La Monte Young, the minimalist master whose trailblazing work with droning has influenced everyone from the Velvet Underground to Sonic Youth to Brian Eno, who once called him “the daddy of us all,” made a rare public appearance at Red Bull Studios on Thursday, dropping some tantalizing details about a new Dream House installment coming in June to Dia:Chelsea.
As part of this month’s Red Bull Music Academy Festival, writer-musician Alan Licht chatted with Young and his wife Marian Zazeela, co-creators of the Dream House that has occupied a Tribeca walk-up since 1993. Sporting leather gloves, a denim biker’s vest, a knotted beard, and a head covering pulled at times over his eyes, Young looked like the ultimate badass – which he very much is to people who appreciate his influence on the likes of Glenn Branca. But he spoke softly – every bit like a man who spent almost three decades as a disciple of a Kirana Gharana guru and is now considered one himself.
By way of introduction, Licht reiterated an essay he had written in 2013 about Young’s hold on composers like Terry Riley and, in turn, Philip Glass: “La Monte is the first person to start making music with exclusively sustained tones,” Licht told the crowd. “This marks a real shift away from melody and western classical music and he’s the real progenitor of that. And then later, other composers in the field started doing what was later termed minimalism and there was a direct connection personally between La Monte and some of those people and his influence is felt very strongly there. And his influence is also felt very strongly in the alternative rock music from the ‘60s onward, because some of the people who originally played with La Monte went on to play in certain rock bands [like the Velvet Underground] and also were carrying over some ideas from La Monte’s music into there.”
One of the more notable bands Young influenced was Sonic Youth – Thurston Moore wished the man a happy 79th birthday back in October.
Despite his legacy, Young’s music hasn’t always been easy to find – a 5-CD set of “The Well-Tuned Piano,” his magnum opus of just intonation, is going for a good $1,357 on Amazon. But you can hear his work for much, much cheaper by stepping into the Dream House, a trippy sound and light environment that has – like Dia’s other installation, the “Earth Room” – defied all laws of New York City real estate by remaining in play, untouched, for over two decades.
If you haven’t been to the Dream House, go now: three days a week, up till midnight, you can climb the rickety stairs to the third floor of 275 Church Street, leave a few dollars donation, have a seat on the deep-pile carpet, breathe in the incense wafting over from a shrine, and dig the way Zazeela’s light display – consisting of magenta projected onto mobiles – interacts with Young’s sound installation. The installation has a complicated title that starts with “The Base 9:7:4: Symmetry in Prime Time…” and there’s a convoluted description of it on Young’s site – the simple version is that it’s “sine wave components generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesizer.” Just imagine an Emergency Broadcasting System test, shifting microtonally and perceived differently based on your location in the room. Rolling Stone called it “the biggest, oddest (and most unique) sound in New York.”
Thursday, Young explained how the original Dream House, which was at 6 Harrison Street for six years, came to be: “Back in the ’50s I used to go to jazz clubs and listen to everybody and I used to play in sessions,” he said. “One day Lee Koenig said to me, ‘You know Warren Marsh is planning to buy a club.’ Well, I didn’t realize what it meant then. But suddenly I realized it was like a dream house for them. They had a place where they could play bebop.”
Of course, bebop is not what you’ll hear at the Dream House. At the time, and still, Young was deeply influenced by Asian and Indian classical music. “I had been listening to Japanese gagaku – imperial court music – and Ali Akbar [Khan]’s recording [Morning and Evening Ragas] came out in mid ’50s, there were two ragas. He also introduced the tabla. For the first time in my life I heard a tambura alone – that tambura had an enormous effect on me. I felt it was one of the most mysterious and incredible sounds I had ever heard.”
“Dream house came out of this,” Young said. “The idea of the sustained drone that could go on, a light environment that was totally conducive to listening to music.” And, he added, one that was totally transporting: “You don’t have to go somewhere [with the notes you’re playing], you don’t have to impress someone. But you get involved with the frequencies and it becomes a vehicle for meditation.”
“We can think of the Dream House as a way in which we can find another environment that can influence our lives,” he said, going on to imagine generations born in the Dream House: “the fact that they were born in the Dream House, that they lived their lifetimes, and their parents lived there and their grandparents lived there, it would allow a new way of thought processing, and it would allow people to transcend the type of life that we live.”
Young is absolutely right about the meditative, transformative powers of the Dream House – it’s a womb-like escape from the chaos of the city, and a mere twenty minutes there (visitors are free to spend hours) leaves you feeling renewed and refreshed, as if you’ve emerged from a sauna or (so I hear) a yoga session. But I should probably speak personally. A writer for Artnet News called Dia’s acquisition of the installation (its first under new director Jessica Morgan, who told the Times she considers Young “a John Cage of our era”) a “real flop”: “Pillows on the floor invite lounging, but as for me, I couldn’t wait to get out.”
