La Monte Young: Towards Absolute Music (page 2)

We start by considering not only the distinguished status music assumed in Plato's metaphysics, but also, and perhaps more significantly, the type of music so highly regarded by the philosopher, for it is important not to suppose that Plato's idea of 'music' is the same as modern popular opinion. In fact, Jamie James asserts in his book The Music of the Spheres that "[t]he history of the story of how musical ideals and musical practice have drifted ever further apart"[21], and as we know, for Plato, truth existed in ideals, not localised physical examples. James contends that aestheticism in art is actually a recent notion and its synonymity with music from the nineteenth century onwards embodies a drastic deviation from music's true purpose, as defined by the fact of its very existence:

Most serious thinkers before the nineteenth century considered the sensual delight of musical performances to have the same relationship to the ideal nature of music that sex had to love in Christianity: the former were transitory, without higher purpose, and ultimately debilitating to the soul; the latter were pure and enlightening, providing a connection between our earthly existence and eternal reality. [22]
Indeed, when Plato referred to true music, he referred to a division of mathematics, and in doing so (recalling the divided line), revealed it to be a discipline about which we can attain true knowledge. Establishing Pythagoras as Plato's logical antecedent, James quotes an observation in Aristotle's Metaphysics on Pythagorean thought, which may help to clarify Plato's musical ideals further:
The Pythagoreans, as they were called, devoted themselves to mathematics; they were the first to advance this study, and having been brought up in it they thought its principles were the principles of all things. Since of these principles numbers are by nature the first, and in numbers they seemed to see many resemblances to the things that exist and come into being; ... since, again, they say that the attributes and ratios of the musical scales were expressible in numbers; since, then, all other things seemed in their whole nature to be modelled after numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number. [23]
To illustrate the enormous historical expanse of this doctrine of music as audible number, it is perhaps worth mentioning James' referral to De Musica, a treatise by the fifth century Christian philosopher Augustine, in which the concept "Boethius would later call the quadrivium, the "fourfold path" - the division of mathematics into arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy - was codified and took the form that would dominate the curriculum in Europe for fourteen centuries."[24] Interestingly, James notes, this "concept was not original with Augustine; the Pythagorean Archytas had first put the idea forward in the fourth century B.C., and Plato himself took it up in his formulation of the philosopher's education in the Republic." [25]
      The reason mathematics assumed such an important role in Plato's philosophy is due to the fact that, for Plato, this was not ultimately a science of visible objects but rather one of intellectual Forms. A true geometric triangle, for example, cannot literally be seen with the eyes, but only the intellect. As Rice illustrates:
A triangle consists by definition of three intersecting lines. But what is a line? By definition, it is a series of points strung together. But what is a point? Here we reach a rock-bottom definition. Euclidean geometry defines a point as something absolutely without extension in any direction; it has neither width, breadth, nor depth.
      Have you ever seen such a creature with your eyes? It is impossible in principle. We can see something only if it has some spread to it, however slight... [26]
Thus, although we may know essentially what a triangle looks like, we recognise it only by virtue of what it represents, which, by definition, is not visible; its essence, in other words, is intellectual. Just as Plato proclaimed geometry to be a science of the intellect due to its basis on "unseeable" objects, music was also proclaimed as such due to its basis on number, a concept, Rice further observes, also finally intellectual:
We first learn to count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide by playing around with things like marbles and coins, but we soon advance to the study of numbers themselves. We begin to study the properties of, not just four marbles or four coins or four humans, but "fourness" itself. We learn, for example, that the fact that four divides evenly by two is quite independent of whether we are talking about four marbles or four coins or four humans....We could never prove absolutely that four always divides evenly by two by looking at particular groups of four things, because we could never be sure we had surveyed all groups of four actual things. We can achieve absolute proof only by examining the idea of fourness, something we cannot see or touch. [27]
Thus, music, with geometry, was placed in the intellectual realm of the divided line, and defined as a science concerned with true reality.

