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Resonant Discord
Visiting the La Monte Young Marian Zazeela Dream House
Josh Langhoff

A friend of mine asked recently, “Is there a line for you beyond which a sound is no longer music, but something else?” Good question. As someone who has sung along to dot matrix printers and criticized the technique of the neighbors’ windchimes, I try not to be too doctrinaire on the subject. Like many questions, this one is more interesting for its implications than for any answer I could give. What makes something music? Is there a gray area through which “something else” becomes “music,” maybe by factoring in the intentions of its creators or listeners? Say a toddler intentionally starts messing around with an accordion—does that count? Can people or things make music by accident? If I say my favorite public musical performance of 2008 was the stately 20-minute crescendo of fire sirens up a hill, from distant chirp to all-encompassing squawl, that kicked off the local homecoming parade how insufferable does that make me?

Someone once asked La Monte Young, the New York-based avant-garde composer, a similar question. Young, now 82, grew up in a remote corner of Idaho, fascinated by the buzzing of crickets and the hums of power transformers and lathes. “As a child, I don’t think I thought of the power plants and the crickets as music,” he told his interviewer, the composer William Duckworth. “Later, when I was older—by the sixties, let’s say—I made tapes of Marian [Zazeela, his wife] and me singing with crickets, and by then I was very much thinking about them as drone-based music. The lathes, I guess, I would just sort of find the key of it, and sing in that key” (Duckworth, 1995). There are more sounds in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Western music theory, and La Monte Young has invented a few of them.

The boy from Idaho would go on to become one of America’s visionary composers. His 1958 Trio for Strings was the first notable work composed entirely of long, sustained tones, ground zero for the style that would become known as “minimalism.” He was also an early part of New York’s experimental Fluxus movement, in 1960 organizing a series of concerts in Yoko Ono’s loft apartment. During hours-long performances with his Theatre of Eternal Music in the mid-1960s, Young played rapid-fire sax solos over droning chords produced by ear-splitting amplified instruments. (Among those supplying the drones was another composer, John Cale, who would disseminate such sounds through his enormously influential rock band, the Velvet Underground.) Throughout his career, Young has absorbed various ideas—from European serialism, John Cage’s chance-based compositions, jazz, and Indian raga—and distilled them into pieces with an apparent simplicity that belies a wealth of underlying theoretical work.

dreamhouseCase in point: the Dream House, an installation on the third floor of 275 Church Street in Lower Manhattan, above the apartment where Young and Zazeela have lived for decades. The idea is simple. This converted loft houses several of Zazeela’s light sculptures and a loud electronic drone. Produced by a Rayna synthesizer and fed into the apartment through four speakers, the drone never stops playing; the volunteers who oversee the installation simply raise or lower its volume to mark their shifts. Zazeela’s work consists of red and blue lights bathing the white walls and carpet in a magenta hue, with a few objects—a symmetrical wooden structure on the wall, four identical hanging mobiles—separating the magenta light back into its component frequencies. The smell of incense fills the air, and a shrine to the Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, Young and Zazeela’s late teacher and houseguest, sits against one wall. The only furnishings are a few white cushions. Nothing moves except fellow visitors and the occasional lazy drift of a mobile, its red and blue shadows warping in kind.

Within the drone, though, lies a world of motion. Entering the house is like walking into a movie spaceship; you become engulfed in a jumble of sci-fi chirps and buzzes. As long as you stand still, the chirps and buzzes maintain their consistent thrum; move your ears even an inch, and the thrum changes. Certain tones abruptly disappear behind other tones and then reappear at various places around the room. Upon contemplation, you discover several things. The drone is actually a complex chord, built of a series of pitches—35 in all—from very low to very high, with a bunch in the middle. Certain places in the room render the chord especially resonant in your body, while other positions make it feel distant or incomplete. Inside the chord-filled room, everything slows down. The pitches themselves seem to take on physical presence; you can explore them as you might a virtual reality jungle. Since all Dream House visitors find themselves in the same otherworldly space, there’s no shame in making a fool of yourself. Meditating, stalking around the floor striking curious poses, or waving your hands slowly through the light are not just acceptable, but expected.

