September 21, 2020

The Man Who Brian Eno Called ‘the Daddy of Us All’

THE COMPOSER LA MONTE YOUNG held his 84th birthday party on a drab, rainy Sunday afternoon last October inside the Church Street building where he has lived with his wife, the 80-year-old artist Marian Zazeela, since 1963. That people like Young and Zazeela can still be found in TriBeCa in 2020 is nothing short of remarkable. Young is certainly the lone musician alive today who can claim to be no more than two degrees removed from three of the greatest icons of 20th-century modern music: Igor Stravinsky (who taught Robert Stevenson, the musicologist who was Young’s mentor in college), Charlie Parker (who played with the saxophonist Lee Konitz, with whom Young himself played as a session musician in Los Angeles) and Lou Reed (who co-founded the Velvet Underground with one of Young’s bandmates, John Cale). He is often considered the founder of minimalist music, having stripped composition down to its bare elements of rhythm, sound and tempo as early as the late ’50s. His compositions can alternate between abrasive (the 30-minute-long “Day of Niagara,” recorded in 1965 with Zazeela, along with Cale and sometime Velvet Underground collaborators Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise, is a loud score that sounds not unlike an airplane engine and predated the noise rock of Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” and other staples of early punk by about a decade) and hauntingly beautiful (such as 1958’s “Trio for Strings,” a three-hour piece that effectively created the language of minimalist music through the use of sustained tones punctuated by brief gasps of silence). In the 1960s, he introduced generations of musicians to the concepts of drones and sustained repetition and began incorporating Indian classical music into his work, about five years before George Harrison had ever heard of the sitar.

I arrived to his party trailing two deliverymen carrying plastic bags of Indian takeout to feed the two dozen or so guests. The banality of this entrance, compared to what I was entering into, was dislocating. On the second floor of the building, where a small crowd had encircled him, Young was seated in what might be called his living room, though it was really more of a small clearing amid the collected detritus of 60 or so years. There were layers of boxes containing records and papers and home recordings, all of which I suspected to be invaluable in some way to understanding his musical output. Young has recorded every performance and rehearsal he’s ever done, though he rarely releases anything to the public. “I’m only interested in releasing masterpieces,” he’d tell me later.

ImageYoung and Jung Hee Choi, his longtime student and collaborator. 
Credit…Nicholas Calcott

As the years go on and Young gets older, it becomes only clearer how impossible it would be to conceive of most postwar musical innovations, from distortion to electronic music to sampling, without him. He is prone to statements — that he delivers with such deadpan matter-of-factness that it is hard not to take him at his word — such as, “I don’t want to be overbearing, but I think I’m one of the greatest musicians who ever lived.” Since so little of his music has ever been available to listen to, much of the evidence for this rests mostly on Young himself.

Later, the image that would stay with me from Young’s house was of an old cathode-ray tube TV, stacked atop an older, worse TV, with a Post-it stuck to its screen noting the channel for CNN; the TV was, in fact, turned to CNN, but the signal kept going out, the picture alternating between the blurred image of the 24-hour news cycle and a dead screen the color of a clear morning sky. This acted as an occasional reminder of the reality that existed just outside his door, but each time the picture cut out, it was as if the force of Young himself — his very presence in the room — was overpowering it.

Young was wearing small sunglasses, leather gloves and a torn jean vest with biker chains. The vest — under which he was shirtless, though the front of his body was obscured by his beard, a big, white scraggly tuft of hair — appeared as if it hadn’t been removed in several decades. He looked simultaneously like a dignified spiritual leader and a Hells Angel who never left his post at the Altamont Speedway in December 1969. Across from him, dressed entirely in purple and sitting in a wheelchair, was Zazeela, and seated on the floor, at his feet, was a tabla player named Naren Budhkar as well as Jung Hee Choi, an artist and musician who has studied with Young and Zazeela for the last 20 years, and whom Young describes as his “senior disciple.” Like Young, she was holding a microphone. In a chair behind and to their left was Hansford Rowe, the bass player, a wiry man with short cropped hair, and to the right was an empty chair. The guitarist was late. “Should we have paid him more?” Choi asked Young jokingly. “I think we should pay him less,” he responded in a more ambiguous tone. When the guitar player, Jon Catler, did arrive, his entrance was hardly acknowledged beyond the fact that everyone began to play.

