A summer’s night, a bottle of wine, and five hours of avant-garde minimalist music.
From Perspectives of New Music, winter 1993: Themes and Clouds define the two levels on which La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano functions. The clouds are more important to the acoustic innovations in the work, whereas the themes and chordal areas determine the form. The clouds, fast articulations of static harmony, are generally unnotatable except as pitch groups or chords for improvisation. They are well named for rain imagery: they sometimes begin with a light patter of tones increasing in density, other times they start abruptly as full-blown storms. Themes thicken to become clouds, clouds thin out to reveal themes, and themes can occasionally be heard singing through the middle of clouds.
Once a cloud is set in motion, the ear may hear what sounds like foghorns, voices, bells, even machinery.
On Monday, after Allie and I listened to the entire five-record set of The Well-Tuned Piano, all ten sides, one right after another on a long summer night, I searched the databases for anything I could find about La Monte Young. I came across the text of a lecture Young gave at a dance workshop in California in 1960, with this introductory note:
The lecture is written in sections, which are separated below. Any number of them may be read in any order. The order and selection are determined by chance, thereby bringing about new relationships between parts and consequently new meanings.
Side seven, I open my laptop and type: This copy has some surface noise and the box is split at the corners. Some librarian stuck a borrowing card slot to it, and wrote a code number on the cover of the booklet. It’s not pristine.
Allie asks, Are you going to be typing the whole time? It’s a little bit irritating.
I shut my laptop.
Young once said, We find, however, that when the sound stops, or we leave the area in which the sound is being made, or we just plain leave the world of the sound to some degree, that the world into which we enter is not the world we left but another new one.
Every word I say contributes to the lie of art, Young said.
Perspectives of New Music: The W.T.P. arches upward from the primitive unity of Eternal Time, diffracts into pitch-contrasted first and second themes, enters a more ‘civilized,’ culture-oriented phase in the classical contrapuntal sequences, sinks back down through a decay temporarily postponed by the ornate pleasures of the Romantic Chord, dissipates into the heavenly diffuseness of the Elysian Fields, and finally collapses in an unanswered reiteration of the eternal question.
Young to a friend: Isn’t it wonderful if someone listens to something he is ordinarily supposed to look at.
Young set up twelve microphones at specific locations around a grand piano so that the recording would sound the way the piano sounds while he’s playing it. There’s no amplification and no editing except, as Young writes on the first page of liner notes, to excise some of the steam pipe clangs, and one particularly inappropriate cough.
Young: The complete energy resonance with the audience transports me to a dimension that brings forth my highest level of musical inspiration.
The Muse appears!
The tones of The Well-Tuned Piano suspend in the air —
illuminated before me
as if emanating from the Universal Source of the Eternal Sound —
From the liner notes:
The work is played upon a specially retuned and rebuilt Bosendorfer Imperial Grand piano, a nine-foot, six-inch extended range instrument. The tuning is an example of ‘just intonation’ where the actual fundamental frequencies of the instrument are tuned in small whole number ratios with the pitches coinciding with the harmonic content of the strings themselves. These ratios are the same as, or idealized approximations of, those frequency ratios found between individual partials of complex musical sounds in natural systems, including stretched strings, straight enclosed air columns, and the human voice. Just intonation is the tuning of ancient practice that nature commends for both simplicity of means and wealth of possibility.
By the time I put on side five it’s dark. Our dogs curl into the beds I’ve dragged out onto the porch. Allie has lit a candle. We’re about to run out of wine, second bottle, but we have plenty of pot. I wonder should we go to the corner store for more alcohol or let this music take us to sleep.
Young plays quietly now, slowly, one sustained note at a time, and Allie is talking about cigars and whiskey and women and gay men and I tell her everything I know about cigars in hopes she’ll stop talking. Soon the notes come fast and loud it’s like there’s a storm inside them and Allie and I are quiet. The tone arm lifts from a last crackle of dust and all we hear is our backyard. I say to her, That’s side five, that’s the halfway point, should we go to the ghetto store? and she says no and we both agree, no.
In 1960 La Monte Young wrote a series of compositions among which was one that went:
Build a fire on stage and allow it to burn for any duration. In the event that the performance is broadcast, the microphone may be brought up close to the fire.
Another went like this:
Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.
When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside.
The composition may be any length, but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.
While improvising with musicians and dancers in New York in the early sixties Young began to see the dancers and the room from inside the sound as opposed to hearing the sound from where he was sitting inside the room. He began to feel the parts and motions of the sound more than he had before. He began to see each sound was its own world and that this world was only similar to our world in that we experience it through our own bodies, that is, in our own terms. He could see that sounds and all other things in the world were just as important as human beings and that if we could to some degree give ourselves up to them, the sounds and other things that is, we would enjoy the possibility of learning something new.
Young: The trouble with most music of the past is that man has tried to make sounds do what he wants them to do. If we are really interested in learning about sounds, it seems to me we should allow the sounds to be sounds instead of trying to force them to do things that are mostly pertinent to human existence.
How much more do we have? Allie asks, sleepy.
Three sides. This is side eight.
Now is when we should have the feather bed and the non-murderous quiet person to flip the record, she says.
She shifts in her seat and yawns.
She says, I wish I had a sleeping bag.
The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 is a five-record set, released in 1987, on Gramavision; an unedited and unabridged document of a five-hour performance at the 6 Harrison Street Dream House in New York City on October 25, 1981, beginning at 6:17:50 P.M. It comes with a glossy booklet. I looked around online to see if I could buy one and found a five-cassette version for $500, a five-CD copy for $899 and, after several days of searching, a set of LPs for $2,500. I wonder if my librarian knows how much this is worth.
In the booklet there’s a black-and-white photo of a log cabin on a windswept prairie, a caption: Born on 14 October 1935 to Dennis and Evelyn Young in a log cabin in the small, Mormon community of Bern, Idaho, Young fondly recalls his early and wide-ranging musical impressions: the wind whistling through chinks in the logs of the cabin, saxophone lessons with his father and Uncle Thornton, singing cowboy songs and tap dancing for his family, saxophone solos at church, the humming sounds produced by the transformers at the power plant, summers listening to the droning of lathes and drill presses at a machine shop, and later, train whistles near his grandmother’s house in Los Angeles.
Young studied music in high school and at college in L.A., and then Berkeley, where he was Terry Riley’s classmate, and where, in 1958, as a kind of thesis, he performed a composition of quiet tones sustained for nearly an hour. Everyone thought I had gone off the deep end, he said many years later. He went to Germany to study composition and there he met David Tudor and John Cage and soon both of them were performing Young’s music throughout Europe. In 1960 he moved to New York where he fell in with the Fluxus movement and had sex with Yoko Ono. In 1961, he dissociated with Fluxus by writing an entire year’s worth compositions in one sitting, conceiving and dating them before they happened, thus retiring from conceptual composition. In 1962, he formed The Theatre of Eternal Music. In 1964 he tuned the intervals for The Well-Tuned Piano at his studio in New York City. He later explained: In order to have a concept of the measurement of time it is necessary to have a concept of periodicity. If we assume that the measurement of time is dependent on periodicity, then we might also assume that in determining the relationship between two or more frequencies the human mechanism can best analyze information of a periodic nature which, in the case of information transmitted by the auditory neurological network, would include only those sets of intervallic relationships satisfying the condition that every pair of frequency components can be represented by some rational fraction, inasmuch as only combinations of these harmonically related frequencies generate periodic composite sound waveforms.
Allie bites her fingernails while we listen to side eight. So he played this without stopping, she asks.
Yes, I say. All in one sitting.
Is he alive?
I don’t know.
I look him up online and, Yes.
