La Monte Young, the first minimalist composer

La Monte Thornton Young was born on October 1935 in the state of Idaho, and is generally recognized as the first minimalist composer. Along with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass, he was a major contributor to the emergence of American minimalist music, and is especially known for his development of drone music and his lengthy works conceived as "having no beginning and no end", existing before and after any particular performance.

In his childhood Young was fascinated by continuous environmental sounds, particularly those of motors, power plants and telephone poles. The dream chord (G, C, C sharp, D) on which some of his pieces are based is the chord he used to hear in the telephone poles.

During the 1950s La Monte Young was a jazz saxophone performer in Los Angeles, and played with Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, among others. He studied at Los Angeles City College and at the University of California. His music was initially influenced by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Gregorian chant and Indian, Japanese and Indonesian music.

Trio for Strings was composed in 1958 and is based entirely on different spacings and transpositions of selected pitches (usually three at any one time) from the dream chord.

Vision (1959) is a work for eleven instrumentalists spread around a darkened auditorium, where eleven sounds are heard in 13 minutes. The duration and spacing of these sounds are calculated by the performance director with the aid of a random number book or a telephone directory.

In 1959 he attended the summer composition courses under Karlheinz Stockhausen at Darmstadt, where he discovered the indeterminate music of John Cage. In 1960 Young relocated to New York in order to study electronic music with Richard Maxfield. At Yoko Ono's studio he directed the first New York loft concert series, in 1960.

In 1960 his compositions included unusual instructions, and sometimes offered a challenge to the performer: to build a fire, to release a butterfly into the room, to push a piano through a wall. Composition 1960 #7 consists of a fifth (B and F#) and the instruction "To be held for a long time". Composition 1960 #10 consists of the instruction "Draw a straight line and follow it". Composition 1960 #15 consists of the sentence: "This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean".

With Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. (1960) there was one performance that consisted of someone just moving a bench, and other performances with large groups of people moving chairs and tables over cement floors. Here the performance director uses random numbers again to determine the number and durations of movements and the length of the performance.

Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) to H.F. (1960), popularly known as X for Henry Flynt, requires the performer to repeat a loud, heavy sound every one to two seconds as uniformly and as regularly as possible for a long period of time. While scored for piano(s) or gong(s), in practice any sound has been used, typically a dissonant or unpitched one.

The twenty-nine pieces of Young's Compositions 1961 actually recall Composition 1960 #10, consisting of directions for 29 identical actions ("Draw a straight line and follow it") repeated every 13 days, partitioning the year 1961 into 28 equal sections.

La Monte Young - Compositions 1961 - Pat Allison from Bob Lockwood on Vimeo.

Death Chant (1961), written on the death of a friend's child, is a notated piece for male voices with optional carillon or bells, and shows a similarity with the additive processes of Philip Glass.

In 1962 La Monte Young wrote The Four Dreams of China, which included the piece The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, based on just four pitches (F, Bb, B, C) played continuously. For this work Young formulated the concept of a Dream House, a permanent space with sound and light environments where musicians would live and create music twenty-four hours a day, and a work would be played continuously. Young has presented Dream House environments in New York, Paris, Berlin and Lyon through several years. Today a Dream House exists at the Mela Foundation on 275 Church Street, New York, and is open to the public.

Young formed the Theatre of Eternal Music in 1962 to realize the Dream House concept and other pieces. The group initially included Marian Zazeela, his wife since 1963. Terry Riley performed in this ensemble in 1964.

Studies in The Bowed Disc (1963) was scored for a steel gong made especially by the sculptor Robert Morris. The gong was played with double-bass bows, and Young and Zazeela introduced many improvisations over several years.

With the Theatre of Eternal Music, Young began his ongoing ensemble work The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys (1964-present), a large work for voices and various instruments, with improvisation within strict predetermined guidelines. This work was gradually enhanced through the years with new sections and subsections, often with long and imaginative titles, e.g. "The Obsidian Ocelot, The Sawmill, and The Blue Sawtooth High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer Refracting The Legend of The Dream of The Tortoise Traversing The 189/98 Lost Ancestral Lake Region Illuminating Quotients from The Black Tiger Tapestries of The Drone of The Holy Numbers" (October 1965).

His other major ongoing work is The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-73-81-present), which Young considers his masterpiece, and is strongly influenced by mathematical composition and Asian classical music. The world premiere of this work took place in Rome in 1974 with a specially tuned piano. Some performances have exceeded six hours in length.

Young's work with drones had led him to investigate intonation. Intervals are more precisely tuned when sustained for a long time, and just intonation intervals yield stronger and richer overtones than equally tempered intervals. Young contributed extensively to the study of just intonation and to the development of rational number based tuning systems.

His interests in Indian classical music led him to study under the Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath in 1970, along with Terry Riley and Marian Zazeela. They became his disciples, and this relationship continued until Pran Nath's death in June 1996. Young and Zazeela performed with Pandit Pran Nath in hundreds of concerts in India, Iran, Europe and the United States, and continue to perform with their group The Just Alap Raga Ensemble.

For the most up to date information about La Monte Young visit the Mela Foundation website.

If you liked this article you may wish to read my series on minimalist music: American minimalist music, European music connected with minimalism and Precursors of minimalist music.

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