La Monte Young: The Purple Trap
By Ed Pinsent
For a long time it was virtually impossible to obtain any recordings of this semi-legendary American composer and musician. Now Gramavision have seen fit to issue a cornucopia of products over the last few years. I found my way here like many other through the excellent La Monte Young article written by Alan Licht in Forced Exposure 16. Young has been active since the late 1950s – there have been numerous performances (mostly in the USA), but very little of the work of his playing group, The Theatre of Eternal Music, has been issued as commercially available recordings. This is a source of anguish to Tony Conrad, who played the violin in this group. He feels a large proportion of his work is tied up in a legacy of recordings which Young refuses to issue. As ever The Sound Projector merely alerts the curious reader to these interesting items. The music is never short of amazing. In my less charitable moments however, I confess to finding the packaging and booklets of these releases somewhat precious. Make no mistake, these performances are ‘high art’, and the promoters are determined to sell it to you with certain attendant trappings and commentaries which to me, veer irritatingly close towards the pretentious and exclusive. The same feeling for me attaches itself to much work of the Fluxus Movement, with which Young was associated for a few years; Fluxus work looks like it might have been fun at the time, but now seems rather trivial. My advice is to lay aside the sycophantic and self-congratulatory side of these projects, and concentrate on the music.
La Monte Young
The Well-Tuned Piano 81 x 25
USA GRAMAVISION R 279542 5 X CD SET
One record review can’t do justice to this awesome work. I can only hope to draw your attention to it and urge you to listen. La Monte Young’s music is more a way of life than just playing another record, and his outlook tends to refuse hollow consumerism; I don’t suggest that by buying this box set you can put on Young’s philosophy like a T-shirt. Make a commitment. This is a 5-hour continuous performance, recorded live on a specially prepared piano in Just Intonation. You won’t believe the sound this piano makes. As I’ve recently managed my third listen-through I discover even in the dying echoes of each chord, a complex network of phantom ephemeral notes and sounds. You will be carried along on a tidal wave of mesmerising clarity. An aid to meditation and prayer. A spiritual work. Sell all your goods and chattels (it costs Â£65-70) and do your best to beg steal or borrow a copy, but above all use your ears and listen to this.
The practical obstacles of performing ‘The Well-Tuned Piano’ are enormous – it requires a specially built Bosendorfer piano, and a performance site where the instrument can sit undisturbed for two weeks while Young tunes it. You have to admire the way he negotiates these difficulties, a bit like Christo and his monumental wrapping projects – setting an ‘impossible’ task and seeing it through, regardless of any consequences. Young’s insistence on perfection means that if the rigorous conditions he requires can’t be fulfilled, he simply won’t take the commission. A pretty cool attitude, but a precious one also. Young can seem as delicate as a hothouse flower, which can only blossom in the right conditions. I think I prefer the more open attitude of a capable giant like Sun Ra, who in his lifetime managed thousands of performances, hundreds of records, and didn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
Reading the enclosed glossy booklet, I’m struck by a delightful contrast. Young can describe with rigorous precision his theories of the physics of sound, his mathematical approach to composition , and extensive knowledge of the science of acoustics. Then he can go into aesthetic raptures over the very romantic, interpretative nomenclature he assigns to his Just Intonation Chords, such as the ‘Magic Harmonic Rainforest Chord’. (A good thing says I – Stockhausen, for example, would strenuously deny such frivolities!) No less than four pages of the booklet are devoted to a sequential listing of all these fancy chords and their variants, expecting that the loyal listener will diligently track their progress and timings with a stopwatch. I’ve been too swept up in the music to even consider this operation, but next time in the Tate Gallery I’ll take along a Pantone colour chart and use it to track the progress of a Mondrian painting.
La Monte Young
The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer
[from] ‘The Four Dreams of China’
USA GRAMAVISION R2-79467 (1991)
When I first played this I was in an emotional vortex, so my view has been somewhat coloured since. I have played it under calmer circumstances, and it strikes you with the simple clarity of an Ansell Adams photograph. Eight trumpeters use their muted horns to play this extremely minimal composition. Their breathy puffs are as much to do with the passage of air through valves as with the production of musical notes. When enough notes are generated, there are moments of vibration that are simply beautiful. The piece is interloped with great passages of silence, which are equally a part of the composition as the rest of it – if ever a piece was made for the invention of compact discs, this is it. The long-winded title should clue you that this performance is just the tip of the iceberg – one part of a massive, mountain-scaled, unfinished lifetime’s project. Cross-reference this with a large catalogue of unreleased Young compositions, all based on a very minimalist premise: the creation of long sustained tones and their resulting harmonics. The use of silence as part of the composition ties in to his quest for a ‘timeless’ piece of music. This composition refuses the traditional classical notion of a fixed, ideal length of performance; rather, it is structured as a mathematical equation, with precise descriptions of pitches and rules for how they are to be performed. Within those guidelines, the musicians are free to do what they wish.
Another, simpler view is Young’s long-standing engagement with the sounds of the environment. A childhood spent in a log cabin in a rural community gave him the mysterious sounds of the wind rushing under the door. He responded with equal passion to the hum of telephone wires and electrical transformers, claiming these as axiomatic to his spiritual development. I too have been entranced by the sound of the rushing wind outside, when relaxing in my bunker in Dorset and I have the time to contemplate nature. ‘Timelessness’ is right.
La Monte Young and the Forever Bad Blues Band
Just Stompin’, Live at the Kitchen
USA GRAMAVISION R2 79487 2 x CD (1993)
Another beaut and a very recent recording. Just Stompin’, or Young’s Dorian Blues, is a continuous piece spread over 2 discs and is a slow 12-bar blues riff repeated ad infinitum. Young plays an Korg synth in Just Intonation, with a band of young New York enthusiasts / acolytes on guitar, bass and drums – a rock combo, in fact. Playing the blues. But this is something different. We seem to have the entire history of recorded blues music, compressed into each moment of Stompin’s duration. Each note, phrase, sequence, triggers off a plethora of remembered and imagined blues records. Eventually you start to hear blues performances from the past which were never recorded. You see the faces of famous blues singers appearing like ghosts. You travel backwards and forwards in time. This powerful testament to the most important of Native American Musics has become instead a canonisation, a pattern of the blues. All blues and blues-based musics are drawn from the template of Just Stompin’… Forever.
UK premiere performance by the Kronos Quartet
27 July 1993 at St Giles Church Cripplegate
The string quartet entered and positioned their violins. When was the precise moment it began? When you looked up, the sound was just there. It worked its way well past the witching hour, like a midnight mass. Like the trumpet piece above, this was barely audible, punctuated by much silence, any sounds chiefly generated by harmonics of the strings. It was exceedingly uncomfortable on those wooden pews and the more we shifted our position, the more the seats creaked and rattled. In the tradition of Fluxus Art, this ‘noise’ was no doubt intended to contribute to the performance – by the selection of the church as a venue, ‘written into’ the composition as a naturally generated percussion track. After the first hour I was very tired, and in physical pain – the music was interminably boring to be honest – and shutting my eyes, I felt I was strapped to a metal chair which had come adrift from my spaceship. I was spinning around upside-down in space. Coming back to earth, it was a relief to find myself merely stranded in the heart of London at 2 am.