|By Sandy McCroskey
Thirty-five years after its composition, La Monte Young’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer remains as radical a statement and as uniquely revelatory an experience as ever. The Gramavision CD available (more or less) since 1991 features an eight-trumpet version performed by the Theatre of Eternal Music Brass Ensemble, led by Ben Neill. Extracted from 1962’s The Four Dreams of China, which the "father of minimalism" considers to have been the first composition wholly in his characteristic style, the piece embodies the essence of Young’s archetypal singularity.
The Second Dream is woven entirely out of four pitches (F, Bb, B, C); in this rendition, it lasts for seventy-six minutes and six seconds ; and there’s never a dull moment. Long, steady tones and protracted silences gradually efface the clock, to open up a more airy, unfenced domain. Facets of sound become apparent that are usually only peripheral to conscious perception. The tones diffract (via Harmon mutes) to form a brilliant corona of partials that soon flares to dazzling intensity. In a dream, events of little apparent significance may be evocative of fathomless resonances. As The Second Dream develops, the four pitches virtually turn inside out to reveal astonishing depths of sonic phantasmagoria.
The score stipulates only that the instruments used be tunable, sustaining and deployed in multiples of four, but I am reminded that it was on the trumpet that overtones were discovered, somewhat belatedly, by Western science (in the person of a pal of Descartes, monk and mathematician Marin Mersenne). The harmonies of The Second Dream hark back to Young’s early attraction (from about the age of 4) to the humming of telephone poles and power plants, when he first sensed the inherent musicality of the frequency ratios present there - reflective of the universal laws of periodic motion that apply throughout the physical sciences, from electronics to the prediction of tides. When electricians use the term "harmonics," they mean exactly the same thing as musical acousticians: whole-number multiples of a fundamental frequency (of an alternating current or a sound wave). Crackling with energy, thrummed by the wind, the four central tones stride in parallel lines across the wide sonic plains. This is a song of the open road, sketched on a napkin as the composer crossed America West to East, the wheels singing beneath his feet. In this whirring, ringing jubilation might be heard the metal-working lathes Young used to sing along with in high school, radio signals, a jet taking off...and eerie strands of ethereal melody.
The China of Young’s Dreams was a previously undiscovered continent, virgin terrain where exotic sonorities blossomed in a charged atmosphere of suspended Time. He had surveyed the territory in the middle section of 1957’s for Brass - from which piece were derived the four chords that are the basis for the respective Dreams - and spent a lengthy sojourn there in the zoned-out Trio for Strings of 1958, a twelve-tone study, like Anton Webern on some extraterrestrial hashish (but also analyzable in terms of the Dream Chords). The fifty-two-minute Trio, which takes about ten minutes to introduce the series and includes silences as long as thirty seconds, was something of a scandal at Berkeley (with classmate Terry Riley one of a decided minority who were spellbound) and wowed Karlheinz Stockhausen, Young’s hero at the time.
At Stockhausen’s 1959 Darmstadt seminar Young met David Tudor, frequent co-conspirator with John Cage, and adopted the form of composition in which parameters are set for a work’s improvised realization. Young achieved the prototype of his approach to applying this method to pitch material in the Dreams of China (and thereafter did not write anything through-composed until 1990’s Chronos Kristalla, for the Kronos Quartet). Possibly the most earnest demonstrations ever of the Cageian premise that absolutely anything can be music, the conceptual/performance pieces of Young’s early ’60s Theatre of the Singular Event set the stage for what might be called the Event of the Singular Tone. In certain of those compositions of this period that actually involved sound, Young stripped his aesthetic down to the bare requirement of incessant repetition (Arabic Numeral [Any Integer] for HF) or sustenance (Composition 1960 #7). Plus c’est la même, plus la chose change. Cage at this time found that Young gave him "utterly different experiences of listening than I’ve had with any other music.... after, say, five minutes, I discover that what I have all along been thinking was the same thing is...full of variety.... almost in the same sense that the change in experience of seeing is when you look through a microscope."
Stockhausen may seem, possibly, to have had his former star pupil in mind when, writing for "the younger generation" in 1968, he stated that "those who want to be musicians, following their higher voice, must start with the simplest meditative exercises: Play a sound with the certainty that you have all the time and space you want." But as the Dreams of China made clear, Young was increasingly concerned not so much with overcoming constraints on inspiration (it seems he’s never lacked that) as with dissolving the limits imposed by the heedless forward (into darkness) momentum of the dominant idioms (and, ultimately, the tuning) of Western music on the space in which tones were allowed to flower and propagate themselves. When had sufficient cognizance ever been taken of all that there is to hear within one tone or one chord?
