October 1974: I run into a friend who has just returned from Rome, where La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, and a number of Indian musicians have been performing in the East-West Music Festival at Galleria L’Attica, and he tells me an interesting anecdote. It seems that Young actually sold a piano as an art object. He signed it, collected a lot of money, the whole bit, just the way sculptors do. This strikes me as quite a coup for a musician, though perhaps it should not be too surprising in the case of Young, most of whose supporters are part of the art world, where such things happen every day. The piano was tuned according to Young’s special system, which keeps the intervals in simple ratios rather than in the equal temperament system standard in the West. Part of the deal is that the composer is supposed to maintain this art object periodically, so that it stays tuned to his special scale.
May 4, 1975: I visit a gallery space at 141 Wooster Street, where Young has been presenting his ‘Well-Tuned Piano’ to New York audiences. Perhaps 60 to 80 listeners are there tonight, and Young sits at the piano in dim light, wearing his usual white toga, with his hair tied back. He starts out by moving his fingers slowly on perhaps half a dozen notes, one of which particularly collides with my Western pitch sense. As I listen to the strange chord and gradually become accustomed to the ‘out of tune’ note, sometimes it begins to sound right and the others turn sour. Tuning systems like this can be quite disorienting.
Every so often Young changes the chords, revealing a new set of intervals. The choice of new chords seem intentional, and these changes keep the music from becoming tedious, but it is still not very interesting. He’s obviously improvising, and when he goes off into something with rhythmic character he soon loses the momentum. He hardly deals at all with the melodic possibilities of his strangely tuned chords. In short, he doesn’t seem to be getting much mileage out of his system, and after about an hour and a half I become restless and I want to leave. I’m told that the performance is supposed to go on for three hours, and I feel a little irresponsible for not staying, but there are some other things I ought to be doing, and I figure I’m not likely to get much out of the music if I force myself to stay, especially since I haven’t been able to really concentrate on anything he’s played for the last 20 or 30 minutes. As I am leaving, I hear Young shift back to the chord that opened the performance. ‘This is where I came in,’ I think to myself, as I put my shoes on and escape quietly.
May 7, 1975: The owner of Young’s gallery telephones me on behalf of the composer. They were disturbed that I didn’t stay for the whole performance and felt I wasn’t giving the piece a chance, since the formal structure of the three hour piece is so important, and since the music is so profound, and since Young is such an important innovator, and since etc. etc. Maybe. Still, it does seem that any real masterpiece ought to be able to make a fairly strong impression on its first 90 minutes. Maybe I just don’t have the patience to deal with Young anymore. Maybe I ought to stop trying to write about him.
May 11, 1975: I run into a friend who has just arrived in New York. He’s planning to go hear ‘The Well-Tuned Piano’ and asks me about it.
‘I don’t care for it much,’ I explain. ‘He’s got this elaborate tuning system, which is kind of interesting, but he doesn’t do much with it. No good melodies. No rhythmic ideas. No tonal or harmonic activity to speak of. He just wiggles his fingers on the keys, changing chords every 10 minutes or so. It’s really a work in progress, I think.’ ‘Hasn’t he been working on it an awful long time to consider it still a work in progress?’ my friend responds. ‘He’s been using that tuning system ever since 1964, you know.’ The remark surprises me because I didn’t know, or else have forgotten, that Young devised his tuning system that long ago. In thinking about it later, however, the piece still strikes me as a work in progress. Young always has worked slowly, but he has great determination with every project he undertakes, and he usually comes up with something in the end. He played saxophone for many years before he developed his fast modal improvising style, which was quite effective and ahead of most of what was going on in jazz circles in the early ’60s. It took him many years to develop his static droning music into the more sophisticated electronic installations and live performances that he presented at his Theater of Eternal Music. And after about five years of intensive study of the kirana style, under Pandit Pran Nath, he still doesn’t perform any Indian music in public. Young is extremely patient, and perhaps we too should be more patient as we wait for his ‘Well-Tuned Piano’ to come together.
In a way, working with an invented tuning system is even more difficult than the other challenges Young has committed himself to at various times. It can take a long time to adapt our ears to intervals we aren’t accustomed to and understand how they can work together. I’m sure Young has at least an intellectual understanding of every interval he uses, but it isn’t so easy to figure out how tonal centers are going to function on some bizarre new scale, and to work out a rich and meaningful approach to melody and harmony when dealing with a pitch world that has no precedents. I suppose it’s possible that to Young’s ears the ‘Well-Tuned Piano’ is already functioning in a highly developed musical system of some kind. But the real problem won’t be solved until he figures out a way to present the music so that we can hear it too. So far as I can see, it’s still a work in progress.
