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Questions about La Monte Young, music, and mysticism

La Monte Young remains an enigma within the music world, one of the most important and yet most elusive composers of the late twentieth century. A musician who lives in near-seclusion in a Tribeca loft while creating works that explore the furthest extremes of conceptual audacity, technical sophistication, acoustical complexity, and overt spirituality, Young has had a profound influence on the development on minimalism, which is seen in a variety of music today. We sat down with music scholar Jeremy Grimshaw, author of Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young, to discuss the life, work, and the controversy surrounding La Monte Young.

Who is La Monte Young and what is his impact on the music world?

In most surveys of twentieth-century music La Monte Young is recognized as a patriarch of the musical movement known as “minimalism” although his oeuvre spans multiple genres, from blues to chamber music to raga. As a student in the late 1950s, Young synthesized ideas culled from all over: the classical music of his academic studies, the edgy jazz he performed in clubs on the saxophone, and the sounds from India, Japan, and elsewhere. He pioneered a style of music in which the pace of moment-to-moment change was dramatically slowed in order to reveal the extreme acoustic and expressive richness of complex harmonies. This basic minimalist idea — rich, slow-moving sounds that draw in and envelop the listener’s attention — caught the imagination of other composers and eventually found its way into all sorts of music, from the opera hall to the commercial jingle.

What was Young’s artistic development?

One of the most remarkable aspects of Young’s story is the unlikely path that led him to the center of the contemporary music scene. He was born in a log cabin in the tiny Mormon farm town of Bern, Idaho, and grew up listening to church hymns and cowboy songs — but also, he recounts, the drone of crickets in the hay fields, wind whistling through the cracks between the logs of the cabin, and the hum of electrical poles. He also recalls that in his childhood daydreams he often pondered the notions of eternity he encountered in church. Young’s studies and career took him to Los Angeles, Berkeley, Darmstadt, New York, and India. Still, even in the music Young created later in life, one hears echoes of those epiphanies from his rural childhood.

How did Young’s music relate to that of his contemporaries?

Early on in his career Young developed a defiant attitude toward musical convention and established a habit of leading, sometimes quite audaciously, rather than following. He embraced, then transgressed, style after style. He became obsessed with blues, but warped and stretched its harmonic progressions. Some early works observed the strict melodic rules of serialism, but expanded them to proportions his teachers found outlandish. He was inspired by John Cage’s chance operations, and while still a graduate student he convinced the elder composer to perform his works. Soon, however, Young found even Cage to be conceptually unchallenging.

Within a decade of arriving in New York City in 1960, he’d more or less created his own artistic world — and today he continues on his own path. He releases his music on his own label and on his own schedule. He “publishes” his own works, but only to the extent that he can oversee or participate in every performance. And most of those performances take place in his own concert venue.

Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, are four major composers usually credited with the rise of musical minimalism in America. But while each of the others owed something of his style to Young’s influence — and to that of the arts scene Young had helped create in downtown New York in the 1960s — Young’s work followed a decidedly more extreme path. His slow or static harmonies could last several hours; sometimes Young would produce static electronic sound arrays that simply became part of his daily living environment. His monumental keyboard work, The Well-Tuned Piano, lasted six and a half hours in its longest performance. The Dream House, an immersive environment of electronic tones devised by Young combined with light-and-shadow sculptures by his wife and collaborator, Marian Zazeela, has no set duration at all, and is presented as if it is never-ending.

While all four of the “American minimalists” incorporated into their work ideas adapted from various non-Western musical styles, Young, along with Riley, studied North Indian classical music intensively for decades. After the death of their guru, Pandit Pran Nath, in 1996, Young became a guru in his own right. Today he devotes nearly all of his creative and performing efforts to raga performance. Also, Young developed a unique and mathematically complex approach to tuning that requires extremely specialized playing techniques and highly controlled performance conditions. It also produces unique acoustic and psychoacoustic effects and previously unimagined nuances of intonation and expression. Both his study of Indian music and his exploration of complex psychoacoustics resonated with ideas Young absorbed from the nascent psychedelic movement, and contributed to the unapologetically mystical persona he developed in the 1960s.

