LaMonte Young

(Copyright © 1999-2024 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

31 VII 69 (Edition X, 1969), 5/10
Dream House (Shandar, 1973), 8/10
The Well-tuned Piano (Gramavision, 1987), 7/10
The Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (Gramavision, 1991), 7/10
Forever Bad Blues Band: Just Stompin' (Gramavision, 1993), 5/10
Inside the Dream Syndicate vol 1: Day of Niagara (Table of the Elements, 2000), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

La Monte Young, a pupil of John Cage and one of the founders of the Fluxus movement, is the real "inventor" of minimalism. The term originally referred to his "dream house", a New York loft in which Young and his Theater Of Eternal Music (comprising violinist Tony Conrad, viola player John Cale, trumpet player Jon Hassell, keyboardist Terry Riley and others) developed a music made of semi-stationary waves, of slowly evolving amorphous sound. Music became a living organism. Colossal pieces such as The Tortoise His Dreams And Journeys (premiered in october 1964) and The Well Tuned Piano (premiered in june 1974) offered little or no respite for western harmony, and created a bold bridge between John Cage's "alea", Buddhist meditation and psychedelia.

(Translated from my original Italian text by Daniel Barbiero)

Born in Idaho in 1935, La Monte Young studied composition, music theory and counterpoint at the University of California in Berkeley and Los Angeles from 1956-1960. In his free time he played the alto saxophone with Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, and other jazz musicians of that caliber.

After composing initially in the serialist style, Young modeled his music on the aleatory work of John Cage. Carrying Cage’s experiments to an extreme, Young in fact took his music into a new area. Compositions like for Brass (sic) (1957) and for Guitar (sic) (1958), which reflect the influence of serialism (such as atonality and a chromatic structure of organization), show a strong propensity for pure tones held over long periods of time. for Brass, perhaps the chief work of Young’s early period, features sustained tones and silences that serve to combine all the timbres of the brass octet for which it was scored. for Guitar contains a succession of pauses and staccato notes. In the Trio for Strings (1958), the violin sustains a note, pauses, sustains a note, pauses, and so on. To judge from Young’s output, minimalism would seem to be an outgrowth of Cage’s experiments. But the string trio is also a natural descendent of the pointillistic twelve-tone technique of Webern (1883-1945).

In 1959, Young won a fellowship and moved to Darmstadt, where he studied under Stockhausen. That experience brought about a decisive turn in his work, the radical implications of which were now emphasized. The Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. (1960), for example, consisted simply of a certain number of instructions for arranging the furniture in a room, and the result was twenty minutes of pure cacophony. Similarly, in 2 Sounds, the two performers were to scrape cans on a window and a bucket on a glass door.

Then he returned to the USA and (in September 1960) moved to New York in order to study electronic music with Cage. Tasked with editing a special edition of the magazine Beatitude on New York's avant-garde art, Young built a veritable encyclopedia of Cage-inspired neo-dadaists. The magazine was never published but in 1963 the encyclopedia was published as a book titled "An Anthology of Chance Operations" (with the collaboration of George Maciunas and Jackson Mac Low), de facto the manifesto of the Fluxus movement rooted in dadaism and chance operations. Young became one of the moving forces behind the movement and, in general, one of the primary drivers of Manhattan's alternative scene.

Cage’s influence was manifested in Young’s first works of the Sixties, above all in the short Compositions, each of which was constructed around one event not necessarily of a musical nature. For example, #2 called for the performer to build a fire in public, #5 to release butterflies in the performance space, etc. The most programmatic was #10, which began with an instruction that could serve as a definition of Minimalism ante litteram: "Draw a straight line and follow it." The most attuned to this ideology is #7, which consisted of a perfect fifth (B and F#) notated on a staff along with the instruction "to be held for a long time."

The term "Minimalism" arose during this same period. For Young, "minimal" music was music "that employed minimal materials." Pieces like the Composition series and 1959’s Vision (for twelve instrumentalists playing unconventional sounds within the space of thirteen minutes, as determined by chance operations) were perhaps unique among all the work that could legitimately be said to belong to the Minimalist school.