"That is worth striving for is to discover everything that lies within the natural tone," which, "theoretically speaking, has no boundaries," Arnold Schoenberg declared in his 1911 Theory of Harmony. Up to a certain point, musicians had been "on the right track, as, following the dictates of the material, they imitated the overtones. But then they tempered the system, and the system tempered the burning desire to search. They had concluded a truce. But they did not rest (rasten) in order to rearm and regroup (rüsten); they rested in order to rust (rosten). The tempered system was...an ingenious simplification, but it was a makeshift. No one, having wings, would rather fly in an airplane.... We ought never to forget that the tempered system was only a truce, which should not last any longer than the imperfection of our instruments requires. We ought not to forget that we must still account for all the tones actually sounding, again and again, and shall have no rest from them nor from ourselves...as long as we have not solved the problems that are contained in tones."
Schoenberg foretold a time when the music of our culture will seem to lack depth, as painting before the discovery of perspective. (This sounds like Harry Partch, opposing abstract European harmony with the corporeality of just tuning!) Someday composers would have to return to the task of "the precise accommodation of all overtones, the relation to roots, eventually the formation of a new system...the invention of instruments that can bring that music into being." For Schoenberg, alas, this remained a futuristic fantasy, and in response to the perceived depletion of the resources of tonal music that he apparently understood to be attributable to the insufficiencies of temperament, he went on to create the apotheosis, in a sense, (or crucifixion) of equal temperament, twelve-tone serial music.
Young, who studied under former Schoenberg assistant Leonard Stein at L.A. City College in the mid-’50s, remembers reading the above passages of the Theory but not his reaction. His first exposure to harmonics in a physics of sound class in the same period doesn’t seem to have started any bells ringing. But by early 1963 his work with sustained tones had primed him for Tony Conrad’s bit of news "that with the integers you could analyze all of the ratios that were in the harmonic series.... suddenly I just took off.... I really felt that it was the most incredible revelation I had had in music. It became the key to my understanding of the relationship between sound and feeling, and to my theories about universal structure, and our perception of universal structure, and our perception of time" - as related to David Doty in 1/1: The Journal of the Just Intonation Network [Autumn, 1989].
Just intonation gave Young the means to map and mine the secret riches of the aural depths he had discovered in sustained tones. It also led him to the intuition that the profound human response to musical intervals is a sort of sympathetic vibration to the manifestation of primordial structural laws of the cosmos. The substance of music is vibration itself, directly apprehensible as such. In Young’s view, music therefore offers nearly unmediated access to universal truths.
Music is all a matter of Time, of cycles, of rhythm, down to the sensation of a single pitch: a subjective synthesis of discrete vibrations spaced in time according to a certain rate of repetition, or periodicity. Through the otonal form of just intonation, in which all the tones are derived as overtones of a single fundamental, Young has been able to create a sense of profound continuity, of an enduring, eternal and expanding Moment. Other contemporary minimalists were to strive for a condition of "timelessness" - an Eternal Now - through the hypnotic repetition of short phrases; even where this is an aspect of Young’s method, as in The Well-Tuned Piano, each tone participates in an enveloping drone that is the result of repetition on an "atomic" level.
The firmness of the framework within which intervals are perceived determines the subtlety of the relations that can be distinguished. Young has done more than anyone "to expand the range of our aural and mental `bypass filter,’" as he rather psychedelically puts it, "to include more distant regions of the harmonic series and their correlated feelings." As the sensation of consonance is dependent on the periodicity of the composite waveform of combined tones, every tone in the harmonic series could be considered a more or less distant consonance - in the precise sense of Schoenberg, who asserted that "there are no nonharmonic tones." Radiating from an incandescently intensified tonality, Young’s complex intervals induce the mind to breathe ever more deeply as their patterns crystallize and ripple out through dilating dimensions of harmonic hyperspace.
At the time of The Second Dream’s composition, Young’s discovery of the underlying mathematical structure of the harmonic series was imminent. Not coincidentally, he had also embarked on his pioneering exploration of the visionary space that paradoxically opens up as perception zooms in on smaller and smaller intervals and increasingly complex relations.
Nineteen-eighty-four’s Melodic Version permits each player to play all four notes, within the score’s harmonic strictures, allowing for interchange of melodic lines and chords between groups of four (the right and left channels), as well as longer sustains and unisons. In the recorded performance, Young’s musicians create an overarching symmetrical structure. Beginning with the lowest pitch, F, joined after five minutes by the Bb above (12:16) and about eight minutes later by the C (18), the extremely distended periods move inward to the "half-step," which enters after twenty-five minutes or so. As the intervals become smaller, the complexity of the waveform increases, amplifying certain spectral effects that have eluded standard notation (acoustic beats, combination tones...), unfolding a wondrously intricate tapestry.
