La Monte Young - Biography

La Monte Young is unquestionably one of the preeminent figures in American minimalism, having operated as a conceptual artist, a composer, and a musician. He is a pioneer in the use of extended duration as a compositional tool, and is cited as an influence by an unlikely potpourri of rock artists, from Earth to Spiritualized; he has worked alongside some of the biggest names in minimalism, including John Cale, Tony Conrad, Arnold Dreyblatt, Terry Riley, and Rhys Chatham; and the international post-classical community greets his exceedingly rare, solo, just-intuned piano concerts with the pomp usually afforded a coronation. Young’s long-standing installations — created with his wife, visual artist and calligrapher Marian Zazeela — continue to draw intrepid fans from around the globe. Factor in that Young’s considerable reputation was initially achieved with no widely released recordings, and you’ve got an intriguing, controversial, 50-year career.


La Monte Young was born in 1935, in a log cabin in the tiny Mormon community of Bern, Idaho. Biographer David Farneth describes Young’s early life as an aurally attuned idyll, awash in sounds: the whistling of the wind through the logs; cowboy songs and tap dancing in the evenings; the cacophonic purr of the machine shop; the hum of power-plant transformers. By his teens, Young was living in Los Angeles, where he excelled at saxophone. During his subsequent stint at Los Angeles City College he studied Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen; he also managed to beat out Eric Dolphy for a chair in a jazz band, and to lead a group featuring drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Don Cherry.


In 1957 he transferred to UCLA, where he began a lifelong interest in Indian music, starting with the work of Ali Akbar Khan. He also absorbed European plain chant and Japanese gagaku orchestra, and delved deeply into extended tones and stasis. Three compositions from this period are for Brass, for Guitar and Trio for Strings. These were, with their brazen disregard for Western convention, dismissed by Young’s faculty and student peers; today, the score for Trio for Strings is generally accepted as an important component in the early rise of American minimalism (a commercial recording was not made until the 1990s).


Not to be discouraged, Young went north for graduate school at the University of California. In the slightly more accepting environment at Berkeley, he met and befriended fellow students Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros. He also won a scholarship to attend one of Stockhausen’s famed seminars at Darmstadt, Germany, where he again presented Trio for Strings. Both Stockhausen and fellow attendee David Tudor were impressed; Tudor and John Cage would soon be performing Young’s work throughout Europe.

Young’s compositions then became so extreme that they eschewed musical notation altogether, instead he directed the performer to build a fire in front of the audience and listen to it, or to let a butterfly loose in the auditorium. These punched his one-way ticket out of school, but he found a more receptive audience when he next landed in New York. The loosely aligned collective of multidisciplinary artists known as Fluxus was percolating nicely, and Young’s conceptual conceits aligned neatly with their post-Dada antics. Most notorious from this period is Young’s Composition 1960, No. 10, in which he merely instructs the reader to “Draw a straight line and follow it.”


Unknowingly, Young was headed in a straight line of his own, on the path that would soon define his maturation as a composer and performer. In 1962, he and Marian Zazeela began a loose series of collaborations with a poet/percussionist named Angus MacLise, and Billy Name, a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Their initial efforts were wandering free-improvisations, although the focus would shift dramatically with the addition of a friend Young had met in his Berkeley days, Tony Conrad.


Conrad, a violinist, theorist, and mathematician, was, like Young, exploring extended duration as a compositional tool. However, he was also intrigued by just intonation, the use of microtonal intervals and the naturally occurring harmonic cycle. He introduced Young to these concepts, and soon they were deep within a rigorous new performance idiom, in which first one carefully considered note, then two, then three, would be held for a very long time, generating rich fields of harmonic overtones and undertones. Next to join was a young Welsh composer, John Cale. A line-up solidified, consisting of Cale, Conrad, MacLise, Young, and Zazeela, with occasional appearances by Terry Riley and Terry Jennings on saxophones.


Zazeela held a vocal drone; Cale and Conrad drew glacial string lines on viola and violin, respectively; meanwhile Young played sopranino saxophone in the looping, cascading style he had perfected in California. To compete with Young’s volume and to coax out harmonics, Conrad contributed the final ingredient: He first added an electric guitar pick-up to the bridge of his instrument; he then did the same for Cale. Plugged into guitar amps, they created a colossal roar. Young then switched to vocals, and quit the saxophone forever. They continued in that configuration for nearly three years, rehearsing for hours on a constant, daily basis. Conrad, a hardcore documentarian with a two-track, Nigra tape deck, recorded everything. Both Cale and Conrad consider this post-saxophone period to be the group’s zenith.


The name of the group is a point of contention. Young and Zazeela called it the Theatre of Eternal Music; Cale and Conrad had their own term: the Dream Syndicate. Despite Young and Zazeela’s preference, the latter has since caught on with the public when referring to the version with Cale and Conrad. Either way, the group’s influence was combustible. Their performances in lofts and galleries in and around New York were unlike anything the Downtown art scene had heard, and artists such as Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, and a young Philip Glass took note.


