La Monte Thornton Young
Composer, saxophonist, pianist
Called “the grandfather of minimal music” by Brooke Wentz in Down Beat, La Monte Young has been a key figure in the musical avant-garde since the early 1960s. He evolved from a jazz and blues saxophonist in the 1950s to a minimalist pianist, composer, and performance artist who is still active in the 1990s. Musicians influenced by his theories include Terry Riley, a former classmate of his, and modern composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Young is known for keyboard pieces stripped down to bare essentials, with extended meditations on just one chord and frequent shifts from consonance to dissonance. A prime example is his “Dorian Blues in G,” in which each chord of a six-chord progression is played for a solid 20 minutes. Some of Young’s pieces last for hours, and his compositions have been known to evolve over many years.
The blues has been a major influence on his work. “Young’s blues are unlike any you ’ve heard before, and at the same time they’re as pure a musical illumination
Born 1935; married Marian Zazeela (a lighting designer).
Composed first song, “Annod (To Donna Lee),” early 1950s; selected as second chair in alto saxophone, Los Angeles City College Dance Band; began playing piano, 1957; began producing minimalist compositions; became involved with Fluxus movement and staged Chambers Street Series exhibitions, New York City; began experimenting with “just intonation, “early 1960s; formed Theater of Eternal Music ensemble; performed at the Kitchen, New York City, 1960s—; began studying with raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, 1970; recorded The Well-Tuned Piano, Gramavision, 1987; performed with Forever Bad Blues Band, 1990s; created interactive sound-and-light installation, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Gramavision/Rykodisc, Shetland Park, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970. Music Publisher —Just Eternal Music, PO Box 190, Canal St. Station, New York, NY 10013.
of the form as you’re ever likely to hear, “wrote Glenn Kenny in Spin. Thorn Jurek claimed in the Detroit Metro Times that Young’s compositions “are loosely related in concepito those of blues masters Robert Johnson, Son House and John Lee Hooker, who employed certain guitar strings as drones to lay their improvisations over.”
Young’s masterwork as a composer is “A Well-Tuned Piano,” a piece that has developed over nearly 25 years, since the early 1960s. According to Neil Strauss in a 1994 issue of the New York Times, this composition has been called “one of the most important musical works of this quarter century.” In Down Beat Wentz deemed it “a major documentation—a documentation that seems to end an era, or at least closes another chapter in modern music.” Edward Rothstein opined in the New York Times, “With the creation of such works as The Well-Tuned Piano,’ [Young] became an almost archetypal figure of the musical counterculture, devoted to varieties of Indian music while acting as a pioneer of Western Minimalism.”
Bom into what he called a “hillbilly” family in Pulse!, Young’s first exposure to music was cowboy music. He began singing and playing guitar at about age three and learned to play the harmonica soon afterwards. His father taught him to play the saxophone when Young was seven. Blues as played by jazz musicians held a strong appeal for him early on as well. “My first experience with the blues that I can consciously recall was listening to the recording of Charlie Parker and Thelo-nious Monk playing ’Bloomdido,’” he told Pulse! Young listened to that recording many times as a high school student, gaining both education and inspiration from the naturalness of Parker’s playing. “What’s important to me about the blues,” he explained, “is that even though I learned it through this very specific format of jazz, it always represented something to me that was very big and powerful that went outside of any particular style.”
Young became very active on the jazz underground scene in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He frequently jammed with forward-thinking musicians like Billy Hig-gins, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and Omette Coleman, and became a highly accomplished alto saxophone player. Early in the decade he composed his first song, “Annod (To Donna Lee),” which he recorded with Hig-gins. Young later earned a spot as second chair in saxophone in the Los Angeles City College Dance Band, winning out over Dolphy.
Throughout the 1950s Young’s saxophone playing evolved from jazz improvisation to more harmonically static music. By 1957 he had begun teaching himself to play the piano. Before long, he was a highly skilled pianist and was composing pieces in a minimalist style that would become a major influence on works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
In the late 1950s Young embraced the Fluxus movement, a group of artists and musicians who attempted to break free from conventional standards of art and music. Young was attracted to the Fluxus notion that the focus should be on the music-making process itself, and that music should be considered an evolutionary event. Young’s involvement with Fluxus marked a shift away from jazz and contemporary classical composition and toward the realm of art music. He began staging Fluxus events in New York City. This Chambers Street Series featured exhibitions by leading performance artists of the day, including Yoko Ono. Many bright lights of the New York avant-garde attended these often bizarre exhibitions.
