I went to see La Monte Young playing in his New York loft, and you should do the same
Inside a photography-free world of 33.6 hour days, 77-note drones, fifty year collaborations and music designed to carry you away to heaven.
The incense wasn’t so thick that it obscured the neon sign on the ceiling, but it clung to my shirt all the way back to the AirBnB in Bushwick.
On October 14th, La Monte Young played at the Dream House, 275 Church Street, in the building where he and his wife and collaborator Marian Zazeela live.
It was his 82nd birthday.
By 9pm a small crowd had gathered in the street outside, under scaffolding outside bars and pizza restaurants. Aside from one older guy with orange robes and long white hair, they were young-ish and student-bohemian-ish.
At 9:15 the front door opened, and Randy Gibson (a composer who’s been working with La Monte Young since 2003) appeared with two strict instructions. Absolutely no talking inside the venue, and no photography; “We will make you delete pictures”.
We walked up the white stairs, past the door to La Monte and Marian’s apartment on the second floor, where they’ve lived since 1963.
“Young and Zazeela rise and retire according to a week that contains the standard 168 hours but distributes them among five days of approximately 33.6 hours each,” writes Jeremy Grimshaw in his hated biography Draw a Straight Line and Follow It. “They seem undeterred by the many practical inconveniences posed by their deviation from the rest of the world’s seven-day, twenty-four-hour cycle.”
We took our shoes off on the landing and left them in low white shelves. A narrow corridor with a neon sign on the ceiling led to the performance space.
It was a white room, the size of a large living room, dimly lit with purple lights. The carpet was thick, soft and white, with our seating area marked in red tape. One wall was covered with a light point drawing called Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI by Jung Hee Choi — a black sheet pierced with an intricate pattern of pinholes. Behind the sheet was a video screen, so it shimmered gently. At the base of the artwork were stern printed signs explaining that it was fragile and not to be touched.
The band’s equipment was set up along one side of the room; low chairs, coffee tables, guitars and small amplifiers, cushions and a tabla on the floor. Behind the instruments two hypnotic spinning disks of light were projected (Mariam Zazeela’s Imagic Light II).
At the back of the room were two video cameras. As the audience filed in, Randy and various young assistants bustled about, full of nervous energy, finding reserved cushions, telling people where to sit, fiddling with the cameras. Randy replaced the burnt-out incense in front of the photograph of Pandit Pran Nath in the main room.
Large speakers played Tonecycle Base 30Hz, 2:3:7 Vocal Version by Jung Hee Choi.
The program includes a 1,500 word description of Tonecycle Base 30Hz, 2:3:7 Vocal Version including a table of frequencies for some of the 77 sine waves that rise and fall in pitch imperceptibly over a 32 minute cycle. Over the sine waves are six channels of voices; La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Jung Hee Choi improvising over the drones.
The “30Hz base” is significant; it’s an octave below mains hum in the United States (which oscillates at 60Hz).
In the 1940s, La Monte was growing up in rural Idaho. His father sometimes worked at his grandfather’s filling station. It was next door to an electrical substation, and La Monte recalls lying in the sun, nostrils full of petroleum fumes, listening to the 60Hz hum from the transformers.
In the early ‘60s, La Monte played with John Cale and Tony Conrad. They’d tune their instruments to the 120hz hum of the aquarium motor for La Monte and Mariam’s pet turtles. Today, La Monte and Jung Hee Choi use precise digital systems to generate their tones; 60Hz is 60Hz, while the actual power grid fluctuates up and down a few millihertz depending on energy consumption. La Monte claims to be able to hear these fluctuations.
What happens if La Monte plays in Europe, as he has done in the past? “When setting up installations in Europe, Young adjusts his frequencies so that they fall within the harmonic series of a fundamental derived from the 50 Hz European electrical grid,” writes Nicholas Grimshaw.
The drones, with the light and the incense and the soft carpet were womb-like and calm. We sat for 15 minutes as the assistants bustled.
Then, a door opened in the corridor, and La Monte Young emerged. He was wearing denim biker gear, wrapped in a black blanket like a cape, with a black cap and a braided white beard. He walked very slowly down the corridor with a walking stick, helped by Jung Hee Choi wearing a black off-the-shoulder dress. Behind him was Marian Zazeela in purple, also helped by an assistant, the two guitarists looking like central casting New York musos and finally tabla player Naren Budhkar in white silk.