Young has strictly limited the recording and release of his works, and many outside his small circle of influence have not heard of Young. How was he able to have such a tremendous influence while remaining so isolated?

Although Young has never aspired to become a household name, his work has had a profound and far-reaching impact on the music and arts scenes in the last half-century. The severity of his style has always been coupled with a kind of entrepreneurial boldness. As a young composer he promoted his work relentlessly, and even eventually won the favor of magnanimous donors. This patronage allowed him to pursue even his most extreme creative ideas without conventional concern for the marketplace. This freedom, however, combined with Young’s esoteric compositional techniques and meticulous performance requirements, prevents many from hearing his work. Young performs only when and where he wants to, and releases his recordings in very low quantities and with very high price tags.

It is true that Young’s immediate circle is relatively small, but those who are in it or have passed through it have carried some of what they learned from Young to a much larger audience. Over the years a number of prominent figures from across the musical spectrum have recognized Young as a formative influence. In the early 1960s he provided the music for Andy Warhol films, mentored future members of the Velvet Underground, curated a series of experimental music concerts in Yoko Ono’s New York loft, and helped lay the groundwork for the nascent minimalist movement. David Lang, who would go on to win the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music, was so fascinated by Young’s early work that, as a young composer himself, he acquired and studied a rare bootleg score of Young’s groundbreaking Trio for Strings from 1958. Even today, Young’s music holds a kind of esoteric cachet in the indie music scene. Members of the up-and-coming band Bear In Heaven, for example, cite Young’s Dream House sound installation as one of their shared inspirations, and promoted their recent album by streaming it online in a “stretched” version 400,000% its original length. Composer and rock producer Brian Eno, who has worked with everyone from David Bowie to Coldplay, put it simply and broadly: “La Monte Young is the daddy of us all.”

You were given rare access to the composer and his works. How has the reclusive Young reacted to this biography?

I first approached Young about my interest in his work over a decade ago, and for most of the book’s gestation we enjoyed a personally warm and professionally productive rapport. He generously opened his home, archives, and performance space to me, for which I will be forever grateful. Young and I spent countless hours on the phone and in person talking about his life and music. Throughout this time I shared my writing with Young and continually sought his input. He seemed to endorse my work by citing it in program notes, fundraising letters, and promotional materials.

[callout title= ]“writing the book” on a life’s work surely seems, from the standpoint of the composer, uncomfortably close to “closing the book” [/callout]However, as the book neared completion, our relationship grew strained. Of course, a certain amount of apprehension is understandable when one’s life is being subjected to scholarly scrutiny — “writing the book” on a life’s work surely seems, from the standpoint of the composer, uncomfortably close to “closing the book” — and I sought always to remain personally sensitive as well as professionally respectful. For a time we made what I think was a genuine effort on both sides to find a path that accommodated both my obligations as a writer and scholar and Young’s subjective assessments of his life and work. I provided him with multiple working drafts, pushed back publication deadlines repeatedly in an effort to accommodate his feedback, and made countless and in several cases extensive revisions to the book based on his suggestions and those of his close friends.

Eventually, though, the situation became untenable, as we came to disagree on certain central points of history and interpretation. I suspect that any prominent artistic figure, ever aware of the notion of “legacy” looming over their biography, finds it difficult to discern the nuances of critical engagement that exist between adulation and antagonism. This difficulty, I think, was amplified in Young’s case by his decades of institutional insulation from the wider world, and by his well-documented problems with the notion of “collaboration” generally. Because of the rapport we enjoyed early on, I failed to grasp the extent to which Young saw the crafting of his life story as a compositional undertaking, rather than a scholarly one. I continued on with the book without his blessing, and at the expense of our personal relationship, only because I felt that doing so would serve the purposes of scholarship and foster a greater understanding of and appreciation for his work, despite his disapproval.