By the early 1960s Young had begun implementing “just intonation” in his musical works, a system that defied the long-standard method of tuning instruments. Just intonation is an ancient tuning system that rejects the equally tempered spacing of notes on the scale. “With the standard equal-tempered scale, the 12-note limitation makes for expedience,” he told Down Beat.” There are only’X’ number of tones to deal with. But in just intonation, the fundamental frequencies of [a stringed] instrument are tuned one-to-one with the pitches that mirror the full harmonic content of the strings themselves. Since everything reinforces everything else, the nuances you get are natural rather than exaggerated. There is both simplicity and a wealth of possibilities.” Employing this system allowed Young to tap into a wider span of sound options with each play of a piano key.
Around this time Young formed the Theater of Eternal Music, which became a key ensemble of the minimalist music boom. With this group he became known for his marathon piano playing and works that were continually transforming themselves, apparently with no end in sight. The group included John Cale, then a student of Young’s who later became part of the pioneering rock band The Velvet Underground. With the Theater of Eternal Music, Young devoted himself to exploring the musical potential of staying on each chord change for an extended period. He became known for his trademark use of minor sevenths and slightly dissonant chords. According to Down Beat’s Wentz, Young created “a masterful dialectic between the multiplicity of sounds and silence.”
By 1962 Young had switched from alto saxophone to soprano, an instrument with a higher pitch. Some years later, though, he stopped playing saxophone altogether and took up singing. Throughout the 1960s and in the decades that followed, Young often performed at the Kitchen, a famed haven for avant-garde musicians in New York City. His performances there afforded him increasing visibility and helped move minimalism toward mainstream acceptance. Starting in 1970, Young began studying with noted raga singer Pandit Pran Nath. Since then he has amassed a vast collection of Indian instruments in his continuing exploration of raga.
Long fearful of recording or distributing his works due to an intense fear of being plagiarized, Young finally overcame his reluctance in 1987 and recorded a five-record version of The Well-Tuned Piano. The recording represented 23 years of work on a single harmonic theme, and it merged the ideas behind Young’s 1960s jazz improvisation experiments with his sustained tone works of the late 1970s. “What appears to be repetitive and simple evolves into complex, entangled cadences,” said Wentz in his Down Beat review of Piano. Wentz went on to say that Young “continually plays with the structuring of tempo, duration, and pitch, holding the listener’s attention and always tricking him with surprising discordant interjections…. Every section is paced and moves succinctly from one to the next, repeating phrases until their dissonance fades to familiarity.”
Many of Young’s performances in the 1990s have been with the Forever Bad Blues Band, which, as of 1993, consisted of Jon Catler on guitar, Brad Catler on bass, and Jonathan Kane on drums. Describing this band in Down Beat, Young said, “It’s a lot like a rock band, but we play one song for two hours.” In an interview with Martin Johnson in Pulse!, he noted that working with the band helped him regain his enthusiasm for performing, which he had come to miss. Young told Johnson, “The Forever Bad Blues Band came out of the fact that in my bigger works … I had set up the situation that was very difficult for sponsors to produce, whereas this band can go in, we can do the sound check at 3:00 and do the concert and pack up and go on to the next situation.”
“The playing seemed to create an auditory space with its own dimension and depth, within which the music took place, “reported New York Times contributor Edward Rothstein about a performance of Young and the Forever Bad Blues Band at the Kitchen. “As in Mr. Young’s other works, the listener was always discovering something about the sound, the way it shimmered around the edges or seemed to change color.” Rothstein concluded, “The music emerged as an intriguing combination of blues, 1960’s happening, Eastern esthetic, rock and Minimalism.”
Young has performed on a regular basis in New York City in recent years, often adding a touch of performance art to his concerts. A typical example was his appearance at Merkin Concert Hall in 1993, when he placed his musicians around the hall as if beckoning members of the audience to be a part of the performance. Many of his concerts have featured lighting designed by Marian Zazeela, his wife and collaborator, that imbues the stage with a New Age aura.