The Dream Syndicate disbanded in 1966, when Cale and MacLise left to join the Velvet Underground. There is little evidence of ill will in the initial breakup. Conrad, who also left, would perform with Young again in 1968; in a further sign of trust, the departing members agreed that Young’s loft was the logical place to store their collective archives, Conrad’s massive piles of tape reels.


Young assembled more musicians, and performed intermittently after 1966, continuing to call his various ensembles The Theatre of Eternal Music. A number of outstanding musicians participated, including Jon Hassell, but none of these groups held together for as long or achieved the furious intensity of the original.


In the first decade of his career, only a few excerpts of Young’s works were made available to the public, most notably in the then-scarce, now-legendary, multi-media magazine Aspen. In 1969, through his connection with an art gallery in Germany, Young and Zazeela (they are equally credited on the cover) released their first full-length recording, albeit in a wildly limited edition. The full title is 31 VII 69 10:26 - 10:49 PM Munich from Map of 49's Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery; 23 VIII 64 2:50:45-3:11 AM the Volga Delta from Studies in The Bowed Disc. Its shorthand nickname among collectors is The Black Record (1969 Edition X), alluding to its black-on-black cover.


Five years later, a second La Monte Young/Marian Zazeela LP appeared, this time a two-LP set, in a similarly limited pressing, and with a similarly bulky title: Dream House 78'17" 13 I 73 5:35-6:14:03 PM NYC; Drift Study 14 VII 73 9:27:27-10:06:41 PM NYC from Map of 49's Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery (1974 Shandar). This was on the legendary Paris label Shandar, also the by-product of an art gallery. The first side is credited to the Theatre of Eternal Music, with the personnel listed as: La Monte Young, voice and sine waves; Marian Zazeela, voice; Jon Hassell, trumpet; Garrett List, trombone. As with the title, the liner notes by Young are long and somewhat inscrutable.


These are the most austere of Young’s recorded output. The sine-wave tracks most resemble in tone and texture the drones of Young’s subsequent sound installations. They are challenging exercises in formalism, yet hold a certain allure: the sound flutters in pitch depending on the listener’s position in relation to walls and objects. The Black Record also contains a piece for bowed gong, a more subdued affair, and an approach that would be emulated in 1971 by Young’s former students, Rhys Chatham and Yoshi Wada.


However, outstanding on both records are the tracks with vocals. Zazeela and Young — who had perfected the technique of circular breathing as a saxophonist — display a stamina, discipline, and command of pitch that seems almost superhuman. Much of this is attributable to their studies with Pandit Pran Nath. They had met the Hindustani vocalist in 1969, and he was to move to America and become their teacher and guru for the rest of his life. Nath’s own influence on American minimalism should not be underestimated; his students included Terry Riley, Rhys Chatham, Henry Flynt, Jon Hassell, Jon Gibson, Yoshi Wada, Rhys Chatham, Michael Harrison, Charlemagne Palestine, and La Monte’s old jazz-mate Don Cherry, among many other prominent musicians.


Around this time, Young began receiving extensive financial support from the Dia Foundation, much of which went towards a palatial residency in a massive former mercantile building on New York’s Harrison Street. Dubbed “The Dream House,” it was a sound and light installation, created by Young and Zazeela, and funded in extravagant style from 1979 to 1985; there was also a series of invitation-only live performances featuring Young on solo grand piano (a Bosendorfer, the grandest), his new instrument of choice. A subsequent, smaller version of the Dream House is located in Young and Zazeela’s TriBeCa loft, and continues to be a pilgrimage site for drone devotees.


Finally, in the late 1980s, Young relented and inked a lucrative deal with jazz-oriented label Gramavision. His first commercial release was suitably grandiose: a full-length recording of The Well-Tuned Piano (1988 Gramavision), an loosely structured, semi-improvised piece, performed on his Bosendorfer grand in a series of “secret” tunings in just intonation. For those who can endure the marathon length (over five hours on as many LPs, with roughly 500 “song titles”), it makes for a compelling listen. Young slowly — very slowly — introduces a limited palette of scales, while running a fast and loose flurry of notes. Sound pours forth in cascades; each note is a drop in a waterfall, a star in a sky of constellations. It’s a mesmerizing work, and is considered by many to be Young’s masterpiece; critics called it “the most important and beautiful new work recorded in the 1980s," "one of the great monuments of modern culture" and "the most important piano music composed by an American since the Concord Sonata."


Young’s next release was only a single CD, but it is arguably the best of the Gramavision era. Vastly expanding on themes first voiced in the 1974 Shandar LP, The Melodic Version of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1991 Gramavision) is a mouthful, but it is also a delight. Conceptually it is a relative of his brittle sine-wave pieces, but by executing with a brass ensemble instead of a machine, Young strikes a perfect balance. Recalling the humming transformers of Young’s Idaho youth, the ensemble, led by Ben Neill, displays remarkable levels of breath control and low-key virtuosity, as the musicians seem to hold notes to infinity. Surprisingly, the trombone is the perfect conduit for a drone, and it makes for a warm, inspiring recording.