The drone is a chord, but one impossible to produce on acoustic instruments. Without different tone colors to muddy things up, the synthesizer’s pure sine waves keep listeners focused on Young’s pitches, all individually tuned to specific microtonal intervals. Most of these pitches would fall into the spaces between keyboard keys. Biographer Jeremy Grimshaw describes the Dream House chord this way: “Ring the G string and then the B string on a guitar. Now imagine 35 microtones crammed in between them and then redistributed over seven octaves. That is approximately what the sound played at the Dream House is like” (Vadukul, 2009). For those looking to amaze friends and family by re-creating the installation at home, the title of the piece is a recipe made up of 107 eye-glazing words and numbers: The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered Above and Below the Lowest Term Primes… It gets a bit more detailed from there.

Is The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry music? Well, yes: it’s a chord, composed by a human being for other humans to listen to. We might waffle and call Young’s piece a “sound sculpture” or something, but only because it doesn’t do things we typically associate with Western music. It doesn’t relay any sort of narrative; in fact, it doesn’t develop at all. Young’s drone eschews most elements that give music a sense of forward motion: melody, rhythm, contrasts—landmark moments listeners want to hear over and over. Furthermore, the piece must be heard under certain acoustic conditions to make any sense. Illicit recordings, sheet music, or charts of numerical pitch relationships simply can’t convey the sensation of sound waves resonating in the body, of a thicket of tones becoming tangible in space. The piece literally demands listeners come to it. Once there, some find unintended temporal elements lurking in the thicket. “I could have sworn I heard the Benny Hill theme song,” one college student told Rolling Stone magazine. Personally, somewhere among the beats of the sine waves I thought I heard a woodpecker.

For all those differences, the music at the Dream House isn’t a completely foreign experience. After all, its composer is an American, raised on jazz and twentieth-century modernism, who’s just spent more time than most of us thinking about the exact frequencies of the electrical grid. Young composed The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry with intention, care, and a familiar goal: he wanted his tunings to create something new under the sun. As he wrote in the program notes to a previous drone installation, “not only is it unlikely that anyone has ever worked with these intervals before, it is also highly unlikely that anyone has heard them or perhaps even imagined the feelings they create.” Besides that, La Monte Young just enjoys listening to drones. Though he chooses pitches using mathematical guidelines, Young has admitted to bending the rules and choosing a different pitch because he “liked the way it sounded” (Gann, 1996). Despite its fixed quality, Young’s music hints at a spirit of improvisation and play, the wonder of tinkering in ways no one has tinkered before.

Think of a musical moment you particularly love. For the sake of discussion, let’s pick Igor Stravinsky’s riot-inciting chord from The Rite of Spring, the one that pounds open “The Augurs of Spring” section. Now imagine you want to focus people’s attention on the notes that make up that chord. You remove the chord from its context, stripping it of its syncopated rhythms and suspending its pitches indefinitely. True, much would be lost, including the rhythmic drive, the jolt of forgetting where the next accent will land, and the excitement of envisioning a pagan dance ritual—all elements that depend on the passage of time. In exchange, your listeners would gain all the time they could spare to savor this group of pitches; and while they’re savoring, you might decide to change the pitches, adding new ones to exaggerate their resonances and better fit this new, weird listening situation. Besides being musically interesting, the resulting chord might even inspire listeners to reflect on concepts given short shrift by most time-dependent music—those aspects that exist independent of time’s inexorable march. It might not be what we normally consider music; but then, how much time do most of us spend thinking about eternity?

 

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.

 

Works Cited

Duckworth, William. Talking Music: Conver-sations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. New York: Schirmer Books, 1995.

Gann, Kyle. “Outer Edge of Consonance: Snapshots in the Evolution of La Monte Young’s Tuning Installations.” Bucknell Review 40, No.1 (1996): 153-190.

Vadukul, Alex. “The Biggest, Oddest (and Most Unique) Sound in New York.” Rolling Stone. June 4, 2009.

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