By Kyle Gann
Math phobes can get lost this week. God, I love numbers. My high school math teachers thought I should go into math. Come to think of it, so did my music teachers. And when La Monte Young sets up one of his vibrating sinetone sculptures such as the one that's running Thursdays and Saturdays from two to 12 at the Mela Foundation, 275 Church Street, I get to use music as an excuse to bathe in the algebra I left behind. Let others get their ears massaged by the pulsating drones. I like to gaze at the tuning diagrams and let my mind slither naked through the mysterious clusters of luscious integers. And what integers there are: large prime
numbers, octaves of primes, whole classes of primes newly categorized for
musical purposes. Having captured another octave of the Overtone series,
Young has strung his aural hammock between the 1792nd and 2304th
overtones, where he's basking peacefully. The installation, whose 107-word
title begins Young likes the effect of large prime-numbered ratios, including Mersenne Primes (primes that conform to the formula 2P - 1 , such as 31) and what he calls twin primes (primes separated by only 2 , such as 59 and 61). He's even invented a new type: Young's Primes, expressible by the formula pXMn- 1, where p is a prime, m is a positive integer that isn't a power. of 2, and n is an integer greater than 1. Example: 71. "This is over my head,". you're saying, but listen. The point of all those "minus ones" is that Young uses tones that approximate the most consonant overtones, but are far more complex in their resulting combined wave forms. His math gives him a variety of sizes of seventh and ninth intervals, all closing in on the octaves over a fundamental B (actually a quarter-tone flat)., In each octave, all the pitches are within the major third between A and C sharp. Imagine a ladder of 1 0 octaves of the same pitch. Now imagine the rungs bent and diffracted into lots of different tones, the lower rungs slightly lowered, the upper rungs raised. And because even these exotic overtones of a single low pitch are theoretically more harmonious than the scientifically irrational tuning of a modem piano, you're hearing a wild frontier of tonality that has never been explored, the outer edge of consonance. Walk into Since she's working with colored shadows
instead of colored surfaces, and light behaves differently from pigment,
the colors combine opposite to the way we expect. (You only learn
light-color theory in art school, Zazeela says, if you go into
television.) Stand in front of As the shimmering of Young's overtones
resists being recorded, Zazeela's shadows fall flat when photographed one
reason she's never been sufficiently celebrated in the art world for her
originality of her minimalist constructions. Both the sound and light
sculptures are static entities that move wildly within your eyes and ears,
proving with pure wave forms how subjective perception is. Since we're
more sophisticated visually than aurally, I figured out an exercise that,
if you can hum, will help you hear more precisely what Young's sculpture
is about., If you can isolate one of the lower drones (not easy), slowly
hum a major scale up from that pitch. (The beginning of "Row, Row,
Row Your Boat" will do.) By the time you reach the third, fourth, and
fifth steps, you'll be humming pitches that find no resonance among the
other drones-you'll be in the empty spaces. Hearing a gap within an
articulated pitch space, as some European works of the '50s and '60s like
Xenakis's Why would you want to do that? Because it's there. Because music isn't always just background, or something familiar. Because you've never heard so complex a chord so pure. Because music that refuses to change subverts capitalism. Because you'll never get any closer to the music of the spheres this side of enlightenment. And because there are more numbers in the musical universe than I IV V I. This article originally appeared in the Village Voice. It appears here with the permission of the author. |