A La Monte Young Diary: April 1974 August 1, 1974

April 14, 1974: I again visit La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela to get material for the article I am supposed to write about their forthcoming series at the Kitchen. I already have plenty of background material about Young’s early serial music, his short career as an excellent jazz saxophonist, his unusual theater pieces, his explorations into various tuning systems and his gradual progression to the Oriental-inspired style he now practices, singing against endless drones. So I ask Young if he would just give me a little singing lesson so I can actually experience what his current art is all about.

He agrees. But instead of turning on the oscillators, as he does in his own performances, he takes out the tambura and asks me to imitate some traditional raga figures. Some of the phrases are quite long, and I have to concentrate extremely hard to be able to sing them back with any accuracy. The lines feel very good as I sing them, however, and I begin to sense some of the joy of learning by rote, rather than from sheet music.

An interesting point arises concerning tuning. Different ragas require slightly different tuning of the minor third, and Young shows me how to make this extremely subtle distinction by listening to the overtones in the tambura. I begin to understand why Young feels that the Western concept of good intonation is crude by comparison.

Later Alex Dea and Jon Hassell arrive and I listen in on a rehearsal of the music they will be presenting at the Kitchen. Sine wave generators, two voices, and a French horn provide the various drone tones, while Young improvises his solo line. Intricate designs by Zazeela are projected on one wall, slowly shifting in shape and color.

Only three or four pitches ever come into play at one time, and the music is quite placid, though the inventive solo lines keep it always alive. The slight unsureness I sensed when Young was singing ragas is completely gone now that the microphones are on and he is doing his own music, without any lyrics to worry about.

Sometimes, after maybe 30 or 40 minutes, a new note will be introduced, and the music will seem a bit agitated. Soon, however, the ear becomes acclimated to the new mode, and the atmosphere becomes placid and hypnotic once again. It is easy to fall asleep during a performance of this sort, and that has happened to me at other times. But this time I stay awake, sometimes consciously listening for overtones or following the subtleties of Young’s vocal lines, and sometimes just relaxing and allowing the music to wash over me. When I leave, after a couple of hours, I feel quite relaxed and at peace with the world. The music seems to have some distinct therapeutic value, though I am in no mood to want to analyze that or figure out how it might work.

May 5: The final concert of the Kitchen series is this afternoon, and I feel like I really ought to go and listen to the whole event, which will probably go on for three or four hours, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I have dropped by for short periods of time earlier in the week, so I already have a good idea of what the group is sounding like, and the idea of actually submitting my senses again to a whole performance is more than I seem to be able to handle.

I guess in the bottom of my soul I’m just not a true believer. I’m an admirer all right. I can appreciate Young’s dedication and influence and talent. I can even say, with complete honesty, that I think he is one of the most vital forces in new music today. But I can’t get myself over to the concert.

Those performances, with their hypnotic qualities and their extreme subtlety, can do good things for the listener and his soul. They sort of lull him into himself, and into the mysteries of sound and vibrations, and after a few hours he tends to forget all about the lesser realities. He may even sense a kind of purification going on in his mind.

But Young’s performances demand a lot in return, too. Most of all they demand time and patience, but they also require an open mind, and a willingness to submit to a rather heavy dose of whatever it is that the Theater of Eternal Music puts out, and somehow that’s more than I can give today.

Of course I feel sort of responsible to go, since I’m a music critic, but I manage to assuage my guilty conscience by making up a few good reasons for staying home. After all it was less than two weeks ago that I listened to that long rehearsal session, and I have a pretty good idea of what the music is about, and I know that the performance will be on a high level, and I know that it will sound particularly good if I can focus on those lovely overtones which sometimes hover over Zazeela’s singing. I would probably know more if I went over there again, but I stay home instead. I guess I just don’t feel like being cleansed again quite so soon.

Perhaps my response to Young’s music is similar to the way other people respond to the ‘Messiah.’ It’s wonderful stuff, and it probably presents all the great spiritual truths as well as anything does. But somehow, about once a year is enough.