Tuesday, October 14, 2014

La Monte Young turns 79 today

Below is a recount of early sounds that influenced his body of work. It is the answer to a single question ("Let's talk about the first sounds that you were aware of as a child") in an interview with Gabrielle Zuckerman for American Public Media, July 2002.

"As some people know, I have written extensively about my childhood experiences with sound. There were certain sounds that were especially influential to me, such as the sound of the wind blowing around the corners and through the attic of the log cabin that I was born in, in Bern, Idaho in 1935. Bern was a little Swiss dairy community that had 149 residents at that time, and it was in Bear Lake Valley. In the winter, the wind would come up at forty miles an hour over the lake, and in a blizzard you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. This wind going through the log cabin was really something.

The other sound that really had a big influence on me was the sound of step-down transformers on telephone poles in an electrical yard. I would ask my mother, "What is the wind?" I was very curious, and I would talk about the wind at ages as early as 2 or 3 years old. Looking out the window and seeing it move the alfalfa that was growing outside the cabin, my mother would try to explain to me what the wind was. But while she was talking, I was also listening to the sound of these telephone poles, and it was just a continuous steady hum. This continuous steady hum is the ancestral origin of my work with sixty-cycles, which is the frequency that the electrical companies provide the power to us in the United States: 60 cycles per second. Everywhere we go, we hear this 60 cycle drone and, or, other frequency components that are related to this drone. Eventually I began to tune all of my music that I do in the U.S. with electronics to this 60 cycle per second drone, because even in today's year, 2001-2002, and even with the best equipment, there is still some residual hum. (60 cycles per second.) If you create music that is in tune with this hum, then there can never be an interference with the music that you are creating. It's the idea that it is the strongest drone in our vicinity.

For example, when I sing outdoors, I listen to the resonance of the canyon or the ocean, or whatever is the natural resonance of the woods... Let's say I'm walking through the woods. I sit and listen to the resonant frequency. It's easy to hear it because the birds sing at this frequency. They tune in to the resonance of the woods. You hear different birdcalls reflecting this resonance, although the calls are different. What is a resonance? A resonance is that frequency which, if you assume that you have two parallel walls, a resonant frequency is that frequency which starts on one wall, hits the other wall, and gets back to wall number 1 just in time to reinforce the very next positive pulse of the frequency. This is resonance of the simplest type. These occur in many different kinds of situations including outdoors, in canyons and in caves, tunnels, and in the woods. So, in that kind of situation, one might choose this natural resonance that is taking place, and perform with that. In the case of electronics, the 60 cycles is really the strongest frequency that we have to deal with.

It's like looking for universal constants. Eventually we're all looking for these special frequencies to which everything else is related, frequencies that have then a harmonic structure, which in turn is related to the structure of the universe. In Indian classical thought there is the idea that the universe was created with sound. In fact, it is said that when Vishnu decided to create the cosmos, he first cut himself in half and made out of one half of himself Brahma. Brahma created the world as we know it through sound. There is a famous Sanskrit line "Nada Brahma"- "Sound is God". Out of the center of himself, Vishnu created Shiva. Brahma had the soul function of creating the cosmos. Shiva destroys the cosmos and recreates it again, and again on through time. When we speak of Nada-Sound, there are two types of sound: Anahata Nada and Ahata Nada. Ahata Nada is sound as we know it in a medium: a "struck sound". They call it a struck sound, but it really means more like a bowed sound; it means the sound of my voice talking, it means the sound of my voice singing. Anahata Nada is theoretically the sound of the ethers vibrating. It is this vibration that can be a model for the sound that we actually hear and experience. Anahata Nada is the sound of universal structure. Why was it interesting for me to listen to these long sustained sounds of telephone poles, and why did I eventually introduce long sustained sounds into music?

Over the years, I've talked about various reasons why I did this. I began to discover that while I had the sustained sound, I could listen to the harmonic relationships better. This led me into my work with just intonation, or harmonic relationships. I also began to realize that when we think of the concept of the universal structure of sound, intuitively we think of something that is continuous. It is for this reason that I was called upon to introduce sustained sound into the world. Before that, there were hints, indications that there could be a sustained sound, such as the tanpura, which is used as a drone in the background in Indian Classical music. One of the new recordings that we put out on our new label is the tanpuras of Pandit Pran Nath. This is an example of Marian and I playing tanpuras, and it is the best tuning that I was ever able to record. We have made this available because so many of our students have requested it. Our teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, liked this recording so much that after we created it, he practiced with it every day for the rest of his life.

It's interesting that even at the age of 2 or 3, I began to get an intuition about the way to create music. I didn't really start to do it until 1958, when I wrote the Trio for Strings, which is the first work in the history of music that is completely composed of long sustained tones and silences. I had actually begun to write using sustained tones a year before in Four Brass in 1957, but the entire work was not composed of them."

- La Monte Young

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