La Monte Young: 'I'm only interested in putting out masterpieces'

The godfather of minimal music is still performing at 79, and since few recordings exist of his work, his live performances are more essential than ever

Like many fans of minimalist-music godfather La Monte Young, I have often wished he’d put out more recordings. Long out-of-print CD copies of his multi-hour masterwork The Well-Tuned Piano occasionally fetch over $1,000 on the secondhand marketplace. A pair of other albums released by the now-defunct Gramavision label are occasionally easier to come by. (All of those albums have been widely bootlegged on the internet, though with unfortunate audio quality – and without Young’s essential essay booklets.)

Moreover, those releases only represent a small fraction of Young’s compositional and performance-based work over the last 60 years. For a legendary output that has had such an outsized influence on other artists – not just fellow minimalists like Terry Riley, but also performers of the order of Anthony Braxton and the Velvet Underground – this can seem unfortunate. (At least from the acquisitive music nerd’s standpoint.)

In June, when I reviewed the first performance by Young, his wife and collaborator Marian Zazeela and their disciple Jung Hee Choi in Dia Chelsea’s ongoing installation and concert series, I mentioned Young’s “apparent unwillingness to keep the few recordings he has authorised consistently in print”. Shortly afterwards, when I receive an invitation to speak with Young and Zazeela in the living quarters of their Church Street loft (along with Choi), I know that we’ll wind up talking about his recording philosophy.

“Some people just want to put out a CD – but for me it’s a waste of time, because I’m only interested in putting out masterpieces,” Young says. That’s no exaggeration, either, given that he worked on The Well-Tuned Piano for more than a quarter-century, refining his performance to its final state: a six-hour DVD that includes Zazeela’s light-installation work, and which is also currently out of print (though Young and Zazeela intend to reissue it soon).

Aside from perfectionism, the 79-year-old composer-performer cites one other hurdle, when it comes to distributing recordings from his private stash that do meet his standards: time. “People think I don’t want to [put out recordings],” Young said. “And they’re totally wrong. I want to do it. But how much can I do? If you see how much I try to perform – this is a very big concert series … Understand that we’re really working very hard and doing our best to give something to the world before we die. Can Marian and I last 10 days? Ten hours? Ten years? Ten minutes? We’re getting much tireder.”

I feel bad for pressing the issue – since the amount of work Young, Zazeela and Choi have put into the current Dia Chelsea exhibition in New York is deeply impressive. Aside from the performance series – which is historic on its own terms – there is the day-to-day installation itself, viewable for a $10 suggested donation. In a room outfitted with Zazeela’s light sculptures and a large environment of “light point drawings” by Choi, a version of Young’s long-in-process electronic drone music reverberates in the large Chelsea space. Visitors to any of Young and Zazeela’s past Dream House installations will recognize this complex weave of tones that, while officially “fixed”, seems to cavort wildly through the ear canals, whenever you move your head.

Hardcore minimalist observers will also recognize something different at the Dia Chelsea Dream House: tones that seem to be penetrating through Young’s fixed drone, and moving upward. That music is a separate sine-wave frequency piece by Choi. And its simultaneous presentation with Young’s electronic music is gorgeously realised. “It was my idea to put the two of them together,” Young says. “You cannot hear the fact that her piece is moving very well, until you have it against my piece. And then something is much more noticeable. And to be able to measure flux is not easy. Where is it? You reach for it, it changes, it moves, it’s never there.”

That mystic-sounding search for the ineffable connects back to Young’s own approach to refining his own pieces, endlessly. (“It has to do with my nature,” Young told me. “I’m extremely creative, and I have ideas constantly.”) This weekend’s live concerts at Dia Chelsea bring the US premiere of a new version of piece he’s been working on, in one form or another, since 1962. The title is admittedly a bit of a mouthful: The Melodic Version of the Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China. The long moniker refers to Young’s boyhood practice of listening to droning electrical power transformers in the Idaho countryside, and also indicates stages in the development of Young’s compositional strategy for this piece (while noting its connection to other works from his oeuvre).

In contrast to the eight-person brass ensemble that recorded a version of this piece for the Gramavision label, Young’s current realisation of this piece is scored for 12 musicians – eight trumpets and four cellos – who will surround the audiences at Dia this weekend. The musicians on hand are among the best in contemporary classical music. Ben Neill will lead a trumpet section that includes Marco Blauuw (who was recently heard stunning Lincoln Center Festival audiences as part of Ensemble musikFabrik’s triumphant touring production of Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury). Leading the cellos will be extended-technique virtuoso Charles Curtis (a favorite interpreter of drone composer Eliane Radigue, as well).

Regarding this expanded version – which can now be performed over a span of “hours” – Young says that “Ben Neill and Charles Curtis have developed quite an array of techniques that generate the music”. Even though this minimalist piece only features four different pitches, Young says this version of the composition creates “a pattern that demonstrates the melodic movement … And then they found out that they could do certain techniques such as canons. So they do canons, and listen to each other to see who brings in the next note. Until finally they have a fairly long canon ... And the piece is already someplace by that point!”

