|By: Ed Howard
t 275 Church Street in TriBeCa, nestled amid a row of convenience stores and restaurants, invisible to nearly everyone who passes, is an inconspicuous black door, unmarked except for its number and a cryptic white announcement bearing the words “The Dream House.” Behind this door, one of modern music’s most creative, original, and idiosyncratic composers lives just upstairs.
He is La Monte Young, a pioneer of a new strain of minimalist composition in modern classical music, and the Dream House, which he established 11 years ago, is his brainchild, the culmination of more than four decades of work.
The exhibition is open Thursdays and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to midnight and features both Young’s music, which is a lush flow of overlapping sound waves, and the light art of his wife and longtime collaborator Marian Zazeela. Young’s composition, which has a 107-word title that begins “The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time...,” is a drone work featuring 32 different frequencies of constant tones created on a Rayna synthesizer, while Zazeela provides light installations and sculptures. “Together, the sound and light can be experienced as a new form, or new media: the sound and light environment,” she says. “The experience of the two mediums together as one requires a new, or at least different, mode of attention.” Young and Zazeela are the cofounders of a foundation the composer established to promote and disseminate his music, called MELA, an acronym for Music Eternal Light Art. The organization’s main office is also at the Church Street residence where the Dream House runs and the couple lives.
Inside the Dream House, a narrow hallway connects two rooms. A deep hum soars down the hallway, like pulsating currents in a wind tunnel. To the left is the main room, starkly empty. Everything in the House is white – white walls, white cushy carpet, white pillows – stained pink and purple by Zazeela’s lights. On the far wall of the main room are three windows, all covered over by translucent magenta screens that filter the sunlight from outside, further adding to the reddish tint in the room.
In each corner is a tall white speaker that looks like a giant refrigerator, as intimidating in the bare space as Stanley Kubrick’s monolith. These monoliths are vibrating with the 32 frequencies of Young’s composition, and though the music itself stays constant no matter how long is spent inside the House, the sound’s relationship to its listeners can change drastically with the slightest movements.
The only time the music remains stable is when the listener is completely still: the low drones culminate in a dense jackhammer cloud as they cross over each other, forming complex rhythms. However, just slight changes in posture completely alter the sound field. Different higher pitches appear as you move your head; by rocking slowly back and forth, you can create a hypnotic two-note melody as the high tones shift and spin dizzyingly. Towards the center of the main room, the drones are thickest and lowest, while around the perimeter of the room the sound tends to be airier, dominated by chattery high-end whine.
This disorienting effect is a key component of the Dream House. Young explains via e-mail that “each frequency has its own points of resonance and non-resonance in the room (points of loudness and softness). The lowest frequencies have long wavelengths and you need to take a walk to experience the differences in the loudness of that frequency. The highest frequencies have such short wavelengths that simply by moving the head a ‘millinothing,’ the difference in loudness can be observed.”
Young studied music at Los Angeles City College – and later at Berkeley – beginning in the 1950s. He is now 68. By his own accounts, his earliest forays into composition were traditional 12-tone classical pieces that betrayed few hints of his future penchant for extended tones. He was also active in the L.A. jazz scene (his original instrument was alto saxophone), playing with avant-jazz greats like Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and Don Cherry. It was only with an obscure and original trio of pieces – “for Brass” (1957), “for Guitar” (1958), and “Trio for Strings” (1958) – that the first hints of a developing minimalist aesthetic began to appear in his compositions. These pieces, seldom performed since then, contained Young’s first use of long static tones, virtually abandoning traditional melody.
In the years that followed, Young worked both on his own and with a loose group of likeminded musicians who he assembled in 1962 and dubbed the Theatre of Eternal Music. The moniker is one that could very easily be applied to all of the composer’s work ever since; he has increasingly aimed to make music with no end whatsoever. The Theatre consisted of, at various times, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, Tony Conrad, wildman percussionist Angus MacLise, and Dennis Johnson, and the group focused mainly on one multi-part piece, “The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys.”
Even at this early point, the idea of eternal music was fairly well-developed; in a recent essay about this period on his Web site, Young writes, “Each performance is woven out of an eternal fabric of silence and sound where the first note emerges from a long silence and after the last sound the performance does not end but merely evanesces back into silence.” According to this theory, the music never truly ends, and the concept led the composer to christen these pieces “Dream Music.”
Michelle Nagai, one of MELA’s three permanent staff members, says “I think [the Dream House] is very unique. It’s less unique now because more and more people are kind of imitating this environment, but I think the concept of something that never ends, that gets started 12-plus years ago and then goes just on and on and on, is really inspiring.”
Indeed, Young’s music has greatly inspired subsequent generations of composers; he has been a catalyst for such diverse careers as his former student Tony Conrad, the improvisational trio AMM, the Fluxus art movement (which he helped to establish in 1961 by curating a performance art series at Yoko Ono’s loft), and the Velvet Underground’s earliest experiments (thanks to the presence of John Cale). The New York Times critic John Rockwell is one of many who have recognized Young’s far-reaching impact, writing in 1974, “his role as father-figure for the younger avant-garde is surpassed only by John Cage.” This lasting influence has its roots in Young’s music with the Theatre of Eternal Music, which also provided the initial genesis for the Dream House.