      This kind of association between sound and number is certainly not strange to Young, in fact, his elaborate sound installation titles such as The Romantic Symmetry (over a 60 cycle base) in Prime Time from 144 to 112 with 119 seems to indicate a total equation of the two - an observation indeed verified by the comprehensive mathematical analysis of this and other compositions by Young in Kyle Gann's article The Outer Edge of Consonance. Gann asserts that Young's equation of music with mathematics is most explicitly elucidated by his use of just intonation, beginning with Pre-Tortoise Dream Music and continuing with increasing complexity to the recent sine-tone installations, in which electronically-generated sine-tones, tuned to whole-number frequency ratios, are sustained for great lengths of time without change. [28]
      Pre-Tortoise Dream Music (1964), like most of Young's pieces written for the Theater of Eternal Music (including The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, of which Pre-Tortoise Dream Music is the precursor), involved live improvisation around a group of pitches and a set of pre-determined rules governing which of these pitches could and which could not be combined. In many cases, the rules emerged as a means of preventing the fifth harmonic (roughly A over an F fundamental) from occurring as a secondary sum or difference tone. Young's aversion to the fifth harmonic recalls his equal temperament days when he would consciously avoid the use of thirds and sixths on intuitive grounds, later discovering them to be the most out-of-tune intervals in equal temperament. The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (from The Four Dreams of China), for example, which, although initially composed in equal temperament, was later revised to be realised in just tuning, involves four pitches defined by the harmonics: 12, 16, 17, and 18. Gann informs us that, in order to avoid open exposure of the 5th harmonic, which would result as a difference tone from 12 and 17 sounding together, Young forbids the 12:17 tritone from being played without prior "mediation" from the 16th harmonic. [29]
      Becoming increasingly interested in the extended time structures of these rule-based improvisations, Young began to conceive of "a Dream House in which musicians and electronic sound installations would play around the clock so that he could study the effect (if any) of long-term exposure to pure intervals on the human psyche and nervous system."[30] Finally realising this conception in 1967, Young created a set of sound environments using chords from The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, which were produced with precisely tuned sine-wave oscillators, and sustained continuously for up to months at a time in Young and Zazeela's Church Street loft. With these pieces, Young's sound environment period, which has continued to this very day, begun in earnest. In fact, Young dedicated the next few years almost exclusively to the creation of what he called Drift Studies - installations involving the Dream House conditions exactly - called such due to the imprecision of vintage oscillators that caused the tones to fluctuate and 'drift' slightly over time. This imprecision was overcome in 1984 with the acquisition of a synthesiser custom-built by David Rayna to realise just intervals with unprecedented accuracy. Not only did Young's Drift Studies no longer 'drift', but also, due to the exactitude of the instrument, "Young suddenly found harmonics from the 72nd to the 2304th and higher at his disposal."[31] Young's output from this time onwards can be seen as a comprehension and implementation of increasingly intricate harmonic relationships in the form of some thirty-five or more sine-tone installations.
      As Gann observes, a particular feature of Young's installations is his use of prime-numbered harmonics[32], regarded with particular fondness by the composer as each constitutes a wholly unique interval with its related fundamental octave. Many of these harmonics Young and his associate mathematician Christer Hennix have categorised and named; "Twin Primes," for example, are pairs of prime harmonics separated by two (eg 29 and 31), that when sounded together produce the 2nd harmonic as a difference tone, while "Young Primes" are found directly beneath any transposed octave of a lower prime (eg 13, which is one less than 14, an octave of 7). [33]
      Another factor that has influenced the construction of Young's sine-tone installations is his interest in the progressively dense region between the 7th and 9th harmonic. Gann writes:

To grasp the artistic intention of these recent works, one should imagine the harmonic series as a spiral, traversing the same continuum of pitches (or, technically, pitch classes) over and over again but rising an octave with each cycle....Circling the fourth octave, one finds harmonics 7 and 9.... In the next octave, this same pitch area is bounded by harmonics 14 and 18, and contains the 15th, 16th, and 17th harmonics. In the next octave it is defined by harmonics 28 through 36, and so on. [34] [see figure one]
Thus, as one transposes this region higher in the series, it is gradually filled with more and more harmonics with decreasing distances of separation. Young's fascination with this phenomenon cannot be overstated, as it is the very basis of all of his installation works to date.
      We now look specifically to The Romantic Symmetry (over a 60 cycle base) in Prime Time from 144 to 112 with 119 for a more detailed account of Young's apparent equation of music with mathematics. The Romantic Symmetry... is built around an octave transposition of the aforementioned 7:9 harmonic region, expressed as 112:144. This region is divided into two 9:8 major seconds producing the intervals 112:126 and 128:144, a division Young has favoured since The Well-Tuned Piano. These four pitches are doubled at alternately low and high octaves (hence Young's use of the word "Romantic" in his title, recalling the prominence of octave doubling in Romantic orchestration) to produce at the lower end of the spectrum 14 and 16 (from 112 and 128 respectively), and at the higher end, 1008 and 1152 (similarly from 126 and 144). In addition to these eight core pitches, one finds Young's ever-present primes, which, according to Gann, were all conceived in the same octave before being transposed to create the "Symmetry."[35] Thus, to the primes from the 112:144 region (113, 127, 131, 137, and 139), Young has added octave transpositions of those primes from the lower 56:72 region (59, 61, 67, and 71, becoming 118, 122, 134, and 142 after transposition), along with double octave transpositions of those primes from the 28:36 region (29 and 31, becoming 116 and 124 after transposition), and finally a triple octave transposition of 17, the one prime from the 14:18 region (becoming 136 after transposition), ending up with a list of primes and prime-transpositions in the 112:144 region (see figure two). In recognition of 127 as the work's symmetrical centre, due to its properties in geometrically dividing the 112:126:128:144 base, Young has also added 119 not only to compensate for the unequal number of harmonics on each side, but also to "balance" 136, the only prime-derived harmonic from the 14:18 region. As one can see in figure three, the symmetry is finally created by a transposition of the even-numbered harmonics beneath 127 to their lowest possible octave (by reduction to their prime), and a reciprocal transposition of those corresponding harmonics above 127. Figure four shows that apart from the "60 cycle base" (i.e. the 8th harmonic, reinforcing the fundamental), this chord is indeed wholly symmetrical.
      Perhaps the most controversial feature of these 22 sine tones is their state of unchanging sustenance, which, in Young's first public implementation of the environment in 1989, continued without rest for several months. Yet, as Strickland observes, "Young's Eternal Music the concept of the eternal music of the spheres, as old as Pythagoras in the West", and thus, is no more radical than what logic ought to expect from any composer of Occidental music.[36] There are certainly uncanny parallels, Strickland continues, between such installations as The Romantic Symmetry and Plato's legendary account of the music of the spheres in The Republic's final offering, the myth of Er[37], in which Er visits the afterlife and encounters the celestial spheres directly:
...there were in all eight whorls, fitting one inside the other, with their rims showing as circles from above..., and of them the eighth moved the fastest, and the next fastest the seventh, sixth and fifth, which moved at the same speed; third in speed was the fourth...; fourth was the third, and fifth the second. And the whole spindle revolved with a single motion, but within the movement of the whole the seven inner circles revolved slowly in the opposite direction to that of the whole....And on the top of each circle stands a siren, which is carried around with it and utters a note of constant pitch, and the eight notes together make up a single scale. [38]
The Romantic Symmetry undeniably elucidates the equation in Young's mind of music with mathematics, and through Plato's metaphysics, which regards intellectual concepts, such as number, more real than those known only through the senses, Young's musical practice is deemed indicative of absolute truth.

In light of the myth of Er, one is not initially surprised by Young's confession, "My own feeling has always been that if people just aren't carried away to Heaven I'm failing"[39], however, after closer examination, given the premise of Plato's eternal ideals, this statement may seem strangely out of place in its very acceptance of physical human response. But one cannot deny the inherently sensory element of music, and if we are to maintain a valid thesis, it is important we clarify the place of this element in Plato's metaphysics. Once again, our argument begins with Plato's antecedent, Pythagoras:

Pythagoras distinguished three sorts of music in his philosophy: to use the nomenclature of a later era, musica instrumentalis, the ordinary music made by plucking the lyre, blowing the pipe, and so forth; musica humana, the continuous but unheard music made by each human organism...; and musica mundana, the music made by the cosmos itself, which would come to be known as the music of the spheres. [40]
James then goes on to say:
There was no more of a difference between these three classes of music than there was among a triangle traced in the palm of the hand, a triangle formed by the walls of a building, and a triangle described by three stars: "triangleness" is an eternal idea, and all expressions of it are essentially the same. [41]
Thus, the essence of music, being equally eternal as "triangleness", was expressed by each of the three music-types alike. Therefore any form of sickness could be cured with the aid of music:
Since musica instrumentalis and musica humana were of the same essence, manifestations of the same truth, then by plucking the string of a lyre one could arouse sympathetic vibrations in the human instrument. [42]
This theme of human sympathy to instrumental music is recapitulated in The Republic (Book III), where Socrates discusses which modes might be suitable and which might not be suitable in the ideal education of leaders. Here Socrates systematically rejects all those modes that promote detestable qualities such as "drunkenness, softness, [and] ...idleness", until he is finally left with only the Dorian and the Phrygian, "which will best represent sound courage and moderation in good fortune or in bad."[43] As James observes, however, Plato's much more intricate expression of the Pythagorean theme is found in the Timaeus[44], in which Plato ascribes the origin of the universe as well as that of the human psyche to a source he calls the World Soul. Importantly, Plato's description of the World Soul, apart from being painstakingly detailed, is explicitly musical, providing interval ratios and finally a complete scale that constitutes the proportions of its make-up. Although, as Desmond Lee notes, Plato's "primary motive is not musical"[45], and indeed, as James holds, "[i]t would never have occurred to Plato or any of his students to play a few bars of the World Soul on the lyre"[46], the Timaeus offers at least one insight to our argument, and that is, for Plato, there existed no distinction between the design of the human and that of the cosmos; having derived from exactly the same cause, the two were completely identified, each equally expressible in number and proportion. Thus, musical harmony, also inextricably numerical, "has motions akin to the orbits in our soul,"[47] and will "give a thrill to fools and true enjoyment to the wise by reproducing divine melody in mortal movements."[48]

      Indeed, Young's identification with this ideal is verified in Sandy McCroskey's Dream Analysis, in which he discusses Young's adoption of just intonation as having "led him to the intuition that the profound human response to musical intervals is a sort of sympathetic vibration to the manifestation of primordial structural laws of the cosmos."[49] But perhaps more conclusive evidence of this identification is Young's own writings on psychoacoustics, through which he has made a substantial attempt to rationalise this human response to the phenomenon of sound (and more specifically, harmony). The following quote is from Young's notes to his 1981 recording of The Well-Tuned Piano, and is typical of his endeavour to link musica humana with musica instrumentalis:

One of the interesting characteristics of the system of rational numbers is that it is potentially a system for categorizing the relationship between sound and the kind of sensation or "feeling" one has each time a performance in the same musical mode is heard. By "feeling" I do not mean states such as happy, sad, amorous or angry, but rather, the set of periodic patterns that is established in our nervous system and in our system for analysis, which is the representation of the air pressure patterns that couple with the ear, that is, those patterns of vibrations which are the same or similar each time we hear a work in the same mode. [50]
Bringing musica mundana into the picture, Young later states:
...we might...think of periodic composite waveforms, and the justly tuned scales, chords and intervals from which they are derived, as classifiable principle vibrational structures which can be experienced in real time primarily through the medium of sound. As such, periodic sound waveforms may be singularly perceptible models of the fundamental principles of vibrational structure. The sensations of ineffable truths that we sometimes experience when we hear progressions of chords and intervals tuned in just intonation, may indeed be our underlying, subliminal recognition of the broader, more universal implications of these fundamental principles. [51]
We should not, then, view Young's inquiry into the sensory nature of music as an anomaly within an otherwise purely intellectual framework, but rather an endeavour to assimilate this intriguing human sympathy to universal structure as doctrined in the Platonic-Pythagorean legacy.

As well as making evident his identification with this legacy, Young's writings on psychoacoustics elucidate an underlying aspiration of his to recognise unity as a fundamental presence we are all able to experience. He informs us that rational intervals, due to our brain's inherent recognition of their consistent periodic repetition (as opposed to its bewilderment with the "infinitely non-repeating... waveforms"[52] of tempered intervals), indeed may have the ability to produce in the listener exactly the same set of feelings each time they are heard:

Since intervals from the system of rational numbers are the only intervals that can be repeatedly tuned exactly, they are the only intervals that have the potential to sound exactly the same on repeated hearing. It is for this reason that the feelings produced by rational intervals within a gradually expanding threshold of complexity have the potential to be recognized and remembered... [53]
Interestingly, the theme of unity can also be found underlying Plato's philosophy. Not only, in fact, did Plato propound the existence of pure Forms as an answer to the seemingly endless flux and multiplicity of the natural world, but also, in order to account for multiplicity among the Forms themselves, he espoused a further idea he called the Form of the Good. This ultimate Form, which occurs in both The Republic and the Timaeus (where it is expressed as the "Demiurge", who creates the World Soul and thus the entire universe in his image), is the cause of the existence and the intelligibility of all other Forms. In its most distinct exposition, in Book VI of The Republic, Plato explains the Form of the Good by means of an analogy to the sun. As Ed. L. Miller summarises:
The two main points of the analogy are: First, just as the sun lights up the world and makes physical objects visible to our eyes so does the Good illuminate intelligible objects (Forms) and render them knowable by the mind. Second, and closely related, just as the sun actually causes things in the world to exist and sustains them - without the light of the sun, the world would wither away - so does the Good cause in the Forms their very being and truth. [54]
Thus, Plato's belief in ultimate metaphysical oneness is undeniable:
In Plato's theory of reality, the Good is, then, the ultimate principle of reality and truth. Any degree or instance of being, truth, unity, harmony, beauty, or intelligibility found anywhere, either in the world of Becoming or in the world of Being, is traceable finally to the Good. [55]
Young's yearning for oneness is evident as early as the 1960s. Each of his Compositions 1960, in fact, are reducible to a single "haiku-like essence"[56], and together with Compositions 1961 they constitute what Young called the "Theater of the Singular Event". As McCroskey points out, the importance of this idea in Young's musical evolution cannot be overemphasised, as "it set the stage for what might be called the Event of the Singular Tone"[57], that is, his henceforth lifelong exploration of the solitary drone and its constituent harmonics. Gann sums up Young's fundamental oneness by comparing him with John Cage:
If La Monte Young had not existed, it would be necessary to invent him, if only as a counterfoil to John Cage. In Cage's aesthetic, individual musical works are metaphorically excerpts from the cacophonous roar of all sounds heard or imagined. Young's archetype, equally fundamental, attempts to make audible the opposite pole: the basic tone from which all possible sounds emanate as overtones. [58]
Thus, just as the Good stands at the forefront of Plato's philosophy, informing and defining its every aspect, so too does Young's drone represent the very essence of his entire musical practice.

      I wish to conclude with the following quote, which was related by Young to Ian Nagoski during an interview for the magazine Halana. It shows finally that the composer's eternal aspirations, far from being pursued at the expense of communication, coexist happily, in fact, with a fundamental communicative ideal:

Generally speaking, what I am interested in in music is becoming a receptor for a higher state of information that can flow through me and then become manifest physically as music, which then can be experienced by people who listen to it...then, they, too, can have that experience of the truths that the physical manifestation presents to them. [59]
Although what Young calls a "higher state of information" I may term "absolute music", the most important point here is that the principle he describes, this object of communication - whatever its title - he does not claim to have created. Young's music, if it is to be properly understood, should rather be viewed as an attempt to identify and communicate that which is available to all but perhaps not commonly recognised in an age where music's value seems equated with its sensory impact. For just as "[t]he ideal overtone series exists as it were on a...rarefied, astral plane, a divine emanation that in nature is reflected and refracted with varying degrees of clarity, proportionate to the purity of the medium"[60], pure music itself, even without La Monte Young, Plato, or Pythagoras, is absolute. It is not played on violins, guitars, or saxophones. It is not dependent on stylistic conformity or auditory impact. In fact, as hearing is inextricably human, it is not even heard. Its existence, like that of the harmonic series McCroskey describes above, is known in nature only through guises of imperfect reflection. And if these guises do in fact manifest in "varying degrees of clarity, proportionate to the purity of the medium", then the music of La Monte Young must constitute one of the purest of these manifestations ever heard.