Young prefers to have relationships with a limited number of collaborators. “I’ve had enough mediocre performances to realise that they are not helpful … When people hear a great performance, they can be transformed to a high level of enlightenment. And that’s what you want to do – you want to accomplish something on that level. And you don’t just need to have your name on every concert ... Short-term relationships are dangerous.”

His longest-running relationship, of course, is with Zazeela. Her own legacy, outside of the Dream House pieces, will get the spotlight at Dia in August, with a recreation of a 1960s four-projector light piece titled Ornamental Light Years Tracery. “We have the projectors one above the other,” Zazeela explains. “You have a remote that allows for certain parameters. You have focus, you can change the focus, you can change the colour and in a sense the size. The colors superimpose, so they create other colours. It’s quite interesting.”

The inclusion of this work in the Dia series was a product of Choi’s lobbying. She pushes back against common assumptions about the way Zazeela’s collaboration with Young has worked. “A lot of people think La Monte’s music drove Marian’s light … but that’s very wrong. I think it’s very egalitarian and an interdependent type of collaboration.”

“It was one of the most profound light-works ever created,” Young says, “because it actually had images that you could think of as a chord – that came and went in time, and came back … And it was environmental, because it tended to spill over onto the walls around the corners off the main wall — and it was extremely hallucinogenic. It was another world. You were gone. Nothing about drugs – it was simply a state where the other world didn’t exist any more.”

That winds up being as good a way as any other to describe the best aspects of Dia’s current series devoted to these artists. Particularly since that same sense of “gone”-ness may or may not be able to be captured on fixed forms of home-media, devotees of Young, Zazeela and Choi are encouraged to check out these live experiences, while they can.

  • LaMonte Young’s Dream House is at Dia Chelsea, New York, until 24 October. Details here


Seth Colter Walls

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Unknown, Remembered… review – a baffling and curiously disengaged installation
A soprano’s Handel cantata is interrupted by Joy Division, turntablism and artist Haroon Mirza’s take on a Beckett play – in this elusive multimedia piece

Tim Ashley

05, Dec, 2018 @4:48 PM

Article image
Is this woman the next Philip Glass? And why is she wearing a loudspeaker?
Rolex is paying a fortune to pair young artists up with stars like David Adjaye, Joan Jonas and Alfonso Cuarón. Is there a catch? We join their big Berlin jamboree

Alex Needham

08, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Martians, music and mud: how the Thames Estuary broadened cultural horizons
It was Conrad’s gateway to the heart of darkness, HG Wells envisaged Martians on its misty shores. Now artists from around the world are exploring the mysteries of the Thames Estuary

Rachel Lichtenstein

22, Sep, 2016 @4:13 PM

Article image
Ryoji Ikeda review – techno data storm assaults the senses
The Japanese composer and visual artist’s polyrhythmic techno confronts our digital dystopia

Al Horner

01, Oct, 2018 @10:15 AM

Article image
Douglas Gordon: the man with the black lagoon
The artist has flooded New York’s Park Avenue Armory and put a pianist in the middle of the water in a dramatic new work

Edward Helmore in New York

11, Dec, 2014 @8:51 PM

Article image
Tune in, freak out: take Latin mass with Stanley Kubrick and 114 radios
They put Nick Cave in therapy and Ziggy Stardust in an art gallery. Now Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have persuaded Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton to help their choir of radios play doom-laden music from The Shining

Nancy Groves

12, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The hot tickets – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Whitworth Art Gallery and Royal Blood
The Tennessee Williams classic comes to Newcastle upon Tyne, bombastic duo Royal Blood hit the road, the Whitworth reopens with a star exhibition and BBC Proms hangs up its baton

Guardian culture

08, Sep, 2014 @10:47 AM

Article image
Haroon Mirza: vinyl, UFOs and the patter of tiny feet

From a room that replays the sound of ants crossing a copper plate to conversing speaker circles, Mirza's Lisson Gallery show is a riveting sonic adventure, writes Adrian Searle

Adrian Searle

20, May, 2013 @3:59 PM

Article image
Gorilla masks, steel masterpieces and night terrors – the week in art
Richard Serra’s latest epic metalwork hits London, while Louise Bourgeois heads to the Somerset countryside – plus the rest of the week’s art happenings

Jonathan Jones

30, Sep, 2016 @1:49 PM

Article image
Spectacle of dust: Anselm Kiefer marks 20 years of the Bastille Opera

The Bastille Opera in Paris is celebrating its 20th anniversary with Am Anfang (In the Beginning), a stunning new show from German artist Anselm Kiefer and composer Jörg Widmann

10, Jul, 2009 @11:33 AM