In a 1964 program note for a Theatre performance, Young imagined “Dream Houses [that] will allow music which, after a year, ten years, a hundred years of constant sound, would not only be a real living organism with a life and tradition of its own, but one with a capacity to propel itself by its own momentum.” This vision was fulfilled much later, when over a period of six years starting in 1979, Young and Zazeela organized their first large-scale Dream House installation at a six-story building on Harrison Street in TriBeCa, not too far from the current location.
In a similar way, most of Young’s major projects have been fulfilled slowly over a matter of years. His work of the past few decades has consisted of a relatively small number of compositions that he is constantly developing and rewriting. A prominent example of this technique is “The Well-Tuned Piano,” started in 1964. The hallmark of the piece is its unique tuning, called Just Intonation, which Young adapted from pre-20th Century European and Asian forms, and which rejects the equally spaced pitches of modern music.
This distinction is not just technical: “The Well-Tuned Piano” has an unearthly, ethereal sound that is completely foreign to anyone accustomed to today’s Western music. Each note in the piece – which lasts for hours – rings with clarity and weight, and Young alternates passages of calm introspection with long runs of tumbling keys that take on a rhythmic, locomotive drive.
The piece has changed and expanded a great deal since 1964. A version from 1981 – released on a four-album set in 1987 by Gramavision, Young’s record label at that time – lasts around four hours, while a later version from 1987 (recently documented on a limited edition DVD) lasts nearly six and a half hours, with completely new sections and expansions to the original movements. This continuous development has also characterized one of Young’s other famous compositions, “Young’s Dorian Blues in G.”
Started in the early 1960s, this piece uses simple chord progressions derived from the blues tradition, but slowed down, with the musicians spending long periods of time on each chord before changing to the next one. Young first performed this music with a post-college quartet including Terry Jennings, Dennis Johnson, and Mike Lara, and more recently he recorded a 1993 live performance with his Forever Bad Blues Band – a temporary combo assembled for a few live appearances in the early 1990s – captured on a Gramavision double CD.
Like “The Well-Tuned Piano,” this dynamic music could not seem more different on its surface from the ultra-minimal Dream House music, but all three pieces are inextricably linked. There’s a spiritual, meditative aspect to the composer’s whole oeuvre that unifies his diverse ideas and draws many people to him. Ten of his followers volunteer at the Dream House, admitting visitors and keeping the incense lit at the shrine to Young’s deceased spiritual and musical guru, the Indian raga singer Pandit Pran Nath.
The intimate connection of Young’s spirituality to his music is indicative in a larger sense of how the Dream House breaks down barriers between different media. The music half of the experience is interwoven with the visual component, designed by Zazeela. The environment throughout the House is created by her artistic lighting and the pink screens she uses to cover all the windows, changing even the light from outside. The three windows in the main room look out on the triangular patch of concrete that’s bounded by Church Street, Sixth Avenue, and White Street. Out on this pink version of Sixth Avenue, the taillights on the cars stopped in traffic glow a bright demonic red and the taxis look oddly neon, while the clouds above are pink and fluffy, like the cover of La Monte Young’s album “The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer.”
For Zazeela, it is important that she is not merely reacting to the music when creating her light treatments. “My intention is to create an atmosphere conducive to the experiencing of both sound and light works over a long period of time,” she said. “The light sculptures are not created as a response to the music, but emanate from a creative impulse in a different medium.”
The combination of Zazeela’s art with Young’s music creates an environment totally distinct from the individual effects of sound and visuals. Mark Richardson, a music critic for Sound Collector Audio Review and Pitchfork who has written about the Dream House, describes this combination as a primary source of Young and Zazeela’s appeal. He was drawn to the Dream House because of an interest in “totally immersive installation art, where the environment is the piece,” he says. “Really it was just the idea of putting yourself in a place where all the sensory information is unusual and outside your normal frame of reference.”
In the main room is Zazeela’s four-piece mobile sculpture “Imagic Light” (1993), a pair of twisted calligraphic swirls dangling from the ceiling near the walls on each side of the room, while in the middle of the space one red light and one blue light shines on each pair, casting ghostly shadows on the walls. Another memorable piece is “Ruine Window 1992,” which is tucked away in the smaller of the Dream House’s two rooms. Mounted on the wall, with a floor pillow a few feet away, is a rectangular construction of painted wooden boards, with a red light shining on it from the left and a blue light from the right. The effect is an austere assembly of right-angled shadows in alternating colors, disrupting perceptions of depth and creating beautiful illusions from every viewpoint.
Zazeela’s description of this particular piece provides an interesting commentary on how closely her work parallels that of her husband. “The relationship of light and shadow changes with the viewer’s position in the room,” she says, echoing the effect of Young’s Dream House composition. Inside the Dream House, sound and light stand on equal footing, subtly seducing the senses to mold an experience unlike any other.