La Monte Young’s “Trio for Strings Original Full Length Version” (1958–1998–2015)

An excerpt from the composer’s 2015 performance at the “Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House” in New York City.

I RETURNED TO the Church Street space the following week. The building has four floors, and Young and Zazeela live on the second. On the top floor is storage space, where Young keeps one of his pianos, and between the two is the “Dream House,” Young and Zazeela’s long-running sound and light installation. This one dates from 1993, though Young and Zazeela have made some 40 iterations of the piece in locations across the world. The “Dream Houses” are rooms that Zazeela has lit, usually in magenta or purple, through the use of carefully positioned colored lights, and inside of which Young’s music (or, in this case, his and Choi’s music) plays, either live or through speakers, or both at the same time. Visitors sit or stand or lie down in the carpeted space for as long as they like, and the “Dream House” in the Church Street building is open to the public, as long as someone is there to buzz you in. It’s a simple concept, and yet this harmony between sound and light was one of the earliest cohabitations of contemporary music and art.

The two conceptualized the “Dream House” around the same time they first met in the early ’60s. Zazeela was then a painter who used calligraphy — her work, Young offhandedly mentions, was “better than Picasso” — and was experimenting with colored light and shadow. The first fully realized one was completed in 1969, inside Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich. The idea was both spiritual — an environment in which musicians could perform for “24 hours and going to eternity,” as Choi put it — but also practical: If Young had a dedicated space to play that he enjoyed being inside of, his music could evolve naturally, and he wouldn’t have to bother with the distraction of setting up equipment and breaking it down each time he performed. This was crucial because Young has always done everything slowly. (Choi told me that when she first met Young 20 years ago, it took him up to six hours just to wash his hair, even though he was already going bald; to this, Young said, with such sincerity that my heart broke a little bit, “I just find the warm-water experience to be very seductive,” which is such a great way to describe a shower.) From early on, Young’s music was built around the ideas of endurance and duration, more so than conventional musical ideas like melody and lyric. The 1987 recording of his most famous piece, “The Well-Tuned Piano” (reissued in 2018, though he first wrote it in 1964), runs for nearly six-and-a-half hours.

Credit…Peter Moore © 2020 Barbara Moore/licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y., courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, N.Y.
Credit…© The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.

In person, Young is an imposing but friendly presence. He, Choi and Zazeela have worked together for the last two decades, an arrangement that has its roots in the ancient Indian musical practice of a master musician who trains a small group of disciples. For more than 25 years, beginning in 1970, Young and Zazeela were followers of Pandit Pran Nath, one of the greatest singers of Kirana gharana, an Indian classical vocal style sung over a drone. After Nath became their guru, Young and Zazeela traveled to India several times, and soon brought him back to America, helping arrange his green card and setting him up with a teaching job, in addition to putting him up in their house. The idea behind the guru discipleship is for the students to do whatever the master says. “You’re supposed to make his life very fantastic, so he can do his greatest creations,” Young said. When Nath died in 1996, Young and Zazeela, who often performed with her husband as a singer, were heartbroken. They hadn’t sung in three years when they met Choi. Every time they tried, they just began crying. When they told Choi this, she said, “Your teacher would be very unhappy if you stopped singing.” And with that, she became their disciple.