Before it is sustained for the first time (and intermittently afterward), the B dividing the 9/8 "whole-step" is sounded as a sudden, solitary tone - a stylistic feature Young calls a pulse that dates from for Brass and was inspired by the owls in the woods around Utah Lake and the whistles of a Los Angeles trainyard. Keep an ear out for the appearance, flashing on the edge of the unknown, of a mysterious tonal entity ("Who?") (it’s the 1:17, right on time).
Here the B equals the prime ratio 17. Young worked intensively with the ensemble to find empirically the interval that would divide 9/8 satisfyingly in this context, as readers of 1/1 may remember, a quest complicated by inharmonicities of the instrument and the possibility of several other options (including higher primes). The more absorbed the listener in the texture of the Dream up to this point, the less will this interval seem to come out of nowhere. It emerges naturally, logically, from the timbral contour. As C was heard in F long before it was explicitly played, the B (17) is heralded in the summation tone produced by C (9) and Bb (8). Eventually, the trumpets move out again to smoother consonance, but "resolution" takes its own sweet time. An ecstatic plateau is attained, a constant state of vibrant tension that does not anxiously strain toward climax - somewhat as in tantric sex (tantra is cognate with "tension" and "tone") - permitting an ever-deeper immersion in the experience.
The Second Dream offers an invaluable educational experience by presenting in such a lucid format a higher prime ratio than would ordinarily be readily available for study. Each prime-numbered harmonic is a unique musical essence; the average Western ear has some acquaintance with only the first two or three. Young would in the future venture ever farther into hitherto unknown reaches of the periodic table of musical elements.
The rules for improvisation that make up the score of The Second Dream define a work that can never really be said to end and that is also "taken from the top" after every silence, whether of seconds or of years (which is to say that each microsection of the recorded version would be considered a complete performance). This formulation of "eternal" performance - reminiscent, aptly, of the ritual dream-time of the Australian aborigines, and theoretically incorporating the silences when the work exists only in latency - was the seed of the idea of a work that would endure in actualization for weeks, months or years and thus laid the foundation for the Dream House, Young and Marian Zazeela’s continuous sound/light environments where, since 1969, has dwelt a genre of music new to the planet.
Soon after his initiation into just tuning, Young began his nonstop drone works, attaching a mike to the motor of his turtle’s aquarium and tuning his Theatre of Eternal Music performing ensemble to its hum: the 60-cycles-per-second (or Hertz) pitch that emanates from all electrical devices in North America. (After all, we’re all in the same aquarium.) You’d have to go back to before the Renaissance to find any significant use of a dronelike device in Western classical music, whereas Indian music would not exist without the drone. The scales of the Indian improviser were drawn from listening far into the fundamental tone. Since 1970, when he brought the incomparable Pandit Pran Nath to the United States and became his disciple, until the master's death in 1996, at least half of Young’s time was spent studying Indian classical music. Even in light of Indian music, however, Young’s drones fly in the face of all the received notions, in that he sustains dense microtonal clusters.
In his drone music Young continued to evolve the unique form of group improvisation in long tones introduced in the Dreams of China, which requires of his players the greatest degree of attentiveness and a very high order of musicianship. (As Young has remarked, he has never written anything easy to play.) From John Cale to Jon Hassell to Ben Neill (who has a word about this in the liner notes of The Second Dream), those who have filled the ranks of the various incarnations of the Theatre of Eternal Music have found the gig akin to a spiritual initiation.
Ever fascinated by the division of the 9/8 interval, Young superimposed Dream Chords in selected permutations in 1980’s Twelve Subsequent Dreams of China (for instruments in multiples of eight, though fate decreed that the first performance of any of the Subsequent Dreams in 1993 would join eight strings, five muted trumpets and five bass flutes); the concept has been further elaborated in Orchestral Dreams (1985) and The Subsequent Dreams of the Four Dreams of China in Simultaneity (1993). (Personally, I’d like to see them all recorded - a twenty-? thirty-? CD set!) As far back as 1967 (5 V 67 6:38 PM NYC) the 9/8 leitmotif, if you will, was extended to the key of the seventh harmonic (63/56, a ratio first found in The Well-Tuned Piano) in Young’s electronic drone music, where he has over the years developed a method of composition around selecting certain of the partial tones framed by each of these 9/8s (in ascending ranges of the series) and transposing particular ones into upper and lower octaves to arrange "symmetries." This vision became fully practical only in 1984 (The Big Dream, followed in 1988 by The Big Dream Symmetries), with Young’s acquisition of the Rayna Syn-1 sine-wave synthesizer, designed to produce high-numbered ratios accurate to within one beat a year.