Young recorded Just Stompin‘ Live at the Kitchen with his band in 1993. Clearly influenced by the blues of John Lee Hooker and John Coltrane, the album also somewhat resembled the work of the Velvet Underground and modern rock experimentalists Sonic Youth. David Fricke gave the album four stars in his review in Rolling Stone. “Two hours, one song (never mind’song,’ one chord progression), no break—and zero boredom,” noted Fricke. In his review of Just Stompin’in the Detroit Metro Times, Jurek said, “The band plays dynamically, from soft to hard and back, gradually building in both intensity and tension, laying back just enough—without letting the air out—to allow the musicians (and listeners) to breathe and start again, until the music reaches an unbearable pitch [that] shatters all divisions between blues, Indian classical music, p unk, heavy metal, grunge, modal jazz and noise, because it’s all of them and none of them at once.”
Adding another chapter to his explorations of sound and space, Young created an interactive sound-and-light installation in a room above his loft in the TriBeCa section of New York City in 1994. The layout featured six speakers arranged around the room that droned continuously; magenta lighting designed by Zazeela further defined the environment. Listeners would hear a different sound mix according to how they moved in the room, thus enabling them to create new note sequences with a mere tilt of the head. “I started thinking about the possibility of doing tuned rooms in the 1960’s,” Young told the New York Times. “But this is one of my most advanced and far-reaching creations yet.”
Young’s pursuit of new musical territory in the realm of minimalism remained unabated as the 1990s wore on, and he has no regrets about his chosen path. As he said in Pulse!,” My whole life has been devoted to music because nothing else ever gave me that spiritual inspiration, that sense I was doing the right thing with my life.”
The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25, Gramavision, 1987.
Fluxtellus: 89 VI 8 c. 1:45-1:52 AM Paris Encore from Poem for Tables, Chairs and Benches, etc., Tellus, 1990.
The Melodic Version of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China, Gramavision, 1991.
(With the Forever Bad Blues Band) Just Stompin’: Live at the Kitchen, Gramavision, 1993.
Just West Coast/Microtonal music for Guitar and Harp, Bridge, 1993.
Down Beat, August 1987; August 1993.
Metro Times (Detroit), July 28, 1993.
New York Times, November 4, 1991; January 12, 1993; April 14, 1993; June 15, 1994.
Pulse!, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, November 11, 1993.
Spin, July 1993.
Singer, light artist
Marian Zazeela is best known as a light artist, and her work, both visual and vocal, has been an integral part of the soundscapes created by her husband and collaborator, the pianist and composer LaMonte Young. Together they are regarded as pioneers in the development of minimalist music, alongside such luminaries as John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Terry Riley. Zazeela began her study of visual art while a young student at New York's High School of Music and Art, from which she graduated in 1956. From there she went on to study painting at Bennington College in Vermont, graduating in 1960. Upon her graduation, the college's art department awarded her a spot in a two-person exhibition at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City. The large calligraphic canvases shown in the exhibition would later serve as the inspiration for some of her major light works.
Zazeela met Young in 1962, and the couple have been inseparable, both personally and professionally, ever since. They see their work as composed by one body, and often speak for one another in interviews. In an interview with Minnestota Public Radio, Young described how they met: "On June 22nd, 1962, I was having a rehearsal with the hand drummer and poet Angus MacLise…. While we were upstairs listening to some gamelan music, Marian came upstairs, and we've been together ever since. Actually we've been together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all of the time, with the exception of a period of about a year in 1965 when she had a day job at an advertising agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach."
Young went on to describe the couple's symbiotic working relationship: "It's like the concept of Shiva Shakti. That concept is the same as the positive/negative concept, the same as the periodicity concept, and the same as the creativity concept. It's also the same as the yin/yang concept…. Through this kind of very profound and harmonic relationship, it is possible then to do things and create works that could not be created by either one of us alone, even if we did them separately and brought them together."
Zazeela's early work with Young took place through their Theatre of Eternal Music, which has included a number of other musicians and performers such as Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, and John Cale, who would go on to join the seminal rock and roll band The Velvet Underground. Zazeela created lighting and graphic materials for the ensemble's performances and also performed vocals with the group.