Many of your critics are familiar with or personally know the notoriously isolated Young, and criticism has been directed toward the chapter of your book in which you focus on Young’s Mormon upbringing and its influence on his music. Why do you think this has been a key issue in the reception of the book?

The prominent writer and scholar Joanna Brooks recently encapsulated perfectly the manner in which a Mormon upbringing can shape one’s worldview. “This is how I came into this world, into this world of believing: an ancient spirit striving to remember the shape of eternity at the kitchen table.” The chapter in question argues that this almost casual interpenetration of the cosmic and the mundane permeated Young’s life and his thinking in his youth and laid the seedbed for his later spiritual and artistic explorations.

When I spoke with Young and Zazeela on the telephone for the very first time, they told me that they had decided to respond to my query, after declining so many others, precisely because they hoped I could offer some insight into the influence of his Mormon upbringing on his creative work. In my initial discussions with Young he reiterated the profound impact his religious mother tongue had on his later reception of Taoism, Sufism, and the Vedic cosmologies of his North Indian musical studies. Those initial discussions led to the publication of a journal article in which I articulated the Mormon influence on Young’s work by interpreting The Well-Tuned Piano through the lens of certain somewhat esoteric Mormon cosmological ideas. I corresponded with Young while writing that article, and after it was published he made it available for purchase on his website.

Given the extensive discussions of Mormonism in Young’s interviews with me and others, and Young’s prior support of my research in this area, I’m left to speculate as to why Young suddenly became uncomfortable with the chapter devoted to the topic. I think there are personal, historiographical, and even political elements involved. First, as I proved less willing to acquiesce to Young’s various editorial demands than he may have anticipated, I suspect he became less prone to sympathize with my interpretations of his work, even interpretations that previously he had either explicitly or tacitly approved. Second, throughout his career Young has always viewed his past through the lens of the present. For example, as he has placed raga performance at the center of his creative activities in the last several years, Young has likewise dramatically elevated the position of his guru, Pandit Pran Nath, as a spiritual and musical influence — even with regards to earlier works that Young previously saw as quite separate from his raga studies. Third, I suspect that the increased public attention to Mormonism in recent years, particularly as it relates to conservative politics, has discouraged Young from identifying with it as he sought previously to do.

In the public eye, Mormonism is now less resonant with the audacious frontier mysticism of a sheepherder’s son “striving to remember the shape of eternity at the kitchen table,” as it were, and more readily associated with Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck, and Prop. 8. As Young is decidedly disinclined to connect himself with those things, he has become increasingly resistant to the “Mormon reading” of The Well-Tuned Piano. He now dismisses entirely the influence of Mormonism on his work. He removed my article on the topic from his website in February 2012, and has even gone so far as to suggest that my book has a secret agenda as Mormon proselytizing propaganda.

Yet now, even in his refutation of my book he reasserts how steeped in Mormonism he once was. How does he claim to intuit my book’s secret agenda? “l know [Mormon propaganda] well, inasmuch as I handed out many such tracts as a teenager when I was a ‘home missionary’ to the local Church members.” Young’s dramatic shift on this particular topic also reaffirms to me the importance of scholarly independence: this kind of drift in autobiographical self-perception is precisely what musicologists, as opposed to students or fans, are supposed to discern. It’s what the whole notion of historiography is all about.

There’s a rather glaring inconsistency in Young’s and his followers’ efforts to erase this part of his autobiography. A man who repeatedly connects his artistic work to a sonic epiphany occasioned by the sound of the wind outside the cabin where he lived when he was two years old now wants us to believe that the cosmic musings of his childhood and adolescence had no lasting hold on his imagination — despite the obvious echoes in his music and the rhetoric with which he surrounds it.

Jeremy Grimshaw is the author of Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young. He is an assistant professor in the School of Music at Brigham Young University and the founding director of BYU’s Balinese ensemble, Gamelan Bintang Wahyu. His writing on contemporary American music has appeared in various scholarly publications, including The Musical Quarterly and American Music. He also authored a work of creative non-fiction, The Island of Bali Is Littered With Prayers.

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