La Monte Young, THE 51-YEAR-OLD American maverick composer, is often called the father of Minimalism, but one could make an equally strong case for him as the father of punk rock.
His mid-1960’s performing group, originally dubbed the Dream Syndicate and later the Theater of Eternal Music, built on a minimalist determination to “let sounds be themselves” that was evident in Mr. Young’s work at least as early as the 1958 “Trio for Strings.” But the same group introduced an attitude of extreme sonic aggression that was new to music, playing at higher volume levels and with more single-minded intensity than any rock group of the period. And from the Young ensemble came John Cale, Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise, founding members (along with Lou Reed) of the Velvet Underground, the very fountainhead of punk and all modern rock. Recently unearthed Velvet Underground performances from the 60’s, most notably “Hey Mr. Rain” on the album “Another View” (Polydor), make the connection to Mr. Young’s music palpable. Another significant influence on contemporary rock, Brian Eno, once remarked, “La Monte Young is the daddy of us all.”
If one is startled by the idea of, say, Philip Glass and Live Skull sharing the same roots, it’s because those roots have remained hidden below ground. For 30 years, La Monte Young’s music has been more heard of than heard – unavailable on records except for the rare limited edition or import, infrequently performed. But this situation is about to change dramatically. A 30-year retrospective concert series began March 29 with a performance by the composer of his “Well Tuned Piano” at the Dia Art Foundation Performance Space, 155 Mercer Street. The concerts will continue at Dia through May 21 and will include performances of rarely heard works for brass, strings, guitar and other instruments. And later this month Gramavision plans to issue a splendid recording of “The Well Tuned Piano,” a continuous five-hour performance by Mr. Young on a specially retuned Bosendorfer Imperial, as a five-record boxed LP set and in cassette and CD formats as well.
Some longtime Young-watchers suspect that he might still be perfecting his music and biding his time if a generous chunk of the art-world funding he has long enjoyed had not dried up a few years ago. The Dia Art Foundation, funded principally by Houston oil money, had purchased the former New York Mercantile Exchange building on Harrison Street and revamped it to serve as a permanent home, gallery, archive and performance space for the composer. But the foundation ran into financial problems and was forced to sell the building. Mr. Young and others then formed the MELA Foundation, which is presenting this spring’s concert series, to help support his work. He admits the change in his fortunes was an impetus to activity, though the negotiations for release of “The Well Tuned Piano” had already been under way before Dia’s problems. But whatever the motivations, La Monte Young’s finally stepping into the spotlight is a notable, long-awaited musical event.
Musically, as well as in career terms, Mr. Young has always taken his time. His Trio for Strings, to be performed in concert on May 18, takes five minutes to present the first four notes. During the 1970’s, he set up a series of “dream house” sound installations in galleries and lofts, with drones sounded by fixed-pitch electronic sine-wave generators. The composer and his performing group, which at one time or another included such future new-music luminaries as Terry Riley, Jon Hassell, Jon Gibson and Garrett List, as well as Mr. Young’s wife and longtime collaborator, the visual artist Marian Zazeela, would show up from time to time to play long tones along with the drone, but the “dream house” itself was theoretically eternal.
The interest in duration is part of a consuming interest in tuning, extending beyond conventional concern for accuracy to an immersion in the tuning process as it takes place over time, and in harmonic overtones, waveforms, acoustical phenomena and pitch perception. ”The Well Tuned Piano,” for example, exploits a phenomenon known as the missing fundamental. Every key on the piano is tuned to a rational harmonic of a single basic tone – an E-flat that lies some five octaves below the bottom of the instrument, and thus isn’t sounded during the performance. But sounded or not, that deep, underlying drone is heard, or perceived. In the language of psychoacoustics, it is a missing fundamental, or periodicity pitch. Researchers have established that such phantom pitches are not present as oscillations in the cochlear fluid of the inner ear. “It is assumed,” Mr. Young says, “that the ‘missing fundamental’ must be the result of neural processing at a higher level.” An electronic drone was sounding throughout a recent visit to the Church Street loft, bathing the space in sound while the refracted glow from Miss Zazeela’s light sculptures bathed it in light. One might have imagined that little had changed in the timeless world of La Monte Young. But, in fact, the composer’s early studies have long since been refined into a complex and comprehensive body of musical theory that integrates mathematical analysis of the harmonic frequency spectrum, the latest findings and theories in sound and hearing-related sciences, and a devoted, years-long study of the fine points of Indian music with the master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. A handful of theoretical works, such as Ernest G. McClain’s “Myth of Invariance,” have attempted to correlate these systems of knowledge, but Mr. Young has synthesized them into a flexible musical language, the language of the partly-composed, partly-improvised ”Well Tuned Piano.”
