La Monte Young: Towards Absolute Music

[T]he bodies created by the early Sixties avant-garde included a conscious body that imbued corporeal experience with metaphysical significance, uniting head and body, mind and gut. In fact, for some of these artists it was precisely through the experience of the material body itself that consciousness could be illuminated and expanded: the conscious body was the "gate of perception" that, it was promised, could lead to the absolute. [1]
On January 6, 1961 La Monte Young wrote virtually his entire output for that year: twenty-nine pieces each consisting solely of the instruction "Draw a straight line and follow it." This set of pieces is perhaps best understood in metaphorical terms as a prophetic expression of the composer's lifelong and uncompromising dedication to a solitary musical ambition: attaining the absolute. But Young's absolutism has origins much earlier in history than the short-lived mass artistic mysticism of the sixties; in fact, the root of his philosophy can be found at the very inception of philosophy itself, namely with Plato in the fourth century B.C. By investigating links between La Monte Young and this very pioneer of Western absolutist thought, I hope to show that what Kyle Gann once described as the "most forward-looking art New York has to offer"[2] has indeed resulted from a mode of thought ancient in essence.

The twenty-nine pieces of Young's Compositions 1961 actually recall an identical piece of his from the previous year, which itself makes up one tenth of a set called Compositions 1960. Another piece from this series, Composition 1960 #5, instructs the performer to release a butterfly in the performance space and let it fly away, while another, #15 (the numbers do not run from one to ten), merely consists of the sentence: "This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean."
      At this time, Young had already commenced a graduate degree in composition at the University of California, Berkeley, and was particularly interested in the music of John Cage. He had been significantly exposed to Cage in 1959 through attending lectures by Karlheinz Stockhausen as well as piano recitals by David Tudor during a summer course in Darmstadt, Germany. After winning a travelling scholarship in 1960, Young left Berkeley to study electronic music with Richard Maxfield in New York. Here Young was quite prolific on the concert scene, frequently performing on saxophone and violin, as well as organising and directing the first known New York loft concert series, which took place at Yoko Ono's studio on Chambers Street, and ran from December until June the following year.
      Young in New York, particularly through his Compositions 1960, significantly influenced the evolution of concept art and Fluxus. But by the time George Maciunas and Henry Flynt, among others, officialised this movement in 1964, Young -- having recently heard an hour-long realisation of his Composition 1960 #7, which instructs its performer to hold an open fifth "for a long time" -- had interests elsewhere. Young's enthusiasm for sustained tones, in fact, had only just begun to germinate, and with the foundation of his performing ensemble, the Theater of Eternal Music in 1962, whose early music bared a more than partial resemblance to the drone-based music of Classical India, he had left his earlier conceptualism for a lifelong exploration of this rich compositional resource.
      In the Theater of Eternal Music, Young developed a style of saxophone playing, partly reminiscent of his earlier Coltrane-influenced jazz but mostly indicative of his growing interest in pitch sustenance, where he would concentrate incessantly on a select few notes, "cascading up and fast as possible in five-second bursts"[3], the intention being, paradoxically, to produce the effect of a sustaining chord. In 1964, realising the inadequacy of the equal temperament system, inasmuch as it was unable to maximise the potential resonance of such ideas, Young translated this saxophone technique to just-intonation piano, and it became the basis of one of his most monumental works to date, The Well-Tuned Piano. He soon labelled the frantic bursts of harmony in this piece "clouds" due to their apparent state of physical suspension.
      The harmonic stasis in Young's later music, however, is much more explicit. His recent sound installations, for example, are typically made up of groups of justly-tuned sine-tones that are sustained without change for months or even years at a time. Although the earliest of these Young designed to accompany live improvisation, his most recent have been publicly implemented as purely electronic events.
      Equally fundamental to the installations is their visual component, created by light artist and calligrapher as well as Young's wife of thirty-seven years, Marian Zazeela. Zazeela's earliest collaboration with Young involved the creation of light-environments for the Theater of Eternal Music. These early light-works, essentially composed from still and moving calligraphic images, were the precursors of the gradually-changing magenta environments she subsequently created for pieces such as The Well-Tuned Piano, as well as those for the sine-tone installations, for which her and Young continue to assume equal collaborative status.