From within the Fluxus movement Young contributed various works of radical "Conceptual Art:" Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) to H.[enry] F.[lint] (1960) consisted, for example, of twenty minutes of a piano played percussively (the performer chooses a number and a sound and then plays the sound that number of times).

The term "Dream House"—the name Young used for his experiments with environments of continuous light and sound--was coined in 1961. The first "Dream House" was a loft in New York in which Young established himself along with his wife Marian Zazeela (an artist who worked with lighting designs), and The Theatre of Eternal Music, a group which included, among others, violinist Tony Conrad, violist John Cale, trumpeter Jon Hassell, violist David Rosenboom and organist Terry Riley, who served as a vocalist. The group played drone tones on bowed strings and voice, while Young improvised on sopranino saxophone. The atmosphere was decidedly less academic than it was with Fluxus, closer to the spirit of the street and the creative lofts of Greenwich Village.

The compositions that represent the transition to those that we now call "Minimalist" are those conceived in the loft, logical developments from the string trio: Death Chant (1961), a three-note dirge for male voices and percussive thigh-slaps, one of his rare repetitive (not droning) pieces; Composition 1961; Aeolian Blues in Bb with a Bridge (1961), an infinite version of the blues format; The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (1962), Early Tuesday Morning Blues, Dorian's Blues in G (1963), and 19 X 63 NYC fifth day of the hammer Bb Dorian Blues (1963), orchestrated for Young’s sopranino saxophone, Indian percussion, viola, bowed guitar and other strings, and vocal drone. Centered around drones of extended duration, these pieces clearly show the tendencies that would mark Young’s future work.

Young was equally influential on post-modern dance: a dancer, Simone Forti, stood motionless for the whole duration of 2 Sounds, her stillness designed to help the audience focus on the music.

The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (Gramavision, 1991) offers a 77-minute "melodic" version of the namesake piece that was originally composed in 1962, here performed in 1990 by eight muted trumpets, droning together for periods determined by the players' breathing cycles. The ebb and flow of sounds is partly mathematical and partly improvised. Indirectly, Young had bridged the most scientific, deterministic form of music and the most free-form, open, random form of music.

Dorian's Blues in G (1963),

Studies in the Bowed Disc was performed at the Pocket Theater in november 1964 with Tony Conrad, Young, Zazeela and John Cale.

In 1964, the "Dream House" grew into a more ambitious project: A place was selected and constructed in order best to produce and experience music considered in all its aspects as a living organism. The composition had an indefinite duration and consisted of a constant sound (made up of one or more tones); what the listener would experience would depend on where he was positioned, and moving would bring on a change in what he experienced. In other words, the listener would exist symbiotically with the sound and could participate in creating the sound for himself. Performance of Young’s music required a great deal of preparation and concentration on the part of the improvisers, above all, on the part of the vocalists, who were to produce the guttural sounds of Indian mantra. From September 1966 to January 1970 the "Dream House" supplied an uninterrupted sound in which Young and Zazeela "lived." In June 1969, at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in Munich, the first public performance of a version of the "Dream House" was given. In subsequent years there followed performances in Europe and in America, which lasted from four to one hundred days.

The Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble’s (semi-improvisational) masterwork, begun in 1964, is titled The Tortoise His Dreams and Journeys and is divided into several sections, of which Map of 49’s Dream: The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Light-Years Tracery, is the only one of which a fragment can be found on disc (forty minutes, with Jon Hassell on trumpet, Garret List on trombone, Zazeela on voice and Young on electronics). The longest "Dream House" performance was that given at the Harrison Street gallery in New York, which lasted uninterruptedly for six years, from 1979-1985.

