Weeping Wall

Weeping Wall.
Weeping Wall (live, 2002).

The last song recorded for Low, “Weeping Wall” was made entirely by Bowie at Hansa Studios, Berlin, and the track suffers from the loss of Brian Eno’s sense of texture and melody (Bowie basically just repeats the first few notes of “Scarborough Fair” here). “Wall” seems like laboratory work by a gifted student; it’s a rhythmic-pulse-centered piece greatly in debt to Steve Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ” (1973) and “Music for 18 Musicians,” whose European premiere (at the Metamusik Festival in Berlin, in early October 1976) Bowie attended.

Reich described “Music for Mallet Instruments” as being centered on “the building up, beat by beat, of a preexisting marimba or glockenspiel pattern, with the duplicate being one or more beats out of phase with the original…[this creates] more fast-moving activity, which then triggers the organ and voices into doubling, quadrupling and further elongating the duration of the notes they sing and play.”

Bowie obviously aimed for a similar structure, creating a rhythmic base of overlapping xylophone and vibraphone* patterns set against a sequenced synthesizer pulse, but Bowie’s composition remains rather inert—the xylophone/vibes line mutates but doesn’t range too far out of phase and it eventually gets diminished in the mix. In “Mallet Instruments” Reich intended for voices and electric organ to fuse into a single sound, producing “a new timbre that is both instrumental and vocal at the same time,” and Bowie attempts something similar here, often locking a wordless vocal track with a filtered synthesizer. Yet the latter simply appears at a designated metronome mark and fades away again at another cue; it’s detached from developing out of the rhythmic base. A stretch of distorted guitar (I believe) occupies the middle of the track, followed by the return of the voice/synth line, now accompanied by a Bowie vocal bassline and with a low-frequency oscillator used on the synth, creating a theremin-like sound (esp. around 2:30).

“Weeping Wall” was assembled, as were most of the Low instrumentals, by using a series of metronome clicks (160 this time): translated to common musical language in the sheet music, “Weeping Wall” is 97 bars in 3/4 time, followed by a repeated 8-bar outro. The bassline initially consists of four measures of a single quarter note, repeated six times per bar—so it starts with D, A, F, B, G, B, G, E and G#, and so on, with patterns emerging as the piece goes on (G major often gets flatted, then returns to the natural, for example).

Of the four Low instrumentals, “Weeping Wall” seems the most derivative and tentative, its influences obvious and perhaps too overpowering. It likely was a necessary step in Bowie’s development, as he would be far more assured when he returned to Hansa in July 1977 for the freer-ranging “Heroes.”

Before then, however, there was another Iggy record to make.

* According to Hugo Wilcken, the vibraphone was a relic abandoned long ago at the Hansa studio, and it was an early edition of the instrument (a marimbaphone with a distinct vibrato) as built by the creator of the vibraphone, Herman Winterhoff, in 1916. Hugo’s book on Low, which has been invaluable for these past entries, is greatly recommended.

Recorded October 1976, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live in New York on 11 June 2002 (as part of a live performance of the entire Low album), and used as opening music for later shows that year.

Top: Peter van Nugteren, “West Berlin, 1976.”

14 Responses to Weeping Wall

  1. ian says:

    Y’know, I’ve always liked this Low instrumental the most! It’s something about the subtle shifts from a ‘cheerier’ sound to a more ‘subdued’ one, and how the driving vibes (which I’d only considered reich-esque instead of reich-indebted) gave the feeling of, well, driving… vibes. I also think it’s got a great name, one which invokes a feeling and imagery that jives well with the music.

    It’s not perfect, sure, and you’re right, we will get freer with “Heroes,” but it’s fun to point out how Good Bowie Was at naming his instrumentals (“Moss Garden,” I’m looking at you!)

  2. Cindyincidentally says:

    Remember reading somewhere ( ?!) that Weeping Wall was a leftover from the aborted MWFTE soundtrack.

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’m with ian on this -except about the naming. I thought you were saving the best for last on Low! In all of the entries so far, this is only the second time I’ve disagreed with you – the other being Shadowman (and we could throw in Liza Jane!).
    Still, a great and informative read as always. I had no idea that there was no Eno involvement in the recording. As you have mentioned, despite all Eno’s theorising, the other instrumentals on Low are in fact very tightly organised and structured. For me, Weeping Wall is the one that really does flirt with chaos and is all the more rewarding for that.

  4. Jeremy Earl says:

    Love it! Love the vibes! I have this record on vinyl and I’m going to get it out and listen to it deeply….