The final record of the Gramavision deal features La Monte Young and the Forever Bad Blues band. The double CD, Just Stompin’: Live at The Kitchen (1993 Gramavision), is fascinating for its unusual career-path deviation, and while it’s not a complete success, Young deserves congratulations for deliberately venturing into such unfamiliar territory. The band is what its name purports, sort of: a blues band. In it, Young plays a programmable synthesizer/electric piano, using his own tuning in just intonation, of course. Backing him are guitarist Jon Catler and bassist Brad Catler, and human hurricane Jonathan Kane on drums. The portable instrument afforded La Monte another, new option: the opportunity to tour.


The recording is an admirable effort to fuse lengthy, raga-friendly workouts with the shuffle and roadhouse boogie of the blues. It succeeds at moments, but it also falls victim to what often ails the blues when it falls into the hands of aging white guys (especially aging white guys with jazz backgrounds from Idaho): It noodles. Young’s chosen cohorts can’t be faulted: Kane, in particular, wails. (Ironically, Kane — influenced by both the blues and minimalism, via Young’s former pupil, Rhys Chatham — would combine the two genres with much greater success after his tenure with Young.) Still, the combo allowed the general public to finally see Young in concert, albeit in a radically different context and with a humorously altered appearance; he swapped his usual swami robes for biker chic: long hair and beard in braids, red bandana around his head, sleeveless denim jacket, no shirt (we should all be so bold at 60). Regrettably, Gramavision soon folded, and all of three of these titles went out of print.


Back in the early 1980s, both Tony Conrad and John Cale approached Young and requested listening copies of their collective recordings from the 1960s. Young refused — unless they would sign a document agreeing that he, Young, was the sole composer. Conrad and Cale both adamantly declined, and in the subsequent decades voiced, to the music media, their dissatisfaction with the situation. As a result, interest in these “lost” recordings increased dramatically, and a very public rift was visible between the two camps.


In 2000, Conrad acquired (from a third party) a copy of a Dream Syndicate recording from 1965 that he considered an accurate representation of the group at the time. Maintaining his assertion that the group was an improvisational, collaborative effort, Conrad authorized its release. Young furiously and publicly decried the recording as an illegal bootleg, and leveled intense criticism at what he considered the poor quality of its audio and packaging.


The CD is Day of Niagara: Inside the Dream Syndicate Vol. I (2000 Table of the Elements). It is a modest item, with meager packaging, billed to neither the Dream Syndicate nor the Theatre of Eternal music, but simply to the five contributing artists, alphabetically listed: John Cale; Tony Conrad; Angus MacLise; La Monte Young; Marian Zazeela. There is a brief description, and a quote from John Cale: “Those recordings are [part of] a library that represented, for Tony and I at least, a labor of love. The power and majesty that was in that music is still on those tapes.”


He’s right. Day of Niagara is a revelation. Even with the poor quality (the percussion is low in the mix, but it’s there), it is an epic, soaring, exhilarating ride; brief, raw, and loud; the scrape of the strings; the implacable drone of the vocals; the fluttering wings of the percussion. It ends as abruptly as it begins, with the sound of the last of the tape running past the recording head to the take-up reel. Who knows how long they played after the tape ran out — possibly for hours. Of course, it’s the proper way to present an archival document, in its original state, but as an ending to this particular recording, it’s sublime.


Bootlegs do exist of the earlier, saxophone-based Dream Syndicate recordings. In the early 1980s, Young hosted a few marathon, 24-hour sessions on FM radio, in New York and Germany. He hand selected material from his archives; fans recorded the broadcasts, and circulated the material. Conrad and Cale are present on these, but appear very low in the mix (Conrad grouses in his 1997 essay “Early Minimalism” that Young always hogged the microphone). Not surprisingly, these selections flatter Young at the expense of his collaborators.


Nevertheless, rancor and partisan opinions aside, those few who have heard the early Dream Syndicate material are inevitably floored by the bold innovation and the trance-inducing cyclone summoned by Young’s breathless, circuitous performances. Those who have heard Day of Niagara­the sole extant example of the group’s middle and late period, and the only La Monte Young title available today — invariably wish there was more. It’s all thrilling stuff, and should be the main chapter of La Monte Young’s half-century career; instead, appallingly, it’s a footnote.


La Monte Young deserves an immense amount of credit. His earliest pieces point the way towards mainstream minimalism as it would erupt in the 60s; the pre-1966 version of the Dream Syndicate has had an improbable yet indelible influence on 21st century rock music; his late-60s recordings point the way to ambient music as it would develop in the 70s; The Well-Tuned Piano sets a new standard of glittering, post-classical excess, draped in conceptual ermine. Nearly all who have passed through his ensembles — Cale and Conrad included — credit him as being a vivifying force in their musical lives. Both directly and indirectly, La Monte Young has contributed plenty to the manner in which we consider and encounter sound.


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