September 19, 1978: Young has been keeping a very low profile, at least around New York, and I haven’t heard any of his music for a very long time. Now he is presenting the ‘Well-Tuned Piano’ again, and while I still have bad memories of hearing it three years ago, I decide I should go over to Young’s 6:00 performance at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery on West Broadway and find out how the piece has developed. When I arrive the spacious room is dark, except for the theatrical lights focused on Marian Zazeela’s paper rings, which undulate very slowly in the air and cast mysterious colored shadows onto the white walls. Thirty or 40 listeners are gathered, most of them sitting or lying on large Persian rugs, when Young comes out in his accustomed toga and begins playing the grand piano at one corner of the room. It’s supposed to be a first-class, custom-made Bösendorfer Imperial, but for the first few minutes it doesn’t even sound like a piano. He plays softly, and the instrument sounds so odd and tinny that I begin to wonder whether the microphones over the instrument are connected to some sort of weird amplification system. After 10 minutes or so, however, the sound doesn’t seem so strange, and I figure that my ears just weren’t accustomed to the odd tuning. Gradually Young settles into a limited set of pitches, and I begin to tune in on his frequencies. I know enough about tuning systems to tell the difference between, say, a Western major third and and acoustically perfect 5:4, and to appreciate the special serenity that seems to result when intervals are tuned in simple ratios, and I begin to enjoy some of the harmonies Young is finding. But the room is dark and stuffy, and I soon fall asleep on one of the posh Persian rugs. When I wake up it is approaching 8:00, and I decide to take in another performance a few blocks away rather than trying to cope with the hours that still remain in this one.
September 21, 1978: I realize that I didn’t really give Young’s music a chance the other night, but I also realize that it is unrealistic to expect myself to stay with him all the way from 6:00 until after 10, which is how Young’s current solo performances have been running. So I brace myself with dinner and a couple of cups of coffee and go to the gallery around 8:00. This time I find it quite easy to adapt to the tuning system, and I appreciate the sound of the instrument more than before. A couple of times I think I am hearing a harp, but most of the time the instrument sounds like a good piano, though softer and gentler than most good pianos. The music itself is also attractive.
The performance is clearly an improvisation, but it’s not much like the one-chord jazz Young used to improvise on saxophone or like the ragas he currently improvises with his voice. The general procedure, at least on this night, is to play some simple two-note chords for a while, let them settle into something, move into a longer section, eventually relax back into another sparse interlude, and then take off somewhere else. The long sections tend to be mostly tremolos Sometimes he sticks with just four or five notes for a long time, keeping the pedal down and letting the piano build up resonance. It’s similar to the kind of tremolo music Charlemagne Palestine frequently plays on his Bösendorfer, but Palestine is much more physical and drives the instrument into producing high-frequency fuzz and whistling. Young just keeps moving his fingers around the middle of the keyboard until an odd sort of humming begins to ooze in around the notes.
There is nothing very fast or virtuosic about Young’s technique, but he plays well, and I can begin to appreciate his unique tuning system, not to mention the energy it takes to present a solo concert of this length. Some of the longer sections are particularly effective too. My favorite is a raga-influenced episode that reminds me a bit of the kind of textures Terry Riley gets out of his electronic organ. Here Young simply plays a repeated arpeggio in the left hand and overlays a smooth melodic line with the right. If it weren’t for a weird tuning of the third, a wrong note in the bass, and an unexpected modulation in the middle of the whole thing, the section might pass for a raga improvisation in the minor mode. But unlike raga improvisers, Young never falls into a very clear beat. In fact, I don’t hear anything all evening that I can really tap my foot to. Young is going for sonorities so much that he doesn’t have much time for rhythm. But many of the sonorities are quite pleasant, as well as being quite odd, and I stay until the end of the performance, managing to focus on the slowly progressing music most of the time.
September 25, 1978: I reach Young on the telephone and learn a little about the modifications that have been made on the piano he was playing. The most basic change is that the instrument has been rebuilt with single strings, instead of the double and triple strings that are customarily used throughout most of the piano register. That certainly explains why Young’s instrument is relatively soft, and why it sometimes has a harp-like quality, and I suppose I should have been able to detect this alteration from hearing the music. I guess I’m just so accustomed to the idea of pianos having triple strings that it never occurred to me that this one might not.
I also explain to Young that I find it easier to appreciate his tuning system now than I did in 1975, and offer the theory that this may be because now he tends to focus on only four or five notes at a time, while before he often improvised on larger chords. The larger groups of notes contained so many oddly tuned intervals that the ear just couldn’t take them all in. He seems surprised at this observation, as if he had forgotten how he used to play, but agrees that he probably has changed in this way, and that this may be what makes the music more accessible now.
When I ask him why he tends to stay in the middle of the keyboard, he answers, quite reasonably, that this is because one cannot hear exact tunings as clearly in the most extreme registers.
As we talk, it becomes clear that Young is still obsessed with originality, as he frequently reminds me that he was the first one to do this or that. I want to tell him that ‘first’ doesn’t matter much and that ‘best’ is what really counts, but I decide to keep the conversation friendly and change the subject to Indian music. By now Young has been studying the kirana style for seven and a half years, and he says he feels he has pretty well mastered about a dozen ragas, but that his guru knows over 300, which means he still has a long way to go. Few people would have the energy to take up such serious study of such a demanding style at age 35, the way Young did. But then, Young has always thrived on difficult challenges, and he is patient enough that he often goes further with them than anyone expects him to. In fact, patience may be his greatest asset, and ‘The Well-Tuned Piano,’ which he’s been working on now for 14 years, is a good example of how it serves him.