The disciple’s primary responsibility is to carry on their guru’s musical tradition. Or, as Young puts it, a disciple is supposed to be like a pair of sandals for the guru to step into and walk off in. In this way, Choi, though she still does her own compositions, has been integrated into Young and Zazeela’s work in the same way that Young and Zazeela were once integrated into Nath’s. But Choi’s discipleship resembles less indentured servitude and more the relationship between a daughter and her parents. (Young and Zazeela have no children, though at age 50, Choi could theoretically be their child.) The two serve as backing musicians in Choi’s own band, an arrangement that would have never existed between Nath and Young. Choi told a story from the early days of this relationship, when Choi often carried a first-generation digital camera, which she used to document her work with Young and Zazeela. It was heavy, housed in a large aluminum box, and Young always insisted on carrying it for her. Terry Riley, another influential minimalist composer who had been a disciple of Nath, once saw Young carrying his disciple’s bag for her. “Things have really changed,” he said.

Credit…Photo: John Cliett © Pandit Pran Nath, 1987. Courtesy of the Pandit Pran Nath Musical Composition Trust.

THOUGH HE’S HAD a great influence on it, Young has never been a fan of popular music. Brian Eno, who did as much as any single figure to introduce electronic music to Top 40 radio, has called Young “the daddy of us all.” It’s true: One could trace a lineage of adventurous composition directly back to Young from multiple directions. In classical music, his experiments with volume and repetition would birth an entirely new style of playing, the influence of which could later be found in the works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Young also taught John Cale how to play a drone on an amplified viola, which would define the sound of the early Velvet Underground records and would forever connect rock to the avant-garde, inspiring innumerable musicians, from David Bowie to Sonic Youth to Lana Del Rey. (Young also introduced Cale to marijuana.)

Choi attempted to further explain his lasting influence to me by mentioning that last year, Katia and Marielle Labèque’s “Minimalist Dream House” tour (in part a tribute to Young) featured new compositions by Thom Yorke, the singer for Radiohead.

“Say it again?” Young asked.

“Radiohead, like the most popular group,” Choi said.

“Radio what?” Young asked, and Choi moved on.

It is difficult to square Young’s influence with the humbleness of Young’s upbringing. He was born into a conservative Mormon family, inside a log cabin in Bern, Idaho, a town that at the time had a population of about 145. His father was a sheep herder who moved the family to Los Angeles in 1940 to work as an experimental machinist for the Douglas Aircraft Company when Young was about 5. But at heart, Young’s father was a cowboy, a country hill jack with a temper. A doctor once told Young’s father that his son was very smart, and upon hearing this news, Young’s father took him outside and beat him. “That’s what my life was like,” Young said, sadly. He describes his mother as beautiful but long-suffering. In Idaho, when his father would go up into the foothills to herd sheep, she would get on a horse and take food up to him. “The cowboy life was very hard on her,” Young said.

Credit…© Marian Zazeela, 1994

But despite all odds, the family was also musical. Young’s father sung cowboy songs to him from birth, and around age 2, Young began receiving music lessons from his Aunt Norma, a singer who performed at rodeos. By age 3, he and his older sister La Juana were tap dancing and singing onstage in Montpelier, the town across the railroad tracks from Bern. His father bought him his first saxophone around age 6, and his Uncle Thornton, who had been in a swing band in the ’30s, gave him Jimmy Dorsey sheet music.

The idea of La Monte Young playing Jimmy Dorsey is likely inconceivable to anyone who has heard Young’s compositions, with their long, improvisational drones and outré chord changes, but this grounding in familiar conventions is what separates Young from other minimalists. His music at times can sound like a pastiche of musical touchstones, with a sudden blues riff or jazzy scale or folky chord change amid the chaos: Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, he offers up something familiar and comforting.

It was in Los Angeles that Young went from a promising child prodigy to a serious working musician, and the people who guided him in this transition are central figures in his impressive mythology. By the time he arrived at Los Angeles City College as a music student, he already had a reasonably successful career. A slightly older student there, Eric Dolphy, who later became one of the most revered avant-garde saxophone players of the 20th century as a sideman for John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, would set Young up with gigs when he was too busy to take them. At City College, Young studied with Leonard Stein, who had been the longtime assistant of Arnold Schoenberg, before transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles. He’d go on to graduate school at Berkeley, where he began moving away from jazz and developing his unique style of piano playing, which he describes as more percussive than melodic, and experimenting with sounds and the idea of continuous noise.

