February 16, 1968: For several years I had been hearing crazy stories about La Monte Young. About how he turned a butterfly loose in a Berkeley auditorium and said it was a piece. About his composition in which the performer attempts to make a grand piano (sic) eat a bale of hay and drink water out of a bucket. About how he sometimes played one note for hours on end. About how few people had ever managed to sit through one of his concerts. Even my most liberal friends seemed to feel that he was completely beyond the pale. All this hearsay was more than enough to pique my curiosity, and I had been looking forward to his concert at the Barbizon Plaza, to see for myself about his Theater of Eternal Music.
The music that night was the loudest I had ever heard. It consisted largely of electronic drones, which shifted slightly once in a while, while Young hummed along. I found the sounds harsh and offensive, and I probably wouldn’t have stayed very long except that I happened to notice a change in the color of Marian Zazeela’s large projection in the background. Like the sun going down, or a cloud passing by, I never could see it change, but every time I looked back, the intricate filigree designs had taken a slightly different form, and the color seemed different. I was also fascinated by Young’s claim that the music they were playing, ‘The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys,’ was an endless piece which had already been going on for four years. That was a nice idea, but it did not relieve my assaulted eardrums.
Fall 1972: I had pretty much decided that Young’s music was not the kind of thing I wanted to sit down and listen to very often, but I had grown increasingly interested in his ideas, and particularly in some of his post-Dada theater pieces. Many of these things are contained in his ‘Anthology,’ but I couldn’t find copies in any book stores, so I arranged to stop by his Center Street loft one morning to pick one up.
As I entered the door, a strong scent of incense hit my face and I was asked to take off my shoes. Young and Zazeela’s Indian singing teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, were there, as well as Don Cherry, the trumpet player who used to work with Ornette Coleman. I never was able to figure out if Cherry was also studying Indian singing, or if he was just a friend or what, because Young explained that we had to sit silently for a moment. It seemed that, in the adjacent room, Pandit Pran Nath was lighting more incense and doing some sort of morning ritual which required that we all sit silently for a few minutes.
Later, conversation was again permitted, and I asked Young a little about himself. He is a relatively small man, now 38 years old, with a gentle manner and an enormous beard. He talked about his jazz background, about his former colleague Terry Riley, about how they used to play their saxophones together a lot in California, and how they had both become involved in static music 10 or 15 years ago.
Later the conversation drifted into more practical matters, and he told me a few stories about his dealings with recording companies, concert managers, and so on. Some curious contradictions emerged here. On the one hand he is more oriented toward aesthetic and spiritual values than toward money or status, and he is unwilling to make the slightest concessions in his methods just for the sake of landing a commission or a record release. But on the other hand, he is about the only composer I know who has been successful in selling expensive private editions of tape recordings or records of his music. And judging from the armload of publicity materials which he gave me on my way out the door, he is a much better press agent for himself than most composers are.
On returning home I shifted through some of the things he had given me, and was surprised to see how much public attention his work had received. There were long complimentary articles by John Perreault, Jill Johnston, and Ron Rosenbaum from the Voice, many items from European publications and domestic art magazines, a clipping from the New York Times (under ‘Art Notes’ ), and even a couple of columns from Newsweek. There was also a long impressive list of grants and fellowships.
January 27, 1973: I went to a small private concert Young was giving in his loft late in the afternoon. Young and Zazeela were both singing, assisted by a trumpet player and a trombone player, as well as electronic drone tones. The sound was moderate in volume and rather pleasant to listen to, without any of the raucousness which had bothered me a few years earlier at the Barbizon Plaza.
Despite the pleasant atmosphere, or perhaps because of it, I dozed off after a while. I don’t know how long I was asleep, but when I woke up everything was very different, and I became particularly attracted to a projection on the rear wall. It was changing very slowly, reminding me of the Zazeela projection I had seen at the Barbizon Plaza, but this one was more intricate and seemed to be working automatically. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed the projection before, and suddenly I figured it out. It was still daylight when the concert began, and the projection had gradually come into view as the sun went down. Nice idea.
A couple of hours into the concert, Young’s singing was really beginning to take off, and I could tell that those years of studying Indian singing had given him a facility which he didn’t have before. Not that he was singing in an Indian style. But he had that kind of flexibility and control. I became particularly interested in an odd pulsating effect which came from down in his throat somewhere, and which became more and more prominent as the concert droned on. By now he was using the microphone most of the time, but he used it largely just to add an edge to his voice. The music never became too loud.
Most of the time the performers just stuck to the root and fifth, exactly in tune with the electronic drone. But once a ninth came in, making a drastic change. Adding one note in this kind of music is like bringing in a whole chorus in a 19th-century symphony. Later there was another big change, when the trombone began playing a pedal tone, a whole step below the drone note. It was a strange modulation, and the music sounded very dolorous for a while.
I liked this music much better than the concert at the Barbizon Plaza, not only because it was softer and more pleasant, but also because there was an element of technical virtuosity. But I was rather surprised at the way the music built up, increasing in energy the way a raga improvisation does. It seemed to me that the Theater of Eternal Music should want to keep on one plane. The study of Indian music must be having some effect on Young’s aesthetics, as well as on his vocal technique.
April 18, 1973: A friend of mine was telling me about his experience at a concert given by Pandit Pran Nath, along with Young and Zazeela, and he raised an interesting point. He said he was offended by all the incense and didn’t like to be forced to take off his shoes. He also resented the way all the camp followers, mostly dressed in Indian fashion, huddled around the performers, leaving him and the rest of the audience out in the cold. He felt that musicians should be content just to play music, without trying to foist their religion onto the audience at the same time.
The business about the shoes and the incense and the camp followers had never bothered me particularly, and I felt my friend’s comment was a little unfair. I said I didn’t think they were really trying to convert anyone to anything and that the trappings were necessary in order to create an Oriental atmosphere, and that this kind of mood really was appropriate to the music.
April 21, 1973: After thinking about it some more, I decided I was wrong. Young probably really does want to convert people. It’s still basically the music that he wants to convert us to, but his musical ideas have become so mixed up with his religious feelings that he has trouble separating them.
June 25, 1973: In the process of going over old notes and trying to pull my ‘La Monte Young Diary’ together, I realized that the most important point was missing, namely, the extraordinary amount of influence which Young has had on other composers. There is a direct line of influence from Young, to Riley, to Steve Reich and Phil Glass, and from there to Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company and probably many other composers and groups. Tony Conrad, Rhys Chatham, and Jon Gibson are a few other people who have had direct contact with Young and Zazeela, and whose music seems to show their influence. It would probably not be exaggerating to suggest that the whole movement of static music, and the current widespread concern with non-Western styles, can be attributed in large part to Young.
Of course, the most original and influential artists are not always the best ones. And personally I find that many of the works Young has inspired in other composers are richer and more rewarding than his own more obsessive music. Yet there is a strength, a purity, and an authenticity in Young’s work which one does not find in the others. He is a beautiful man, a sincere composer, and unquestionably one of the true originals of our time.