What is the Sound of One Tone Droning?

by Thomas Larson

Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young
 by Jeremy Grimshaw
Oxford University Press
2012

Minimalism. Art’s 50-year-old movement. A force of stasis. Of repetition. Of the barest materials. In writing. Ray Carver. Language eviscerated of ornament. The impact: disturbingly hollow. In painting. Frank Stella. Primary colors, perfect shapes. The response: purely dispassionate.

In music. There is the bell-like wistfulness of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies.” There is the repetitious ecstasy of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” And there are the sound environments of La Monte Young—the conceptual pieces (“One or more butterflies is let loose in the performance space”) and the long-tone drones (“Chronos Kristalla”).

Jeremy Grimshaw’s critical biography of Young, the sonic frontiersman of minimalism, is a well-intended yet undisciplined stab at describing this iconoclast—the cultish, self-deifying composer John Cage found irresistible. Bad-boy twins, Cage and Young abandoned the harmonic logic of Western music for a new soundscape ruled by unrepeatable happenings, composed accidents, and artful noise.

Young is different from all composers, even his fellow minimalists who radically simplify music: Philip Glass, repeating arpeggiated structures that phase-shift are repeated, added to, and cycle through an ensemble, or Morton Feldman, letting the space around slowly transformed chords resonate with their fading away.

No such narrative unfolds in Young’s compositions. In collaboration with the light sculptures of his wife, Marian Zazeela, Young shapes his pieces for ritual performance and spatial installation. He crafts sounds—raga-singing or drone-playing—into physical objects whose body we enter in space, lose track of in time, and are absorbed by in semi-conscious elsewheres.

Grimshaw calls Young’s creations archetypal—“instantiated anew with each successive presentation.” Young “saw himself initiating, by musical fiat, as it were, a new but complete tradition, springing fully formed from his own head like Minerva from Zeus’s.” It is a music “that could interface directly with the mind and spirit through psychoacoustics and psychophysiology.”

Young, born in an Idaho log cabin, spent his earliest years near an electric power station. The buzzing landscape stayed with him, becoming a model for his first major work: The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. The piece is performed by eight musicians who sit in a meadow and bow string instruments, blow saxophones, intone the notes C-F-F#-G, and assemble a long sound via frequency ratios in just intonation. The notes absorb one another and reach intense microtonal vibrancy—like sonic wind or what Young calls “dream chords.” Hearing such “sustained friction” is not unpleasant.

Young’s heyday was the sixties. One ensemble, the Theater of Eternal Music, featured John Cale, later of Velvet Underground. At these concerts, audience members, among them Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono, crawled around the magenta-lit coven of the concert space that hummed like an atonal womb.

Largely unrecorded, Young guards his work from the collective ear. (Lawsuits over authorship continue, though a few YouTube clips exist.) From their Lower East Side, Church Street loft, he and Zareela produce the occasional show. One aleatoric piece, The Well-Tuned Piano, has had performances lasting as short as five seconds and as long as fifty hours. In many respects only those in the performance space get it.

The composer Terry Riley (“In C”) famously noted that Young taught the avant-garde minimalism’s purpose: composers, Riley said, “need not press ahead to create interest.” Music doesn’t have to motor toward a dramatic end via harmonic transformation to have aesthetic or emotional value.

Grimshaw tosses knives at Young’s fleeting target, writing that the drone pieces are “like sonic claustrophobia” or “a kind of transparent and viscous glycerin volume.” In addition, there’s a dismaying exclusivity about Young that his biographer skirts. Young’s soundscapes are, as one critic put it, anchored in a “hermetically sealed aesthetic world.” As a result, his spatial drones are often redoubts of ennui: his oeuvre in sounding so totally different from other music ends up sounding totally the same.

Grimshaw struggles to define Young’s mysticism. Without adherents testifying to a common experience, the spiritual element lacks substance. Worse, Young pugnaciously defends his aural kingdom. He lectures listeners that his music will not entertain them. He loses collaborators by insisting that he owns everything he participates in. He stages concerts of such siren-like noise that once his parents (invited guests) left the venue in tears, wounded by their son’s hauteur.

Post-publication, Young launched a website where he claims: Draw a Straight Line and Follow It is rife with factual errors. He believes Grimshaw misunderstood his work and that the book should have been axed. After giving extensive interviews, Young thought he would be allowed to proofread the book. Apparently he wasn’t, and the two, subject and author, parted ways. For his part, Grimshaw disputes Young’s claims at an Oxford University Press blog. The biographer also writes, in an email, that “Young’s finds in the book have to do not with grave mistakes of historicity, but with its not being adulatory and hagiographic for his tastes.” It’s hard to see who’s right in this battle. Since it all feels tainted by hurt feelings. It’s a painful reception. For Grimshaw’s first critical work. Which, nevertheless, still reads as a fawningly sympathetic treatise.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review identified the long-tone drone in paragraph two as “Slapping Pythagoras.”  The final paragraph was expanded after Grimshaw contacted Contrary via email.

 

Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist.