Yesterday evening, a group of people crowded into the Red Bull Academy Headquarters in Chelsea to hear the composer La Monte Young speak about his work. Red Bull had plastered images of Young around the city, in which he appears in profile, with a wizardly, braided beard, dressed in a shoulderless jean jacket, a cap that pressed far enough down his head that his eyes barely peaked out and, dangling from his ears, a large metal chain, the kind used to padlock a gate. It’s an image more suited to a grandfatherly Hell’s Angel than the oft-quoted attribution given to Young as “the father of minimalist composition.” But then again, what is a minimalist composer, a famously reclusive one at that, supposed to look like?
A tanpura raga played over loudspeakers as the audience filed into their chairs in the Academy’s lower-level. Opposite the chairs sat Young, dressed identically from his press photo, his wife and collaborator Marian Zazeela, who wore a robe and headdress, and Jung Hee Choi, a longtime disciple of Young and Zazeela. Moderating the evening was the musician and writer Alan Licht. “I’m not sure how much of an introduction La Monte needs,” said Licht, “but we know he is the first person to begin working exclusively in sustained tones, which marked a real shift away from melody in Western Music.” Licht began the discussion by asking Young about Dia’s recent acquisition of the new Dream House, Young and Zazeela’s longtime collaborative space for light and sound. This June, Dia will present Dream House at their Chelsea gallery space—uptown from the Tribeca room where it is currently housed—an exhibition that will open with a raga performance by Young, Zazeela, and Choi.
“About those tones…” answered Young. And for eleven straight minutes, Young unspooled thoughts on everything from Japanese Imperial Court music, Indian Classical ragas, and the history of mediation, before briefly touching upon the Dream House: “Imagine generations born in the Dream House,” Young said, “and knowing nothing else outside of it. It would allow for a new kind of thought processing and transcend the kinds of lives we live.”
Before Licht could say anything, Young continued his soliloquy, reminiscing about cowboy songs, the modes of bagpipe playing, the spirituality of tonal music, theoretics on a whole number music ratios, the types of sound preferred by the human brain, and undiscovered sonic frequencies, before ending on a brief mention of his long, successful marriage with Marian. Finally: “Next question,” said Young.
Despite his digressions, Young was not without charm. When describing his early days as a jazz musician playing alongside Bill Higgins–“my favorite drummer,” he mused–he said: “Back in those days, you’d play anywhere for anything. Most places would offer you beer and a dollar; you’d get the beer but not the dollar.”
Licht handled the proceedings by feeding topics for Young to gnaw upon, often with humorous anecdotes ladled in. On time as a medium: “People are always in a rush, and I decided I didn’t want to rush.” Licht queried Young about this, “it’s true that you once held a ten day performance in which the same blues chord was played continuously, not for four bars, but for four days, except for one day when it was briefly changed to another chord.” Young nodded, “It’s true, I did do that.” “And you once wrote,” prodded Licht, “that a teacher of yours once told you that you made music that sounded like it was made by an 80-year-old man, which is the age you are now.” Young smiled, “I finally made it!”
Young recollected his time as a disciple of the Hindi musician Pandit Pran Nath. “Pran Nath told me, ‘I will teach you two ragas for eight or nine years, then maybe in twenty or thirty years, you can perform them.’ I was like ‘You gotta be kidding me.’” He chuckled. “It’s not politically correct to hit the students anymore, but those are the teachers who produced great masters. Yet Pran Nath saw our talents pretty early on and had us accompany him pretty soon after we started.” Licht requested the ragas we walked into be turned back on, and as we listened to the two tanpuras ride a wave of tone, Zazeela jumped in, “No one can master all the ragas, that’s part of the beauty of knowing two perfectly.”
In conversation, Young would occasionally prompt Choi to take over, as if hoping she would help buffer his unending thoughts. Choi, who has studied under Young and Zazeela since 1999, and has been their vocalist for almost all of their public performances since, has developed a seemingly strong familial relationship with the two. On the Dream House, she described it as a perfect collaboration of light and sound between Zazeela and Young, who took the compliment to raise up his wife’s work. “It was Zazeela’s light mobiles,” he said, referring to the slowly morphing shapes of light that shift upon the walls of the Dream House, “that made Jung Hee want to be her disciple. She had never even heard of La Monte Young.” Jung Hee turned to La Monte and said, “You know that’s not true.”
After almost two hours, Young seemed visibly spent. A Red Bull associate handed Licht a piece of paper, notifying him that it was time to wrap up. “What’s that?” perked up Young. “Another $20,000 check?”