Since the 50s, La Monte Young has been at the forefront of modern music, turning the hippies on to Indian raga, influencing the minimalism of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Henry Flynt, the drone of Tony Conrad and John Cale (in Young's own Theater of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate group), and the rock of the Velvet Underground.
Lou Reed credits Young's influence on Metal Machine Music; German Krautrock bands like Faust and Can have similarly listed Young as a pioneer. He also played a major role in New York's Fluxus group, trying the patience of avant artists with pieces that challenged the pianist to build a fire or push the instrument through a wall. Even Yoko Ono got tired of being showed-up.
Young's own work, despite its importance, has gone largely unheard due to several factors, first among them Young's refusal to re-release it. Most, if not all, of his work is nearly unfindable — that which is available goes for huge sums of money. (Thank you, Internet.) Another reason for the work's obscurity would be the length of the compositions. Most that are available in any commercial sense fill at least a vinyl side (20-30 minutes), and several full compositions are either hours long (or hours long snippets of infinitely long music). Young takes years to compose individual “songs,” releasing small pressings of works-in-progress, trickling psychical evidence of his ideas (and perversity) over decades.
Young's most famous piece, and one of his most economical titles, "The Well Tuned Piano," is five hours in length (at this point), was released once, briefly, in 1988, has been known about since 1965, continues to be tweaked, and realizes many of Young's obsessions. The title references Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, a series of works incorporating all 24 musical keys. Bach's original didn't expressly call for tuning adjustments between the pieces, but it is usually played that way. Young takes this a step further, presenting one long work utilizing Just Intonation, with every note on the piano being in key. This means that the sounds take on a slightly “off,” almost Eastern sound — yet, it all works together, producing not only complex harmonic relationships, but also an effect sometimes known as “ghost chords.”
"The Well Tuned Piano" is a drone, which pulses in long waves of slow build-ups and incredibly fast crescendos. As the piano lines crowd together, played faster and faster, the “ghost chords” develop, and the side effect of a combination of speed and Just Intonation — chords which are not played, but are heard — add a cloud-like second drone to the rhythmic/melodic pulse/drone/jumble which actually exists. This second drone exists in physical space as sound waves, but has no point of actual production from a human or instrumental source. It is a chance occurrence within the physical laws of the universe, and Young exploits and utilizes this mathematical anomaly to create beautiful music.
Upon my first attempt to actually listen to this in its five-hour entirety, I surprised myself by actually completing — and enjoying — the process. It put me in a state of both deep listening and deep thought. I thought about the nature of music, the nature of listening and hearing, and of the mind's ability to process sound and ideas in part and totality. I was at work, working a rather dull project at a legal office in New York City which usually left me in a near-dream state by itself. Not only did I find myself alert and quite awake, I felt energized and calm in a way I've rarely known.
Several weeks later, leaving an after-party for a friend's play in TriBeCa, someone pointed out a quirky flyer posted to the door of the apartment building next door. It read, “Dream House: A light and sound installation, Thursdays and Saturdays 2 – midnight. Ring bell for #3.” I knew Young lived in New York, and I knew that he kept an apartment and art space in lower Manhattan. But here it was. The Dream House.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked/demanded of the woman who pointed out the flyer. I continued without any amount of shame (and a healthy amount of alcohol) to regale her with long, rambling vocal essays of Young's brilliance. Well, Young's brilliance isn't for everybody, but a couple of us did attend the Dream House installation on the following Saturday afternoon.
In total, the title of the installation, with sound by Young and light by his wife Marian Zazeela, is "The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119." More succinctly, it is described as “a periodic composite sound waveform environment created from sine wave components generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesizer.” From what I can tell after experiencing it, that pretty much means that there are sine waves being produced at intervals based on prime numbers from four well-placed speakers at opposite corners of the room. It goes on forever, or at least 10 hours at a time, and it never really changes.
Ringing the 3rd floor bell at 275 Church Street, we were buzzed in and walked up a narrow staircase towards the volunteer monitor at the top. She asked if we had ever been here before, told us to take off our shoes, not to talk inside and to have a pleasant experience. I opened the door and was immediately blasted by low-frequency rumblings. Above me, a blue and red neon design cast purple shadows along the hall and the plush white carpet. My friend held a hand to his ear and a complaint showed on his face. We walked down the hall towards the main space, a square, white room bathed in purple lights with speakers and sub-woofers aimed inwards from white towers in each corner. There were six or seven other people in attendance, sprawled out on white pillows in various states of awareness. Some appeared asleep, most seemed to be enjoying pure aural osmosis, letting the sound wash over and under them.
As I walked across the room, the sound seemed to pulse and move, both in time and in frequency, but once I joined the others on the floor, the sound stopped all movement and remained static. I sat up and the sound changed. I laid down again and it returned to its static state. Wondering, I lifted my head no more than an inch. The sound changed. I placed my hands behind my head and the sound changed again. Any amount of movement slightly changed which sine waves reached my ears at the particular time and spot my head resided in the room. Still, the sound, wherever I laid my head, remained static. Eventually, I got comfortable and relaxed in the racket.
About five minutes passed before I realized that patterns were changing and developing within the sound. Percussive elements, ranging from tapping sounds to cricket and cicada-like chirpings, blurring waves of static like airplanes flying overhead, a rhythmic pulse and super low-frequency rumblings were all moving with almost physical dimension through my body and brain. A few more minutes passed before I figure out that I can somewhat control the sound by concentrating on particular elements. Before long, I am controlling the rhythmic frequency of the percussive elements, crickets and cicadas are having conversations, airplanes are ascending and descending as if by my will. Am I hallucinating this? Everything I know is telling me that the sound is not changing, and that I am creating these variations in my head. By moving my mind's eye (or ear) around, I am making this music as much as Young is.
Every few minutes, I changed position and the sounds would reset themselves and begin their shape-shifting anew. Bits of sound were highlighted or pushed into backgrounds depending upon where and how I positioned my head. Just before I was disturbed by a man going to the bathroom, (which is in the hall, for your comfort,) I placed my head directly on the carpet and found that the waves of sound were vibrating the entire room, through the floor, massaging my body as well as mind. I drifted, nearly falling asleep, but then someone just had to have to pee…
As we left, my friend told me he had fallen asleep for a time, but was seemingly not at all disturbed to wake up in a room with so much sound being produced. We were also both surprised to not be bombarded by the ringing in the ears usually associated with decibels of this level. The night was clear, cold and somewhat quiet for New York on Saturday night.