Needless to say, Young and Zazeela would like to see the forthcoming Chelsea iteration of the Dream House, open mid-June through October, become permanent. “They have a building,” Zazeela said. “They’re only going to give it to us right now for four months but we’ll see if we can hold onto it any longer.”
“It’s a very big production,” Young added. “If it could go on permanently that would be by far the best.” Young considers the Dream House “a place where you can have sound permanently,” where musicians can avoid expending the “very, very costly” energy necessarily for breaking down their projects and setting them back up. “Once you have a place that’s permanent, then you can do very, very creative work,” he said, though he stressed that one needn’t necessarily change things up: “People are looking for variation, variety. Very few people have the understanding that to get into something in depth you have to stick with it. Tuning is a function of time and if you can tune the intervals so that they’re more and more perfect over years, decades, centuries and so on, you’re living in a different world. And I’ve always sought a different world.”
He recalled how Dia founders Heiner Friedrich and his wife Philippa de Menil came to open the first long-term Dream House at 6 Harrison Street: “We were going to break down a Dream House I had done in his Wooster Street gallery back in the ’60s. All right. I told him, ‘I’m not going to be there tomorrow.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘It breaks my heart to see this thing taken down.’ I didn’t believe him but it made an impression on him.”
But Young acknowledged that such projects don’t come cheap (Friedrich sunk a reported $4 million into the Harrison Street Dream House’s six-year run). “You have to buy a building and then you have to spend money on the building. ‘What? Just so La Monte Young can have a place to play and Marian Zazeela can have a place to set up her lights?’ A lot of people criticized us, said, ‘Why not Duke Ellington?’ Well, he deserves it. It wasn’t my idea that he couldn’t have one. I really wanted one.”
And he was grateful for the funding he got. “That is necessary to go on because I didn’t ever figure out how to be a commercial musician,” he said. “Okay, you may say I’ve learned how to earn money from the Dia Art Foundation. But it was very unusual.”
Young also has a sense of humor about such patronage. At one point, someone slipped Licht a note, presumably cuing him to play Young’s music in closing. “What’s this?” Young quipped. “Another check for $20,000?”
Whether or not the Chelsea Dream House — or “Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House,” as it’s being called — becomes permanent, the events currently slated there are exciting enough. The new Dream House will launch June 13 with a two-hour performance by the Just Alap Raga Ensemble, in which Young and Zazeela (along with longtime collaborator Jung Hee Choi, who was also at Thursday’s talk) will pay tribute to Pandit Pran Nath, their former guru who lived with them for 27 years.
Though Young and Zazeela now stay up for 24-hour spans and sleep every other day, that wasn’t the case when Young lived with the Hindustani classical singer and teacher of the Kirana Gharana: “I had to get up every day at 3 a.m., make tea, take my shower, tune the tambura, and be sitting in front of him before 7 a.m. or he wouldn’t teach me. He’d say, ‘Who’s the next student?'” The teacher’s quest to instill discipline was rigorous, to say the least: “He could be nice if he wanted to but he could be very, very strict and, you know, it’s not politically correct to hit the students anymore, but [classical Indian teachers] produced great masters.”
In addition to the tribute to Pran Nath, there will also be performances of Zazeela’s “Ornamental Lightyears Tracery,” a light show that Young noted “has been quoted by critics as being a primary influence on Andy Warhol’s ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’” (check out this program from a 1970 performance featuring John Cale on viola.)
Young described Zazeela’s manipulation of four slide projectors: “One projector would have a very hard-edge, extraordinary pattern, and another projector would have the same pattern in negative, and a third projector would have perhaps the same pattern totally faded out to be an impressionistic wash and the fourth projector might have a new pattern coming in. So, wow, the hard-edge pattern began to slowly disappear – I mean, this is taking 10, 20 minutes to disappear – another pattern would begin to make itself known and the pattern that was negative would become stronger than the positive and the one that was a wash would start to become hard-edge, and this went on overlapped in such a way. It was improvisation with light and music.”
The Dia:Chelsea performances, on August 20 and 22, will feature prerecorded music by Young and last up to three hours.
Zazeela promises it’ll be a “very nice series,” located in a “relatively big space for New York, with no columns.” But don’t have too much fun. When Young curated performances at Yoko Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers Street in the early ‘60s, there was a sign on the door: “This is not entertainment.”