Young’s work has been informed by an attention to "the material" - i.e., the tone - unsurpassed in the history of music. The tone, however, is as much a product of the mind as an objective referent in physical nature. The ideal overtone series exists as it were on a more rarefied, astral plane, a divine emanation that in nature is reflected and refracted with varying degrees of clarity, proportionate to the purity of the medium. Young’s customized Rayna functions as a sort of aural electron microscope to make available overtones whose analogues in nature are far above the range of the ear’s discrimination. A precision of intonation is achieved that is hardly possible through any natural medium.
For an installation that ran for over a year, Young composed in January 1989 The Symmetries in Prime Time from 144 to 112 with 119 - the title refers to his use of prime-numbered harmonics - with seventeen distinct frequencies plus octave doublings to total twenty-two tones, some as close as a "sixteenth-tone," centered around the prime interval 127 from both left and right speakers. In four astounding concerts in March of 1990, the twenty-three-piece Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band performed a section of this work, The Lower Map of the Eleven’s Division in the Romantic Symmetry (over a 60-cycle base) in Prime Time..., within the sound environment. If such a dense microtonal "constellation," in Young’s term, initially seemed a sonic wall, it soon began to breathe and shimmer and mushroomed in a slow-mo Big Bang into a galactic nebula where wheels within wheels of microscalar systems coalesced, as each section of the orchestra - voices, brass, sustain guitars - contributed its vibrational vortex to the undulating, pulsing field of forces.
More recent presentations of Young’s drone music have probed the target harmonic space a further three octaves and included intervals just a little over 3 cents wide. In the current series involving certain of the intervals represented by twin primes, separated by one number (such as 31 and 29), Young has experimented with omission of the "range limits," the outer 9/7ths.
Placing harmony in every respect before melody, Young’s drone music is antipodal to the world we’d known. It asks of us a new way of listening, alluded to in the title of Young’s unpublished treatise, "Vertical Hearing or Hearing in Present Tense." Young says the drone music is the form in which he feels "freest." The "drone state of mind" of which he writes is the liberation into wider spheres of harmonic orbit that is only made viable by the anchoring of an unshakable center of tonal gravity. La Monte Young is the premier composer of the space age in a very specific sense, evident in this statement of his aim (from the notes to The Young Prime Time Twins in The Ranges 1152 to 896; 576 to 448; 288 to 224; 144 to 112; 72 to 56; 36 to 28; With The Range Limits 1152, 448, 288, 224, 56 and 28, 1991): "to express other-world realities that preview the structures for a universe of composition that may have been intuited since the beginnings of time, but has never been heard before."
Thanks to the acquisition of a seven-year lease on the floor above Young and Marian Zazeela’s TriBeCa, NYC, loft (275 Church Street), a Dream House was opened in 1993. There is arguably an aspect of minimalism, of the "brushstroke-free" school, to the drone installations in that the sound remains utterly the same (believe it or not) hour after hour as it is emitted from the speakers. The precise and various effects of the configuration of the room on the standing waves are unplanned, as aleatory as the quite pronounced whirls and eddies formed by any motion, any disturbance of the air. But the multifaceted form of the (currently) thirty-five-frequency construction is the principal reason it changes hallucinogenically with every minute shift in perspective and why the tones freeze in place as long as one is perfectly still while the slightest gesture will startle forth unnamable, wildly plumed melodies from the luxuriant harmonic foliage.
Marian Zazeela’s light sculptures have invariably, teasingly refused to surrender their entire secret to photographic reproduction, so much do they depend on the retinal impact of activated photons in real time and so much do they exploit, in ways analogous to Young’s techniques, the creation of visual combination tones and an accumulation of after-images.
Zazeela has, as usual, lavished her artistry on the packaging of the Second Dream CD. Her trademark calligraphy, here accompanied by improvised glyphs that suggest an esoteric tradition, is loosely based on the Chinese writing she studied some years ago (the label was originally executed on rice paper). The cover photograph, shot by Zazeela, is a view through magenta mists toward the Himalayas: the youngest mountains on the planet, where monks disperse evil spirits with implacable blasts on trumpets of human bone and tantric choirs reverently evoke overtones...and behind which lies China.
This article first appeared in 1/1: The Journal of the Just Intonation Network, May 1994, Volume 6, Number 3