  5. swanstep says:

    Seconding some of the other comments here: I like Weeping Wall a lot and am impressed that Bowie was so on top of Reich so early, yet he by no means just slavishly copies or popularizes these very great masterworks (unlike the way, say, Tangerine Dream would a little later) – as you mention, there’s very little shifting in and out of phase in Bowie’s track. Two things I find esp. interesting, however: (i) Bowie’s canny title gets us (or me at least!) thinking about Jerusalem, but Reich himsef didn’t start addressing his Jewish roots and the vaguely middle eastern character of some his music until the ’80s; (ii) the guitar and other non-percussive sounds that Bowie mixes over the top of the marimbas etc. anticipates some of the soundscapes that Reich got into with great profit in the ’90s when working with Kronos on Different Trains. In sum, then, I’d say this is a very good days work at the studio for Bowie: he’s fast learning from Reich, but doing his own thing too and sketching some real futures.

  6. diamond dog says:

    Agree with the other comments by other folks I find weeping wall to be a fine piece , I’m not familiar with the other material mentioned but having listened to Low for 30 odd years I always found this to be a spot of dare I say ‘light relief’ amongst the other more downbeat compositions on the album. Love it and telling that it is the last recorded track. Informative as always a great read.

  7. phaedra says:

    I remember an interview – I think Charles Shaar Murray – (or was it Ian McDonald did in either April or September 1977 for NME discussing Low with Bowie and his time and musical influence in Berlin, with his reference to influence by Edgar Froese and Bowie’s appreciation for Edgar’s album ‘Epsilon In Malaysian Pale’.
    Have you seen the interview? I don’t know if it was later reprinted in Charles Shaar Murray’s and Roy Carr’s book ?
    I have found this quote in the net but there is unfortunately no source given to the text source:

    Bowie quote: “I was a big fan of Kraftwerk, Cluster and Harmonia, and I thought the first Neu! album, in particular, was just gigantically wonderful,” admits Bowie. “Looking at that against punk, I had absolutely no doubts where the future of music was going, and for me it was coming out Germany at that time. I also liked some of the later Can things, and there was an album that I loved by Edgar Froese, Epsilon In Malaysian Pale; it’s the most beautiful, enchanting, poignant work, quite lovely. That used to be the background music to my life when I was living in Berlin. In a way, it was great that I found those bands, because I didn’t feel any of the essence of punk at all in that period, I just totally by-passed it.”
    Any idea as to where did this above quote originate from?
    Have there been many books about Bowie’s stay in Berlin?
    I have read one, Low by Hugo Wilcken on your recommendation and find it very good and accurate.
    Seabrook’s book is rather long winded and not so good with facts.

    • col1234 says:

      phaedra—yes, that quote is everywhere but never attributed. I think you’re right that it’s from an NME interview. at some point I am going to read all the NME 70s articles for the revisions, so maybe that will turn something up.

      don’t know of any more Bowie Berlin books besides what you mentioned, but again, haven’t been doing much research on that period. i will at some point later this year.

      • phaedra says:

        Thank you ; I would appreciate it. All my old copies of NME are long discarded in the skip by my Mother. You are a gentleman and a true scholar. I wait with baited breath; – as I would love to read the full interview in its entirety again in context to Low. There is a possibility that some of it was reprinted in C. S. Murray and Roy Carr’s book: David Bowie: An Illustrated Record Book – published in 1981, but alas, now out of print.

  8. stowe07 says:

    I want to know how he made the guitar sound like that, it is magical.

  9. Could anyone notify me of where that Steve Reich quote is from? Need to cite in an essay…

    • col1234 says:

      it’s in Reich’s “Writings on Music, 1965-2000,” in his description of “Music For Mallet Instruments”

  10. Waki says:

    I also love it. I find it entrancing, like the other B-side of Low, but maybe more, well, raw, which is not bad but great in itself. Possibly raw because Eno did not bring in the polishing? Anyway, to me the result is very powerful and poignant.

    “Gifted student” left alone… 🙂 Wow. Sometimes, even the best teachers do well to leave the kids alone.

    Thank you for providing all the background and explanations! I just listened to Reich, and although the influence is obvious, I find Reich very boring compared to Bowie’s Weeping Wall. Maybe he is more subtle, but then far less emotionally intense. No weeping stuff. I may dare to say, less life. Reich’s muscial journey is describing a quiet and gentle landscape, whereas Weeping Wall musical development is expressing human tragedy, maybe Berlin, Jerusalem, whatever, wherever our souls might be wheeping. So I don’t find Reich’s influence overpowering at all. It sounds only like material for Bowie to play with, just like the sound of say, an instrument, but then he played something very unique.

    As you underscore, Bowie was also into Iggy’s work then. I mean, that was another world compared to Reich! And yet Bowie typically managed to bridge and bring these sounds and spirits together, the subtle and the raw, outpouring a new beauty. Worldless vocal may express the wheeping meaning, conveying meaning and not being just sound experience/experimentation.

  11. WRGerman says:

    That “Scarborough Fair” motif could also be a steal from the traditional Xmas hymn “We Three Kings”.

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