Weeping Wall

March 22, 2011

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.”