In 1964, Young composed what is perhaps his magnum opus, the colossal five-hour The Well-Tuned Piano for a piano tuned to just intonation (the title is meant as a parody of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier). This piece requires a month for the tuning of the piano alone. This is the composition that best exemplifies the concept of music as a living organism. The performer begins playing the notes of the score, but soon the piano, because of its just intonation, introduces unwanted variations. The performer adjusts to these changes, but then new variations are introduced by the instrument's tuning. The performer is constantly "chasing" the instrument, and the music grows out of that dialectic process. In this sense the piece is like an organism that grows little by little. Initially frail and shy, the performance eventually mutates into a loud, stormy and hypnotic raga-like crescendo. The album The Well-Tuned Piano documents five performances of the "idea". Like Tortoise this piece does not have an ending.

An unauthorized two-LP bootleg of 1992 contains live performances of Sunday AM Blues (1964), B Dorian Blues (1963), The Well-Tuned Piano (1964), and Map of 49's Dream (1971).

Several of these pieces are collected on the 11 illegal cassettes of the Velvet Underground Appreciation Society.

LaMonte Young also scored Winterbranch (1964) for Merce Cunningham's dance company.

In 1966, Young began The Two Systems of Eleven Categories, a theoretical work providing the basis for his method of composition. The Drift Studies, for example, are made up of pieces constructed of two or more sine wave drones, the frequencies for which were selected in such a way as to produce the intervals prescribed by the book.

In 1970, Young began to study Indian raga under the guidance of the great North Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath (d. 1996). The spiritual and musical influence of the experience of the Himalayas became etched deeply in his work, which in any event continued to refine the instrumentation of the "Dream House," which blended the drone of the Indian tamboura with the sine wave drone, in a technological simulation of the yin-yang.

Young is the only true "minimalist". Since the 1950s he has assimilated elements of jazz improvisation, aleatory composition, serialism, electronics, and the Kirana style of North Indian vocal music. The fusion of these components made not only for a style of music, but for a way of conceptualizing music as a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. Young has paid the price for his total devotion to radical music by being marginalized: Only three recordings have been issued in thirty years, and public performances have been rare. (However, an unauthorized two-LP bootleg recording of 1992 contains live performances of Sunday AM Blues (1964), B Dorian Blues (1963), The Well-Tuned Piano (1964), and Map of 49’s Dream (1971), and other bootleg recordings are known to exist.) But more recently, releases of his work, including Gramavision’s 1987 five-disc set of his masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano (performed on a custom Bosendorfer Imperial grand piano) have finally brought him the honor of public exposure.

La Monte Young regards music as an external being with an independent existence, and thus is critical of a Western culture he sees making music conform to human existence in such a way as to be unnatural and counter to the essence of music.

Sound is a creature gifted with its own life; sound is eternal and immutable: The note, sustained throughout the duration of the performance, is a function of the position of the listener, but in an ideal environment there would be no variations. Music is a form of religion and La Monte Young is priest of the ceremonies developed in his electronic temple. Young recovers the qualities of hypnotism and trance inherent in primitive music.

La Monte Young’s Minimalism, at the borders of psycho-acoustic and musical space, represents the most radical undertaking of modern music, a sort of sonorous black hole into which all musical notions disappear.

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

Time Crystals (1990) was a string quartet.

Young also formed the Forever Bad Blues Band, a quartet (guitar, bass, drums and synthesizer) that plays hypnotic, dilated pseudo-blues lines on the double-disc Just Stompin' (Gramavision, 1993), a live performance from 1992 of his Dorian's Blues In G (1963). After the 15-minute introduction for solo piano, that delivers the essence of the idea, the rock-band setting of the rest is quite disappointing, more reminiscent of Neil Young's neurotic threnodies than of the "Dream House".

Inside the Dream Syndicate vol 1: Day of Niagara (Table of the Elements, 2000) is a terrible 31-minute recording of an april 1965 session (part of The Tortoise His Dreams And Journeys) featuring John Cale (amplified viola), Tony Conrad (amplified violin), Angus Maclise (barely audible percussion), Young and Zazeela. Cale and Maclise would find the Velvet Underground just a few months later, and this session sounds more like noise-rock than LaMonte Young's celestial droning minimalism.

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