In 1960, Young moved to New York and placed himself at the center of the avant-garde. Not long after his arrival, the composers John Cage and David Tudor, to whom Young had mailed a few of his scores, presented Young’s music at the Living Theater. He then became a teaching assistant for Richard Maxfield, the electronic music composer, and was, briefly, the saxophone player in Warhol’s first rock band, the Druds, which included Walter De Maria on drums and lyrics by Jasper Johns. (Young quit after one rehearsal because nobody seemed to be taking the music seriously.) Yoko Ono let him host concerts at her loft on Chambers Street, where he refined his ideas about endurance and performance by introducing a method of instructions for performers, some literally achievable (“draw a straight line and follow it”) and some less so (“bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink”).

Throughout all of this, his family remained unimpressed. Young now owns the cabin he grew up in and has been wondering what to do with it. He was going to visit the place — Choi has never seen it — but there are too many unknown factors to consider. For one thing, he’s behind on his rent in New York (he never managed to buy the Church Street building), and he owes his landlord more than $100,000. He’s worried about being evicted. His health is also poor, as is Zazeela’s, and even before the pandemic, he wasn’t sure they could manage plane travel. To get to Bern, they’d have to fly to Logan-Cache Airport in Utah, and then drive through Logan Canyon, through the Bear River Mountains and across the state line into Idaho. Logan Canyon was the first place Young saw colored lights, which he often asked his parents about, though they would never answer him. Years later, he would return with Zazeela, and they would discover the lights were from a resort where people could drink alcohol, which was outlawed by his parents’ religion. He’s been thinking of installing a sign in front of the cabin — “La Monte Young Was Born Here” — but his sister has demurred: She was born there, too, she says. Why shouldn’t she get a sign as well?

Credit…Peter Moore © 2020 Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y., courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, N.Y.

I’VE PUT OFF writing about what it was like to watch Young perform, because I fear words will be insufficient. I can describe what happened literally: The assembled players performed one of Choi’s compositions. Young and Choi sang in the style that Young had learned from his guru (Zazeela, who has lost most of her hearing, simply listened), chanting into their microphones at different pitches for over an hour without stopping, their voices harmonizing with one another and the drone, a 1982 recording of Young and Zazeela on tambouras, over which they were singing. Despite Young’s age, his voice was powerful and unwaveringly on key. This was expected, given that he’s spent the last 50 years perfecting this style of singing, but still astonishing to witness. The tabla player kept a steady rhythm, while the guitarist and bassist played a repetitive figure that in some ways resembled blues. There were notes that sounded like the typical flat thirds and minor pentatonic scales that define the form, but it had been reordered and twisted into nonrecognition — the music was based on a scale that Choi invented herself. This instrumentation seemed to grow in intensity as the performance went on, as if the music was working itself up into some kind of frenzy, but it never became the center of focus: That remained Young’s voice, strong and balanced, like something that was simply affixed to the wall and had always been there and — while the performance was happening, at least — seemed like it always would be.

It’s harder for me to say how I felt having witnessed this. My first thought was how was it possible that I could watch such a performance, amid the hyper-gentrified luxury condos of TriBeCa of all places, a feeling of disbelief that intensified once I re-emerged onto Church Street and my stunned silence was disrupted by a crowd of about 40 yuppies led by a man with a bullhorn who was shouting about how they were a “meet-up dance party.” Much later, my thoughts drifted back to what Young had told me about the guru and the disciple — that music is greater than its performers, that it can be taught and passed on. It’s always difficult to imagine a future, and some days it is near impossible, but I tried to envision myself as an old man about the age Young is now, and how if I make it that long, I’ll do my small part in passing on the musical tradition, by telling people about the one rainy Sunday afternoon a long time ago when I went to La Monte Young’s house and heard him sing.