      Although Young does not refer to Plato or openly identify with Platonic philosophy in any of his writings or interviews, one may find a striking similarity between the principles that underlie his musical activity and those that constitute the very basis of Platonism. An examination, then, of Young's music through this philosophy may indeed lead one not only to a more accurate understanding of the mode of thought from which it has derived, but also perhaps to a better appreciation of Young's profoundly significant yet frequently unnoticed contribution to Western music.
      At the heart of Plato's philosophy is an attempt to understand true reality, that is, his metaphysics. Essential to Plato's metaphysics is his theory of the Forms, which asserts that for every "thing" we see or experience in this world (eg a tree), there exists beyond space and time a corresponding and eternally unchanging Form which imparts to that thing its particular essence (eg the Form of Tree). For Plato, proof of these Forms could partly be found in the fact that if there existed no reality beyond the multiplicity of the physical world then all human relation would be impossible due to the absence of standards of reference for application during discourse. For Plato, true reality was embodied in the Forms, and as the Forms were transcendent and only known by the intellect, sensory experience was by definition illusory. The most succinct exposition of Plato's metaphysics is his conception of the 'divided line': a complete system of organisation in which every type of entity and principle is classified according to its relative degree of reality. Plato introduces the divided line in Book VI of The Republic in his typical dialogical style:

'...suppose you have a line divided into two unequal parts, and then divide the parts again in the same ratio, to represent the visible and intelligible orders. This gives you, in terms of comparative clarity and obscurity, in the visible order one sub-section of images (D): by "images" I mean first shadows, then reflections in water and other close-grained, polished surfaces, and all that sort of thing, if you understand me.'
      'I understand.'
      'Let the other sub-section (C) stand for the objects which are the originals of the images - the animals around us, and every kind of plant and manufactured object.'
      'Very good.'
      'Would you be prepared to admit that these sections differ in that one is genuine, one not, and that the relation of image to original is the same as that of the realm of opinion to that of knowledge?'
      'I most certainly would.'
      'Then consider next how the intelligible part of the line is to be divided.'
      'In one sub-section (B) the mind uses the originals of the visible order in their turn as images, and has to base its inquiries on assumptions and proceed from them not to a first principle but to a conclusion: in the other (A) it moves from assumption to a first principle which involves no assumption, without the images used in the other sub-section, but pursuing its inquiry solely by and through forms themselves.' [4]
In other words, in the visible (sensory) realm, sub-section D represents images (shadows, reflections, and the like), while sub-section C represents the actual objects these images reflect (such as chairs, trees, and people), and in the intelligible realm, sub-section B represents Forms which can only be understood through a physical embodiment (such as numbers and geometrical figures), while sub-section A represents Forms that can be understood without a physical embodiment (justice, beauty, and so on). An object's degree of reality is indicated by its position along the line; sub-section A represents objects that are the most real, while sub-section D represents objects the least. In addition to this metaphysical classification, Plato specifies an epistemological one, where degrees of knowledge are placed in a parallel hierarchy thus: imagination (which comprehends images), perception (which comprehends actual objects), reason (which comprehends Forms in need of a physical embodiment), and understanding (which comprehends Forms not in need of a physical embodiment). So we can see that Plato's philosophy is essentially an attempt to attain and communicate true knowledge about true reality.

As Daryl H. Rice has observed, Plato, in Book I of The Republic, alludes to the necessity of a preliminary stage in the process of understanding true reality which involves the eradication of those beliefs and opinions of ours ultimately traceable to questionable authorities.[5] This idea arises in the dialogue when Polemarchus implies that he believes the definition of justice to be "to benefit one's friends and harm one's enemies"[6] and, furthermore, that his opinion is wholly validated by the fact that it is shared by Simonedes, the poet. Socrates (whom Plato used in all of his dialogues as his alter-ego) eventually convinces Polemarchus that Simonedes is no reliable authority on the subject of true justice, and therefore is not reliable as a source on which Polemarchus should base his own views. Socrates then offers: "Do you know whose I think this saying is that tells us it is right to help one's friend's and harm one's enemies? I think it must be due to Periander or Perdiccas or Xerxes or Ismenias of Thebes, or someone else of wealth and arrogance"[7] as if to suggest that Simonedes' view of justice as benefiting one's friends and harming one's enemies has likely been inherited from persons with the financial means to do so. Rice notes here that Plato recognises what today might be called "the sociology of knowledge"[8], which contends that any claim to knowledge could ultimately be traceable to a source tainted by personal social interests, and needs careful consideration before accepting. Although Polemarchus' claim to knowledge is not a direct example of the sociology of knowledge, his view is the result of an adopted convention which itself is traceable to corrupted figures of so-called authority. [9]

      This purging of questionable conventional belief that, for Plato, was so integral to the process of understanding reality, was also an essential preparation for La Monte Young during the early stages in the development of his musical aesthetic. And one convention that undoubtedly surrounded Young during his years at university was serialism, the adoption of which by the 'serious' composer, as Edward Strickland notes in his book Minimalism: Origins, was expected if not assumed:

In music...complexity had achieved the status of a professional credential; Serialism, particularly in its American academic institutionalization of received European wisdom, in practice often prized opacity for its own sake as evidence of the ingenuity and sophistication of the composer. Difficulty established one as a "classical" musician in the virtually absolute division between high and low art then prevailing. [10]
Despite a shift from the mind of the audience to that of the artist, serialism revived one vestige at least from the proceeding century's Romanticism, and that was the idea of the composer as someone transcendent and in a superior sense removed from society. Again to quote Strickland: "Composers like Milton Babbitt, who espoused total serialisation - i.e., tempo, rhythm, dynamics, and texture as well as pitch - seemed to regard inaccessibility as mandatory, if not indeed virtuous." [11]
      Perhaps as a strategy to deal with such prevalent serialism and the elitist mentality it seemed to generate, Young wrote his Trio for Strings in 1958, a serial piece consisting entirely of long sustained tones and silences, some lasting several minutes. Owing much to Webern, the Trio's texture is sparse and rarely exceeds p in dynamic level, yet unlike Webern's music, where material develops at an instantaneous rate, Young's initial tone row is exposed in no less than eleven minutes. In fact, Young himself has said of the Trio: "[it is] like late Webern in augmentation. It is as though time were telescoped: what for Webern would have taken a few minutes, for me takes 52 minutes"[12], his final aim being "[to make] the serial technique synonymous with the audible structure of the work"[13]. It is this last statement that ultimately shows Young's estrangement from the aesthetic of his musical upbringing. In fact, Young was told by Seymour Shifrin, his teacher at Berkeley at the time, that he could not be graded if he continued to compose in this vein. Yet the following comment of Young's from a recent interview with William Duckworth suggests that the rejection of musical elitism is indeed still a resolute force in his philosophy:
I very much want listeners to hear my music and I very much want to communicate with them, but I never write for a specific effect in a specific listener. I want the listener to find the level of the music that I'm writing. I think that it's important, in fact, not to write for an assumed level of listeners, because right away you begin to limit yourself to whatever level you think that is. [14]
And later, when discussing Marian Zazeela's light environment for The Well-Tuned Piano, he states:
I find that one thing I'm not particularly interested in, when I'm a performer, is to have people focused on me. I don't mind if they look at me, but in Marian's environments there's such an important, extraordinary visual focus that's real artistic work, as opposed to watching a "personality," or a cult figure, or something like that. I don't want to be a "personality," and I don't want to be a cult figure. [15]
The Trio for Strings shows us that although Young as a student was writing serial music, his objective was far removed from that of the surrounding academic trend, and that at this time he had already begun to question the established role of the 'serious' composer.

      If pitch serialism can be considered the apotheosis of equal temperament, as Sandy McCroskey believes[16], then Young's emancipation from the style was taken one step further with his rejection of equal temperament in favour of just intonation in the early sixties. In fact, one development in the history of Western music perhaps most justifiable in terms of the sociology of knowledge is indeed the adoption of the equal temperament system; quoting Schoenberg, McCroskey writes:

The tempered system ingenious simplification, but it was a makeshift. No one, having wings, would rather fly an aeroplane....We ought never to forget that the tempered system was only a truce, which should not last any longer than the imperfection of our instruments requires. We ought not to forget that we must still account for all the tones actually sounding, again and again, and shall have no rest from them nor from long as we have not solved the problems that are contained in tones. [17]
Young traces his interest in just intonation to such works involving sustained tones as the 1958 Trio for Strings as well as For Brass composed the previous year. Young felt very inspired to pursue his interest in sustained tones believing "that the rhythms, as we find them in normal music, tended to lead one back to a more earthy and earthly kind of existence and behaviour, whereas the long sustained tones tended to lead me - and I felt it would other people - toward a more spiritual path. They were a higher form of vibration." [18]
      From these pieces came a more specific interest in the drone, which was perhaps first exposed in the radical Composition 1960 #7, but then more decisively explored with The Theater of Eternal Music. At its inception, this group consisted of Young playing sopranino saxophone, Angus MacLise playing hand drums, and Simone Forti singing drone. Later recruits included Zazeela (light-environments and vocal drone), Tony Conrad (violin), and John Cale (viola). The Theater of Eternal Music combined two of Young's interests at the time: sustained tones and improvisation. In fact, with this group, Young developed a style of playing blues where each chord of the progression (I-IV-V-I) was sustained indefinitely as a drone over which to improvise; often these pieces consisted of nothing more than a series rich drones underneath bursts of "cloud-like" saxophone playing.
      Young's work with drones during this period made his adoption of just intonation inevitable, as listening to long tones provides "a situation where you can begin to concentrate on ... [the harmonics] and isolate them"[19]. In fact, when Young learned in 1963 "that with the integers you could analyze all of the ratios that were in the harmonic series.... suddenly I [Young] just took off.... I really felt that it was the most incredible revelation I had had in music. It became the key to my understanding of the relationship between sound and feeling, and to my theories about universal structure, and our perception of universal structure"[20]. So we can see that Young at this time, recognising equal temperament's limited application, had begun to question the relevance of equal temperament to music's ultimate end, and having challenged this convention he is further consolidated as a model for the Platonic modus operandi for understanding true reality.

      Having established the germination of La Monte Young's musical philosophy from this essentially Platonic procedure, let us now examine Young's music through Plato's philosophy itself.