posted on 06 May 2014 16:20 by Hanna Hoelling
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By Lisa Adang
Over the course of his musical career, La Monte Young has moved towards increasingly long-form sonic compositions, and even in his earliest memories he recalls being transfixed by sustained ambient noises like motors, power plants and electric currents through telephone wires. (1) In his twenties while attending Los Angeles City College, Young began experimenting with protracted tones on the saxophone, pushing the limits of his breath and exploring incremental tonal variations with repetitious combinations of notes. Young soon discovered contact microphones, which he used to amplify sounds vibrating through objects. This began the composer’s long relationship with electronic sound generation and manipulation, which would enable him to go beyond the limits of the body to sustain tones ad infinitum.
In the summer of 1959, Young converged with a number of notable figures in sound and performance at Karlheinz Stockhausen’s composition seminar as part of the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. There he soaked in the influence of Stockhausen’s experiments with abstract “post-tonal” composition, which used a mixture of electronic and traditional instruments. Young also met John Cage in Darmstadt, who was, at the time, in the midst of his Variations series. Through Cage, Young was introduced to the idea of Indeterminacy, which Cage was exploring through open-ended scores like the one he created for Variations I (1958). This score consists of written instructions, along with a drawing of six squares; one square has with twenty-seven points inside it of varying size, while the remaining five squares each have five lines inside their bounds that intersect at odd angles. In the brief text, Cage explains the symbols’ relation to specific types of sound, but he leaves the instrumentation and interpretation of the score completely open. Soon Young began creating his own “open” scores like that for Vision (1959), which details the actions of performers over fourteen typed pages. In summary, this score asks performers to disperse themselves around the perimeter of a room (behind and among the audience), and carry out long pitch shifts on string and wind instruments. The staring and ending notes, as well as the duration of sustain are assigned by handing out specifications on note cards, while the timing for eleven additional incidental noises is determined at random through the use of a telephone book or numbers drawn from a hat. (2)
In 1960, Young was awarded a scholarship to study electronic music with composer Richard Maxfield in New York, and while in the city, Young fell in with the flourishing Fluxus art and performance scene. Young organized some of the group’s earliest events at Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft and created a set of instruction-based scores called Compositions 1960 during his stay in New York. Subsequently, #10 [To Bob Morris] of this set became the most known through its interpretation by Nam June Paik in 1962, where the artist dunked the top of his head in a mixture of ink and tomato juice, dragging his pigment-soaked hair and tie down the length of a thirteen-foot piece of paper. The instructions of this score are to “draw a line and follow it.” (3) Finding much inspiration and support for his art and music in New York, as well as a new found love, Young opted to stay. In 1963 Young moved into a loft apartment on Church Street with Marian Zazeela, an artist who was at the time working with calligraphically-inspired painted abstractions. In each other, Young and Zazeela found creative life partners, and have continued to work together ever sense.
The couple’s Church Street loft hosted hours of collaborative improvisation between friends, and eventually, Young and Zazeela, along with John Cale, Tony Conrad (and occasionally Terry Riley) formed a musical group they called The Theatre of Eternal Music. The group gave performances and also recorded many sessions on tape, with Zazeela providing atmospheric light and images with multiple slide projectors. One visitor remembers the space cluttered with desks, boxes, tape and electronic apparati, (4) as well as the couple’s numerous pet turtles in aquariums placed around the loft. (5) Young and Zazeela deem these sessions to be the first manifestation of their longest-running work, the Dream House.
A friend and frequent visitor to the couple’s loft would provide the means for a major re-instantiation of the Dream House in 1968 in a different space. This was Heiner Friedrich, a Munich gallerist who later went on to found the Dia Art Foundation in support of Minimalist and Monumental art. After a successful run of the Dream House over forty-nine consecutive days in Germany in the summer of 1968, Friedrich helped find funding to create a long-term installation of the work in a spectacular space in downtown New York starting in 1979. This installation took over the entire historic mercantile exchange building on Harrison Street: six stories of rooms, corridors and stairwells, as well as a massive tower were all filled with Young’s sound and Zazeela’s light, in addition to spaces for exhibitions, performances, archives and research facilities. The most impressive space in the building was the trading floor, featuring a soaringly high ceiling and lavish architectural detail, all painted white. Zazeela used dichroic lights to turn the space a vibrant magenta hue, and hung white spiral-shaped mobiles, which cast dynamic shadows as they swirled subtly in passing air currents. Young used tones produced on electronic sine wave generators to produce frequencies of unending duration. The multiple sound sources emitted frequencies that physically interacted with each other in the space, allowing visitors to explore acoustical phenomena as they moved through the environment.
In 1985, due to financial troubles at Dia, this version of the Dream House closed, though Young and Zazeela found new means of support to revive the piece in 1993 through their newly established Mela Foundation. This move was a homecoming of sorts for the Dream House, as it returned the piece to the Church Street loft where it was conceived. This location remains open today for visitors to experience Young and Zazeela’s unique environment of light and sound for a nominal suggested donation fee. Visiting the Dream House myself on several recent occasions, I encountered a social environment of people peacefully communing with each other and sound through the shared experience of listening. Carpeting and pillows invite visitors to find a comfortable space and stay a while, letting the droning tones wash over them. Over a time spent in the space, different frequencies emerge in one’s hearing; even though the sine wave generators are unwavering in their constancy the frequencies seem to undulate. Different parts of the room envelop listeners in different acoustical phenomena that occur from sound waves colliding in architectural space. Visitors can also “play” the room like an immersive instrument by moving their own bodies through the rooms to hear different effects; even a slight tilt of the head produces a dramatic difference.
Knowing the intimate and long-standing relationship of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela to this work, makes the Dream House an incredibly special experience. Signs of their personal presence in the space are scattered about, and one has the feeling that they are sharing part of their home and part of themselves very generously with the world by keeping the Dream House open and freely accessible. On one visit, I met a jazz player who comes nightly to the Dream House after work. On another late night occasion I saw couples visiting after their dinner dates. The Dream House is many things to many people, but for all it provides a moment of transcendence, transporting all who come to a state of mind far beyond the New York streets. A visit to the Dream House is highly recommended for those who wish to engage the often overlooked sense of hearing. Getting past the initial confrontation with the high volume of sound in the Dream House, one is truly rewarded with a new sense of sonic attunement.
(1) Smith, Dave. “Following a Straight Line: La Monte Young.” 1977. Contact no. 18 (Winter 1977-78). Republished, JEMS: An Online Journal of Experimental Music Studies. <http://www.users.waitrose.com/~chobbs/smithyoung.html#_edn10> Accessed April 24, 2014.
(2) Grimshaw, Jeremy Neal. Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young. 2011. Oxford, Oxon, UK: Oxford University Press.
(3) Guggenheim Museum. <http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/thirdmind/paik_bio.swf> Accessed April 24, 2014.
(4) Young, La Monte and Marian Zazeela. “Concert program notes.” 1969. Munich, GE: Heiner Friedrich. Republished, Tencer, Michael H., Ed. 2004. Selected Writings. Ubu Classics. <ias-server.musabi.ac.jp/mov/charles/eizougeijutsuron/young_selected_writings.pdf> Accessed Mar. 15, 2014.
(5) Young, La Monte. “Notes on The Theatre of Eternal Music and The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys.” 2000. Mela Foundation Website. <www.melafoundation.org/theatre.pdf> Accessed Mar. 15, 2014.
1. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela The Dream House, Mela Foundation website: www.melafoundation.org.
2. The Dream House found on D Thorpe.
This essay has been authored by Lisa Adang, M.A. student at the BGC and participant in the course Beyond the Object Principle.