Essentially, Mr. Young has developed an alternative harmonic theory that enables him to modulate, if not into different keys in the strict sense, then into different harmonic areas, in what is essentially a monochord or drone tuning, geared for maximum resonance. During the busier sections of ”The Well Tuned Piano” the entire instrument reverberates, the interacting sounds seeming almost to solidify into a cloud above the open piano lid. The phantom French horns, strings, and massed choirs that many listeners initially dismiss as quirks of hearing are in fact intentional, precisely calibrated effects. Perhaps for the first time, a pianist does almost literally have an orchestra at his fingertips.
Mr. Young’s interest in the fundamentals and imponderables of sound had childhood beginnings. He was born in a log cabin, in the small Mormon community of Bern, Idaho, on Oct. 14, 1935. “I remember the sound of the wind, blowing through the chinks in the logs and sounding something like a flute,” he said. “Then when I was in junior high school, we were living on the shore of Utah Lake, and I would hear these resonances coming off the lake. Years later, in the 60’s, when I began working with harmonics, I started consciously using the seventh partial and realized that I had been hearing the lake resonating a seventh harmonic. But the main experience with harmonics that I remember from Idaho was the sound of a little power plant substation next to the Conoco station my grandfather ran. Later, when the family moved to Los Angeles and I was attending high school, I liked to listen to the drone of the lathe and drill press in the machine shop. I would whistle or sing along.”
For a time, these early sonic influences were overshadowed by a love affair with the saxophone, which Mr. Young began playing at the age of 7, with his father as his first instructor. He became a proficient jazz saxophonist, and in the mid-50’s was heard widely around Los Angeles, sometimes as leader of a group that included the future jazz greats Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Dennis Budimir. Surviving tapes capture an alto saxophonist with a marked affinity for the progressivism of such players as Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, but with a harder, slashing edge to the sound and an even more convoluted approach to phrasing.
During this period, a teacher, Leonard Stein, introduced him to the music of Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen, and his interest in the saxophone was gradually subsumed by a passion for composition. His early pieces were serial in nature, but the interest in long tones and silences that survived from his childhood began to manifest itself early on. Following his development from “Five Small Pieces for String Quartet” (1956) and “For Brass” (1957) through the 1958 “Trio for Strings,” one can hear the extreme compression and purity of Webern interacting with the childhood influences that shaped his way of hearing sounds, the result being a radically original style.
After studies with a succession of teachers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen (at a Darmstadt seminar) and the innovative electronic composer Richard Maxfield, Mr. Young settled in New York and became involved with a group of ambitious young artists who pioneered mixed-media presentations and became known collectively as Fluxus. He organized the first Fluxus concert series, which was also New York’s first series of downtown loft concerts, held at Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft in 1960.
This period in Mr. Young’s development might most accurately be called minimalist. In a series of “Compositions 1960” and “Compositions 1961,” he followed John Cage’s lead in paring composition and performance to the bone. One composition simply instructed, “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Another provided a single major chord, with the instruction “to be held for a long time.” More whimsical compositions included one that instructed the performer, “Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink.”
In 1963, Mr. Young formed his own ensemble, something later minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich would also do. A year later, he decided he liked the hum of the motor that powered his aquarium, amplified it, and asked his group to improvise long tones against it. This was the beginning of his “dream house” phase. But the same year, on an old upright piano, he realized the first version of the tuning he gradually refined for “The Well Tuned Piano.”
Mr. Young’s detractors in the music world, and there are some, have suggested that no single composition, however grand in theory and design, needs to germinate for 20 years or more. They wonder if the years spent studying Indian music from the ground up with Pandit Pran Nath might have been better spent diversifying his composing. But then, back in the 60’s, the Velvet Underground had its detractors, people who said the sound was more noise than music. The Velvets’ reputation has survived the criticism handily, with the help of the band’s body of recorded work.
The Gramavision recording of “The Well Tuned Piano” captures the diversity and depth of La Monte Young’s musical vision, now more nearly maximal than minimal, with superb clarity. There are passages of ravishing lyricism, as delicate as any minimalist piano solo, even if the tuning may initially sound odd to some. There are also stormy welters of sonic interference patterns, as bracing as the Velvets’ screaming feedback surges. “The Well Tuned Piano” isn’t so much a single composition as a formal and intuitive synthesis of everything Mr. Young has done. His music was already controversial while it was still in the process of creation. Now it is going to be heard, and it’s about time.