Ragas and Ratios: 6 Things We Learned from Legendary Avant-Garde Artist La Monte Young

"You get involved with the frequencies and it becomes a vehicle for meditation. Through meditation, you can achieve another aspect of existence."

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May 9 2015, 5:30pm

Jung Hee Choi. Copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2015. The Just Alap Raga Ensemble performing Raga Darbari, Dream House, Berlin 2012. L to R: Jung Hee Choi, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, voices; Naren Budhkar, tabla.

In the early 1950’s at John Marshall High School, a secondary school with an unparalleled reputation in jazz education, one teacher responded critically to the experimental music played for him by an adolescent La Monte Young.

“You sound like an 80-year-old man,” the teacher told him.

And Wednesday night, in conversation with Alan Licht as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York, a 79-year-old Young declared, “I’ve finally made it!”

Jung Hee Choi. Copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2015. Alan Licht interviewing La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Jung Hee Choi, Red Bull Music Academy, NYC, 2015.

The room was very purple. Purple glass refrigerators filled with Red Bull, purple neon lights glowing from the floors behind the purple velour couch and love seat, which held Alan Licht, minimalist guitarist and composer, Jung Hee Choi, Dream House visual artist, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela, light artist and Young’s wife who wore a purple scarf and purple pants. Incense burned next to Licht as a recording of a tambura droned in the background. Young and Zazeela looked like a Hell’s Angels version of Santa and Mrs. Claus emerging from the dust of Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 for this discussion. Young began by talking about the tambura, the instrument that sparked his love for Indian classical music.

La Monte Young’s reputation proceeds him. Not only is he considered by many to be the first minimalist composer and father of drone music, but his innumerable contributions to the Western canon through the study of sound mathematics produced an unparalleled body of work that went on to influence a host—if not a generation—of musicians, including Brian Eno, John Cale, Lou Reed and more recently, Spacemen 3. He introduced the use of sustained tones to engage and stimulate the psyche to Western music. In the early 1960s, Young moved to New York and began working as the founding musical director of the concert series at Yoko Ono’s home at 112 Chambers Street. During that time, he started the Dream House, a light and sound environment that housed his performances. He challenged his audiences with compositions that suggested that theatrical performance and perfunctory details of the every day could be experienced as music. Some of these pieces would last days at a time, with chords held for over 24 hours before they switched to the next. In one particularly memorable piece, "Composition 1960 #5," Young released a flock of butterflies on the audience and they listened to the beat of their wings.

Young studied under Pandit Pran Nath, a master of raga, a type of Indian classical music that consists of four or more musical parts within a melody, that is generally played during a prescribed time of day or season. In ragas, tone or mood is stressed over melody. The study of raga is one of the most august, in large part because of the sheer time commitment required; a raga disciple generally lives with their master for most of their life. Young and Zazeela lived with Pandit Pran Nath for 26 years. It is a dying tradition, in fact, and they are considered to be two of the last living raga disciples.

The panel discussion started out sharp, intelligent, witty and punctuated by the occasional anecdote from Young, and enriched by Alan Licht's laudable knowledge of Young and his canon. Well-crafted questions provided insight into the experiences and history of a living legend. By the end, everyone—audience included—was visibly exhausted, but before it got to that point, here are a few things we learned from Young over the course of the evening:

On his use of sustained tones:

“The idea of sustained tones came to me like a vision in the '50s; that sustained tones are really necessary to allow music to evolve to a higher level. You get involved with the frequencies and it becomes a vehicle for meditation. Through meditation, you can achieve another aspect of existence. Japanese imperial court music took a very strong role with sustained tones and harmony. They had the idea that sustained tones had to do with spirituality.”  

On the math behind his sounds:

“It was very common for everybody to think about the spectrum that Stockhausen and Henry Cowell [used], analyzing rhythm up the frequency; that rhythm gradually changes into what we hear as pitch. I was thinking about it and I realized that the frequencies can be a vehicle for a type of spirituality. We can define spirituality or maybe we can't, but it's not necessarily having to do with religion. It's having to do with leaving the body. And letting the body be the body….Frequency ratios, which is where every numerator and every denominator can be represented by some whole number, represent a new world.

It was an ancient idea that whole number frequency ratios were important, and gradually, I pointed out in some of my theoretical writings that only whole number frequency ratios produce composite waveforms that are periodic. The brain analyzes information of a periodic nature better than any other kind. If you give it radical noise, it doesn't know what to make of it... but with pure harmonic frequency ratios you can establish profound psychological states.

They used to talk about the relationship of the modes to the moods. This was something I became very extremely interested in. It was very appealing to me. It's what's going on in Indian classical music and it's what's gone on in a great deal of Asian music. Once I had sine waves available to me, and frequency counters and my ear and oscilloscopes, I was able to put whole number ratios on an oscilloscope and from that I was able to use patterns that nobody had ever set up before and nobody had ever heard before.”

On the tambura:

“I had been listening to Japanese gagaku, that's court music, imperial court music, and I had been listening to [an] Ali Akbar Khan recording that came out in the mid-50s... There were two ragas and he also introduced the tambura and for the first time in my life I heard a tambura alone... That tambura had an enormous effect on me. I felt that it was one of the most mysterious and incredible sounds I had ever heard.”

Jung Hee Choi. Copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2015. La Monte Young.

On the Dream House, his itinerant light and sound installation currently housed at 275 Church Street in New York:

“The Dream House [is] a sound and a light environment... It's a time installation measured by a series of frequencies in sound and light. The idea was that the frequencies are continuous... We can think of the Dream House as a way in which we can find another environment that can influence our lives. Imagine generations being born in the Dream House. Children born there knowing almost nothing else... But the fact that they were born in the dream house, that they lived there for lifetimes and their parents lived there and their grandparents lived there, it would allow a new way of thought processing and it would allow people to transcend beyond the kind of life that we live.”

On his musical upbringing:

"I grew up in jazz, and I grew up in classical music. My first teacher was my father. He started teaching me cowboy songs, and then he had me studying when I was two years old with his sister, Norma, my aunt Norma, who was a rodeo singer, and she started teaching me cowboy songs. She was very good. As a young girl, maybe 12, 13 or 14 years old, she was singing at the rodeos, breaking people's heart with these songs... And these songs are very, very touching and many of them are modal.”

On his raga education:

“In Indian classical music, Pandit Pran Nath said to me, okay, the first 12 years is voice culturing, after 20 or 30 years I can put you on stage. And I'm thinking, what? This sounds like hard work... The way you learn Indian classical music, or raga, you learn all the details of the raga by memory and you don't start improvising with them until many years later... We do improvise a lot, but you begin with all of these fixed elements.”

The Dream House Sound and Light Environment is located at 275 Church Street in NYC and is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 2 PM to midnight. Click here for more information.

Young and Zazeela are also opening a new Dream House at 545 West 22nd St. that will run from June 17th to October 24th.

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