Two of Zazeela and Young's most important collaborations are their The Well-Tuned Piano and Dream House. The Well-Tuned Piano, a nearly seven-hour piece, is an ongoing project initiated by Young in 1964. The musical portion of the piece consists solely of a justly tuned piano and utilizes slow chord progressions arranged around a microtonal scale. Beginning in 1974, Young began using Zazeela's Magenta Lights as the visual environment for the piece.
Young has remarked that, after performing in Zazeela's light environments, he has had no interest in performing without them. "After you've once performed in an environment like the one in… The Well-Tuned Piano, who'd want to go back to performing in white light? Once you experience the pleasure of that, there's nothing to the other. It's totally dull. I think that our approach was always to try to do something more creative, more imaginative, and more extraordinary." Zazeela told Stylus magazine, "My intention is to create an atmosphere conducive to the experiencing of both sound and light works over a long period of time. The light sculptures are not created as a response to the music, but emanate from a creative impulse in a different medium."
The couple's second major installation, Dream House, is a total immersion project, originally commissioned by New York City's Dia Foundation in the 1980s for a Harrison Street loft, in which the performers all lived and worked. The project has been resurrected at Young and Zazeela's Church Street loft, also in New York City. With soundscapes by Young and a light environment by Zazeela, the installation is open to the public at selected times between the fall equinox and the summer solstice. Wrote Metrobeat's David Farneth of the second Dream House installation: "The Dream House is a unique life experience that you will remember for years, and one that you will probably return to time and again. If you give it the concentration it deserves, you will discover new things about yourself and see the workaday world from a distant perspective. It's a great place to celebrate, mourn, reflect, create, rest, analyze, energize, focus, wander, and revitalize."
Beginning in 1970 Zazeela and Young became disciples of the Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath, bringing him to New York and establishing the Kirana Center for Indian Spiritual Music at their Church Street loft. In her narrative biography featured on the MELA website, Zazeela explained, "This study, with its foundations rooted in Vedic philosophy and a rare combination of Hindu and Sufi traditions, opened new dimensions of artistic awareness for me. It has indirectly influenced and enriched the development of my artistic output while providing a path for my spiritual growth as well." Zazeela and Young began the nonprofit MELA Foundation in 1985. In addition to serving as co-director of the Kirana Center, Zazeela serves as a teacher of voice and raga, an Indian musical form.
Zazeela's light sculptures and her collaborations with Young have been presented widely in France and Germany. A third Dream House was created in a Berlin mansion in 1992 and a fourth at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Lyon, France. Zazeela's light sculpture Sound/With/In was presented at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, with a sound environment created by Young, for three months in 1994-95.
With their emphasis on multidimensional environments, Zazeela and Young have produced few recorded documents of their work. The Table of Elements label released the only commercially available recordings of the Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as The Dream Syndicate, in 2000. The work is contained on Inside The Dream Syndicate, Vol. 1: Dream of Niagara . Zazeela appears as a vocalist and composer on the recording. Zazeela and Young released a recording of Dream House in 1974 on the Shandar label.
The influence of Zazeela, Young and the Theatre of Eternal Music on future generations has been profound. A review on the Pitchfork website has linked their work to that of the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed and indie rockers Sonic Youth and Jim O'Rourke. A 1997 benefit concert at London's Barbican Center to benefit the couple's artistic endeavors featured the rock bands Pulp and Spiritualized as well as popular electronic musicians Brian Eno and Kraftwerk.
(With LaMonte Young) Dream House, Shandar Music, 1974..
For the Record …
Born in 1940 in New York City; married LaMonte Young (a musician).
Collaborator with husband, pianist and composer LaMonte Young, 1962; co-founder, Theatre of Eternal Music; became co-director, with Young, of Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music, 1970; teacher at at Kirana Center.
(With John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, and LaMonte Young) Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. 1: Dream of Niagara , Table of Elements, 2000.
Independent, September 17, 1997.
Stylus, December 2003.
"Inside the Dream Syndicate, Vol. 1," Pitchfork, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com (April 25, 2004).
"Interview with LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela," Minnestota Public Radio, http://www.musicmavericks.publicradio.org (April 25, 2004).
"LaMonte Young – Marian Zazeela," MELA Foundation, http://www.melafoundation.org/farneth.htm (April 24, 2004).
"Marian Zazeela narrative," MELA Foundation, http://www.melafoundation.org/narrabio.htm (April 24, 2004).