myself, so this is a very brief, simple version of it. The brain is pretty well known in the sense that there all these regions in the brain that are known to be related to certain sentiments or skills. So they know which part of the brain lights up when you experience compassion or loving kindness. Simply put: in a meditator who puts himself deliberately in a compassionate state these regions light up more. The causal nexus is unclear, this is all very preliminary, no definite conclusions whatsoever. This is how they go about doing it. This is a very complicated matter, though.
AUD: You are saying that there are mood changes associated with meditation and that is supposed to be more positive. Does that mean that happier people are smarter? What is the definition of smart that they are applying, and how do they define happiness?
LR: That is another panel.
RH: How do you define meditation? That is another problem.
LR: How many people here—raise your hand—actually meditate?
RH: Regularly. One third?
LR: How do you meditate?
AUD: By being quiet. I do not know if that qualifies.
LR: I am not in charge of what qualifies. Each to their own. I was just very curious as to some of the techniques some of the people out here use. Who else meditates?
AUD: I just sit and I put my awareness … [inaudible]. I am a private yoga teacher and also therapeutic yoga teacher. I treat a lot of people with insomnia, and I think that first song of yours will really help a lot because it has got a … [inaudible] to it. If that is true, I do not have insomnia, but that would be amazing to so many people.
LR: I do have insomnia. Well, I do not have insomnia, I just do not sleep very much. Put back Hudson River Wind Meditations track 1, that is the track she is talking about. That is part of the idea behind that. Someone else here who wants to tell us their meditation experience? Don’t be shy.
AUD: I go to a meditation center. There is a [inaudible] It is a [inaudible] church.
LR: Where is it?
AUD:[inaudible] It is a center where we have a talk by a teacher and then we sit in a guided meditation for about half an hour. The teacher gives talks on Buddhism and meditation. I find it very hard to meditate, but I go and [inaudible]. I am also interested in the teachings of Thich Nath Hanh. I go to his sangha once a week, to this teacher and we all just sit quietly and do a quiet walking meditation.
LR: Do they give you a mantra or something?
AUD: No, just walking in silence, quietly.
RH: It is funny that you would mention silence, because I was just thinking about it. Meditation has this way of making you aware that things are not always what they seem. For instance, you would think that silence is silent. But whoever sits down in meditation finds that silence is very rich and multilayered: There are all kinds of dimensions to silence. Actual silence—like you would have in outer space, where sound waves can’t travel because there is a vacuum—does not happen for us on earth.
I mentioned to Lou that John Cage composed a piece with the title 4:33, which is musicians not playing their instruments for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. When it was first performed it caused a riot. Many people felt offended, because they thought that John Cage was amusing himself at their expense. The thing was that there are three movements in the piece and people who would actually be present at a performance would discover silence anew, because it turned out that there were all these sounds. He made a funny remark: “In the third movement, there is the sound of people leaving the room”. It does make you think: is silence silent? Is there someone here who has discovered that it is not?
LR: That figures.
LR: No, I would not try to define it with a visual. As far as eyes opened and closed: I do both. There is no rule. Whatever is comfortable at the time. It does not mean anything one way or the other. There is no right or wrong way about that. The main thing, as far as I understand it, and it is the same with Tai Chi, is to sit up straight. You do not have to sit on the floor, but sit up straight. We have a thing in Tai Chi: If you are sitting like this, go to sleep, go to bed.
RH: Within Buddhism you would have an underlying theory saying that it is very important that the spine is aligned in the proper way. There is a certain flow of energy up and down that is very important is one reason to want to sit up straight. But it should not be to tight.
LR: You do not have to be like Marines. Because that is stressful.
RH: Many of those who meditate or have tried to meditate in a proper mediation posture—sitting cross-legged on the floor—will have discovered that pain is not simply pain either. Pain turns out to be very multidimensional as well. Bringing attention to a certain phenomenon, be it silence or be it pain, makes you discover more about it. I would assume that that will be the case for Lou’s music as well. If you sit with it, you may find out more about it. I mentioned to Lou the possibility of us sitting with the music for a while, so why wouldn’t we? Could we try that for a few minutes?
LR: If we do do that, we will turn the music up and turn the lights down. I wanted the lights up because I like to see to who I am talking to, and I hope you felt the same way. Can we turn the music up, Michael.
RH: Do whatever your meditation is, or do what you think meditation is. Perhaps you have never meditated.
RH: So, having spent a few minutes with this…please turn the volume down a bit. I know a few minutes is not too long, but are there any new findings?
Source: Verbatim transcript of a dialogue at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York City, 30 January 2008, ± 75 mins.