It took four days to listen through all five records. I listened in my living room and on my back porch and sometimes in between, in the kitchen, doing stuff. After side ten had played, I went back and listened to them again, in reverse order, paying closer attention. On the third day of my backward pass Allie and I sat on the back porch while side seven played. We were screened in, so the bugs didn’t bother us, and around the yard squirrels chased across the fence and along the long branches of the live oaks and every so often leapt into the air and even after dark we could hear their claws scratch into the bark. Side seven begins with a tap on a key, a note held for a very long time, and then another, and another, and over ten minutes or so it builds to a drizzle then a shower and all at once it seems as though Young is playing with five hands, all in a fury, and when the record ends I hear everything around with more clarity—the squirrels’ claws, the wind in the leaves, the train whistle in the distance, the cars hushing through the city.
We listened to side four on the porch while it rained. Allie sat back in her chair with her feet up. We were both high. She said, I wish we could have a floating feather bed out here and we could hire a quiet, non-murderous person to flip the records while we lie in the bed surrounded by candles.
On a Saturday Allie and I decide to listen to make an event of The Well-Tuned Piano. We turn off our phones and open a bottle of wine and at 6:06 in the evening I drop the needle on side one. Allie makes baked ziti and a Chilean salad while it plays and I recline in my favorite chair. Side two, Allie gives me a salad and a glass of wine and asks if we can eat outside because the temperature and light are just right and we both prefer fresh air. But I hear our neighbor working in his yard, running a buzz-saw machine, and I mention this to Allie, but she says nothing. I turn on the porch speakers. The noise is ferocious, it cuts straight through the dissonant calm of Young’s playing to the innermost reptilian nub of my brain and I feel on edge. The dogs come out and bark and bark over the music and the buzz saw and I feel rage at Allie for insisting we sit in this racket, but I say nothing, I sit and eat my salad. I get up and walk into the living room and grab the dogs’ beds and drag them onto the porch and they lie down and stop barking, but the buzz saw keeps screaming. I stand and grab my salad and my glass of wine and I say to Allie, I can’t take it anymore, and just then, from somewhere in the distance comes a low rumble, most likely a big truck, and the noise builds and folds into the buzz saw’s grind, and those folded together sounds fold into The Well-Tuned Piano, and from these overlapping sounds, from somewhere high above my head, comes the sound of a choir and it’s singing the kind of song that would play in a movie when the clouds open and god light shines on the hero.
Side six ends, we leash up our dogs, walk to the store. I hear all the sounds of the city, every last tire tread and squirrel, as if through a top-dollar audiophile system. It’s rained and the neon beer signs smear across the glazed street. We buy two tall cans of Miller High Life in bottles and we walk back home and finish both while we finish listening.
Allie says, Did you write about the buzz-saw? You have to write about how I told you there’s a buzz saw out there and you said, That’s ok, and then you were like, There’s a buzz-saw out here, and you got angry and left.
When I first I came across La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 I pulled it off the shelf and looked at it but put it back because I’d never heard of La Monte Young and the cover looked like something a new age artist would do. I found it at the university library, among a collection of 7,000 records that aren’t organized in any logical way. I go there on Sundays and comb through one or two shelves and take home whatever looks interesting. When I came across it again I scanned the back of the box, saw the name Terry Riley, and checked it out, because Terry Riley is most certainly not new age.
I borrowed a book on the same visit, and on page four it said: La Monte Young was the best drug connection in New York. He had the best drugs – the best! Great big acid pills, and opium, and grass too… La Monte had this whole thing where he would do a performance that would go on for days and he would have people droning with him. Droning is holding a single note for a whole long time. People would come in and then be assigned to drone.
On the same page Young is quoted as saying: I was – so to speak – the darling of the avant-garde. Yoko Ono was always saying to me, If only I could be as famous as you. So I had an affair with Yoko and did a music series at her loft, and I put a warning on the very first flyer: THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT.
Image of La Monte Young’s “Piano Piece for David Tudor #1” via Vagant Magazine.