La Monte Young, considered to be the father of minimalism by many, has always eluded the limelight of the genre in favour of the obscurity of truly conceptual music. Something of an enigma, he’s hardly ever featured in more than a footnote in the music history books and yet his contribution to minimalism draws a direct correlation to almost every piece of investigational music you might come across today. While Riley, Reich, and Glass were focussing on a centre-left musical compositional strategy through minimalism, Young sought something in the corporeal to encourage the spiritual. His incredible knowledge of acoustics and composition, laid the foundation for music and a sonic environment for the purpose of enlightenment. “My own feeling is that if people aren’t carried away to heaven I’m failing”, said La Monte Young in 1966. But this is not to suggest that Young’s music was ever the uninformed improvised expression of a clouded pious mind. Young’s music has always been technically magnificent, with every detail meticulously considered in executing the concept behind each work. Where most of his musical peers, composed from a traditional musical perspective, La Monte Young turned to the music between the music, getting inside the sound through drones and ornamentation, establishing a very surreal world of microtonal melodies in stasis, often established by unique, secret tuning systems. Young thus creates alien sonic landscapes where the nature of acoustics become irrational, while at the same time instilling a serene environment as a portal for pure escapism.
Young’s most significant accomplishment in this regard has been Dream House, a sound and light environment in which the composer uses a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesiser to imagine an artificial interminable sonic landscape based on a set of pre-determined, mathematically significant sine-wave frequencies. Accompanied by a lighting installation from visual artist –and Young’s wife – Marian Zazeela, the environment is intended as a place for spiritual escape, through site and sound. The droning frequencies act like futuristic meditative chant, with no beginning or end, always originating from, and returning to, a state of silence where it remains until a musician and/or instrument picks up the tone again. These ideas of the eternal music and Dream House environment became the crux of Young’s work throughout his career, and play a significant role on a 17” LP that was first released in 1978 and has now been re-issued by Aguirre records. The LP features 13 I 73 535-61403 PM NYC and Drift Study 14 VII 73 92727-100641 PM NYC, two pieces that could be considered to symbolise Young’s search for spiritual enlightenment and his study of the drone respectively. It’s a rare opportunity to hear any recorded music from the American composer, and rarer yet to have such works distributed in our modern era. The mysterious composer has maintained a very limited discography and biography. What we know of La Monte Young and his work today still derives from the selective authority of the artist. This is exactly why this re-issue is of severe significance. It forms an important chapter in the history of music, and especially in relation to modern music, which is for all intents and purposes today constructed from the very same minimalist ideas.
La Monte Young has always been the most extreme in regard to the minimalists, a stubborn enforcer of its most core values to further his own religious journey – although we still know very little about how the spiritual affects his works. 13 I 73 535-61403 PM NYC and Drift Study 14 VII 73 92727-100641 PM NYC are not accessible listening experiences by any means, but what you’ll find when listening to these pieces are bold statements on the traditions of music and the experiments of a musical genius. La Monte Young enlists the help of his wife, Marian Zazeela on the A side for a performance by Theatre of Eternal Music, the group which Young formed specifically to realise his radical musical conception of music with no end nor beginning. On the recording, the voices of Young and Zazeela use the vocal technique they studied under Pandit Pran Nath as ornamentation over the droning trombone of Garrett List and the languishing trumpet tones of Jon Hassell. Together they form a dense sonic atmosphere that tends to loiter around inconclusive ghostly tonal centres, with phantom melodies cropping up between the various elements that make up the performance. The age of the recording is obvious on this release with the vocal ornamentations shoehorned into a narrow frequency bandwidth, and I imagine the original live performance would have been far more immersive than it sounds on the recording, which hasn’t aged as well as the ideas behind the music. These ideas are timeless, and without any modern day distractions, the music still serves the same purpose of escapism as was intended back in ’78.
Having no clear development, the music seems to be in a constant state of stasis, even though Zazeela and Young’s ornamentations are in flux. There is no clear expansion of the core musical phrases, and at no point of the performance is the listener an active participant. The music exists outside of any known parameters and if you pose the question whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound, La Monte Young seems to counter with another question: Did that tree make a sound before it fell and was it still making the sound after the fact? It’s like we are merely allowed a glimpse in a pinhole of the existence of the music, and on the B-side of this 17” record it’s at its most obvious. Whereas the A-side is subjective of human behaviour the synthetic drone of Drift Study negates any personal involvement and like Dream House it gives us a real sense of the endlessness of these tones Young combine to create his spiritual sanctuary. There’s something alien about the general drone, like nothing you might hear in nature or modern artificial environments, without being oppressive or pestilent. The tone moves within it’s heavily moderated parameters, but without skipping through the record, you’ll hardly notice it, and unlike the Eternal Theatre of Music performance on the A-side, the age of the recording doesn’t hamper the encounter with the music and the experience is still a very immersive one. Drift Study is probably the closest we’ll get to Dream House without physically visiting the location and this re-issue of these two performances in probably the closest this generation will get to experiencing the musical virtuoso that is La Monte Young.
The two recordings are very rare opportunities to hear Young in our modern age, and you can be assured it’s some of his finest work. So significant are these two performances the usual 12” format had to be enlarged to 17” just to accommodate the length of the music. Yes, It is a pity that La Monte Young has been so selective with releasing music, but then again, it makes moments like this re-issue so much more special, and allows an opportunity for new audience to catch a glimpse of this rare talent.