The group processed very slowly down the corridor and into the main room, stopping to bow their heads to the portrait of Pandit Pran Nath.
La Monte Young sat in the middle of the stage on an Aeron chair covered in cushions and started to sing over the drone.
La Monte Young’s career is extraordinary.
- Born in 1935 in a log cabin in Idaho, inspired by the wind whistling across the prairie and the 60hz hum of the transformers at the gas depot where his father worked.
- Played jazz in Los Angeles with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry
- Composed Trio for Strings while at Berkeley in 1958. It consists of static, extended drones. The piece opens with a viola playing C# for four and a half minutes. B flat is prominent (that’s 60hz). Despite its influence, it has never been officially released as a recording or published as sheet music.
- Studied under Stockhausen at the Darmstadt School in 1959, but spent most of his time in Germany talking about John Cage, who’d visited the course in 1958.
- Compositions 1960 is a series of conceptual text pieces. #10 is “Draw a straight line and follow it”. #15 is “This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean.”
- Curated the first loft concerts in downtown Manhattan at Yoko Ono’s loft in 1960–61, titled THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT FOR ENTERTAINMENT.
- In 1964 he formed the Theatre of Eternal Music, with John Cale who went on to form the Velvet Underground. They sounded like this.
- The same year, he provided music for a Merce Cunningham ballet. La Monte “had provided two sounds on separate tapes, to be started at different points during the ballet,” wrote British composer Cornelius Cardew. “When the first sound starts you cannot imagine that any more horrible sound exists in the whole world. Then the second sound comes in and you have to admit you were wrong.”
- The first Dream House installation was at Church Street, with lights and sine wave generators running 24 hours a day between September 1966 and January 1970. It later moved to a huge venue on Harrison Street, funded by the Dia Foundation. The new Dream House had a staff of 22 and La Monte had his own beard sink. After the oil price crash of 1982, their benefactor’s money ran out, and the Dream House moved back to Church Street, where it’s been running since 1993.
- The Well-Tuned Piano was premiered in 1974 after ten years of development. It is played on a custom-made 9½ foot long piano with 97 keys (normal pianos have 88). The piano is re-tuned to a very specific tuning system, which requires special climate control to stay in tune. Performances are improvised but deeply structured and planned — sections have names like The Shimmering Pool Reflecting the 288/ 147 Premonition of the Theme from the Opening Chord Recalled in the 189/98 Lost Ancestral Lake Region. You can listen to the whole thing here.
La Monte, Marian and Jung Hee Choi picked up studio microphones and started to improvise over the drone. After a while, the guitarist and bass player, both playing fretless instruments, joined. Finally, the tabla player started.
What did it sound like? Rich, warm (like the room), clearly influenced by Indian raga, but without many of the traditional trappings. Harmonically it was as close to 12 bar blues as anything else. That, and the fretless guitars which at times made it slightly reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Apollo.
In 1966, La Monte Young said of his music: “My own feeling is that if people aren’t carried away to heaven, I’m failing.”
Writing about the music is difficult, because it was the least striking part of the evening, compared with being in the same room as someone who has lived such an extraordinary life and launched so many ideas into the world, and watching the energy between the 82 year-old master, his wife of 54 years, and his disciple of 18 years.
Ultimately, it was about feeling the history. This room and these people are an unbroken connection to the New York of the early ’60s, the downtown Avant Garde created by John Cage and inherited by La Monte. Philip Glass is making Hollywood soundtracks, Steve Reich tours concert halls performing Clapping Music before revivals of Music for 18 Musicians, and Yoko Ono is a national treasure, but La Monte Young is still here in the same room, following the same path he’s been on for 50 years.
After 45 minutes, with the heat and sitting-on-the-floorness clearly playing on some of the audience (me), the performers came a kind of climax, set down their microphones and instruments, and slowly left the room.
The drone continued, and we sat for another ten minutes until the young assistants returned and indicated it was time to leave. The drone continued as we found our shoes and went down the stairs back into the street.