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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin
Music as Spiritual Discipline

fig. 8-1 La Monte Young with Pran Nath and Marian Zazeela, 1971.

But the “spiritualizing” interpretation carried conviction. By 1989 Young had made a decisive turn toward a religious lifestyle, having in 1970 become a disciple of Pran Nath, an Indian musician and spiritual guru. In the early 1960s, after moving to New York, he and his wife, the painter and performance artist Marian Zazeela, had founded the Theatre of Eternal Music, an ensemble dedicated to the devout daily rehearsal and very occasional performance of his work, which consisted of several enormous, ongoing, and unfinishable compositions, reminiscent in concept of the famous torsos (Scriabin's Mysterium, Ives's Universe) of early-twentieth-century music. They achieved their huge dimensions through the application of improvisatory and ritualistically repetitive techniques to tiny preplanned and notated musical ideas or “modules,” following a set of verbal instructions that Young (possibly recalling his serial training) calls “algorithms.” These utopian compositions, such as The Four Dreams of China, realizable only in small snatches, have been “eternally” in progress since the early 1960s. Perhaps needless to say, they no longer employ twelve-tone procedures, Young having come to see a contradiction between the all-encompassing, undifferentiated twelve-tone approach to pitch and his ideal of concentration, delimitation, and singleness. Pitch has been the area, in fact, to which he has applied the most rigorous restrictions, arriving finally at an approach based on natural acoustical resonance (invested, in his thinking, with purity and holiness) that virtually excludes conventional chromaticism of any kind. Since the mid-1970s, much of Young's composing and performing energy has been devoted to The Well-Tuned Piano, a body of music to be played on a piano tuned in a system of just (or Pythagorean) intonation.

However restricted the material, all of Young's compositions are predicated on the idea of infinite extension in time, achieved with the aid of electronic drones, or (in The Well-Tuned Piano) of a technique of synchronizing the musical rhythm with the acoustical beats arising out of the justly tuned intervals to set up a continuous resonant aura in the performing space and thus defeat the piano's quick sonic decay. By the time he set up the Theatre of Eternal Music, Young began associating his principle of “sustenance,” or long-sustained sounds, with the long-tone exercises that characterize the monastic practices of many religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Long tones sung or played on wind instruments are invested with the spiritual significance of controlled breathing, a prelude to meditation in which the body is pervaded with the divine spirit.

Young's brand of musical minimalism thus became (for him) a form of esoteric religious practice, a discipline to be carried out by and in the presence of initiates rather than performed before the general public. Accordingly, as his career continued, Young deliberately withdrew from the public eye, or whatever corner of it he had access to, giving few concerts and issuing or authorizing recordings only at rare intervals. The latter have tended to become cult objects, like the so-called “Black LP” produced in Germany in 1970: a long-playing record encased in a black plastic sleeve with program notes on the back reproduced from the composer's own calligraphy in faint gray ink, à la Rauschenberg. (The front of the sleeve is decorated with a mandala-like design by Zazeela in the same barely discernible color.)

Side I contains, in the composer's words, “a section of the longer work Map of 49′s Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery, begun in 1966 as a subsection of the even larger work The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys which was begun in 1964 with my group The Theatre of Eternal Music.” Its title is 31 VII 69 10:26–10:49 pm, and it consists of exactly twenty-three minutes of wordless chanting by Young and Zazeela, recorded at a Munich art gallery on 31 July 1969 at the time specified by the title, to the accompaniment of a sine-wave generator that gives out a continuous G below middle C. Zazeela's part is confined to doubling the drone, while Young's voice slides among tones that harmonize with the drone at perfect Pythagorean intervals: unison, octave, octave plus minor seventh, fourth, and major second (the progressions from the fourth below to the octave below or the second above supplying perfect fifths as well; see Ex. 8-2). Near the end, Zazeela moves briefly from the drone to the second and then resumes the drone.

Music as Spiritual Discipline

ex. 8-2 La Monte Young, 31 VII 69 10:26–10:49 pm, transcribed from “Black LP”

The second side of the record contains even less apparent variety. It is called 23 VIII 64 2:50:45–3:11 am the Volga Delta and consists of 20′15″ of uninterrupted sound produced by Young and Zazeela by drawing double bass bows along the sides of a gong. It is intended as a demonstration of harmonic complexity, requiring for this purpose the same kind of unusually close and concentrated attention to small variations as Ad Reinhardt's black paintings (a concentration best achieved, by the composer's open avowal, with the assistance of cannabis or some other consciousness-expanding drug). It may be played either at the standard RPM turntable speed or at half speed (available in the early sixties on some specially adapted phonographs used for office dictation) to bring some of the higher overtones down into the range of human audibility. A jacket note explains, “One may listen to the pieces at soft levels, but ideally the sound should fill the room if the playback equipment can do so without distorting.” The desired volume challenges not only the capabilities of the equipment but also the listener's endurance. This is obviously not music meant for casual or recreational listening or for the average (or even specialized) music audience.

Young's role in the propagation of minimalism as a secular fine-art practice, then, has been played largely behind the scenes. He has neither participated in nor benefited from its burgeoning public and commercial success but has affected its progress indirectly through the musicians with whom he has associated. Characteristically, this group crosscuts the old boundary between popular and serious music, diffusing Young's influence into a wide variety of avant-garde musics on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of Young's most regular early associates, the Welsh-born John Cale (b. 1942), who performed on amplified viola in the Theatre of Eternal Music between the end of 1963 and late 1965, went on to join the singer and songwriter Lou Reed (b. 1943) in forming the “alternative rock” band the Velvet Underground, and later collaborated with Brian Eno. Another alumnus of the Theatre, the percussionist Angus MacLise (1938–79), participated along with Cale in a short-lived predecessor to the Velvet Underground called the Primitives. Tony Conrad (b. 1940), an avant-garde filmmaker with formal training in mathematics, played amplified violin and bowed electric guitar in the Theatre. It was he who introduced Young to the mathematical principles of just intonation.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 20 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008004.xml