INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New York Times AUGUST 19, 2015 - by William Robbin
LA MONTE YOUNG IS STILL PATIENTLY WORKING ON A GLACIAL SCALE
"The question is, who decides what music should be?" the composer La Monte Young asked during a recent interview. "What is music, and why is it music, and how did music start?" Sitting in his cluttered loft in TriBeCa, Mr. Young had just been ruminating on the creation myths of Indian music, and continued on to briefly address marches, bagpipes and Dizzy Gillespie before arriving at the conclusion to this circuitous historical trajectory: his own Trio For Strings, from 1958.
The Trio is often considered an origin point of musical Minimalism. Originally scored for violin, viola and cello, it precipitated Mr. Young's improvising ensemble, Theater Of Eternal Music (which included John Cale, a founding member of The Velvet Underground); birthed a movement that encompassed the repetitions of Philip Glass and the ambient music of Brian Eno; and even inspired Andy Warhol's static art films.
"The Trio led to the idea of Dream Houses: the idea that something could last for a longer period of time," Mr. Young, seventy-nine, said. Upstairs, his ongoing Dream House sound installation - with lights created by his collaborator and wife, the artist Marian Zazeela - was closed for the summer and had been relocated to Dia: Chelsea on West 22nd Street, where the work of Mr. Young, Ms. Zazeela and their disciple Jung Hee Choi is being presented through October. On September 3 and 5, the Theater Of Eternal Music String Ensemble will perform the latest iteration of the Trio, a rarely heard but pioneering work that has continued to evolve since its premiere.
Mr. Young's Trio unfurls extremely slowly, as each instrument plays prolonged tones that occasionally overlap into buzzing chords. In the first few minutes, only three notes are heard; gaps of silence pervade the piece. The glacial Trio marked the major breakthrough in Mr. Young's development of music steeped in drones, which continued through his heady ensemble improvisations of the 1960s, his six-hour-plus magnum opus The Well-Tuned Piano and his performances of Indian raga today. "Nobody ever took an interest in writing sustained tones without melodies over them before me," he said.
Those tones will be even more radically sustained in the coming performances of the Trio, which are billed as the American premiere of the "original full-length version." As a recent college graduate in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, Mr. Young first imagined the Trio as immensely - and, he realised, impractically - lengthy. Having never had a work presented in public before, he said, "I made my first compromise, and I reduced the whole piece to only an hour in duration." The Dia concerts fully realise Mr. Young's initial plan, and will progress approximately three times more slowly.
"I think for a long time it was misunderstood," Charles Curtis, a cellist and longtime collaborator with Mr. Young, said of the piece. "It was thought of for some stretch of time as a kind of Fluxus provocation: just long notes." Though Mr. Young briefly flirted with such provocations - a 1960 composition famously instructs a performer to feed a bale of hay to a piano - he primarily turned toward extended forms, a path anticipated by the static intricacy of the Trio. Since Mr. Curtis first performed it in 1986, he has worked closely with Mr. Young on several transformations of the piece, including reconceiving it in "just intonation," an alternative tuning system that the composer developed with his ensemble. "Just intonation reveals something about the way the entire piece is a single organic whole, an unfolding of one harmonic space," Mr. Curtis said.
Just as the Trio's meditative spaciousness points ahead to Minimalism, its structure also looks back to Serialism, a musical movement often considered Minimalism's antithesis. In his book Draw A Straight Line And Follow It, the musicologist Jeremy Grimshaw carefully documents the Trio's indebtedness to Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique. Even as Mr. Young's fascination with Japanese gagaku and Indian raga drew him to long tones, their contours were grounded in a Viennese theoretical model (he had studied with a pupil of Schoenberg's). Before Mr. Young began composing the Trio, Milton Babbitt - the high priest of American Serialism - attempted to recruit him for graduate school at Princeton.
"This is a very elaborate, and very deliberate, and very precise realisation of a certain way of thinking about twelve-tone music," Mr. Grimshaw said in a recent interview. Structured as a palindrome, the Trio stretches the typically pointillist sounds of Serialism into washes of reedy colour. Even Mr. Young acknowledged the Trio's conventional mould: "It's written in very classical form, exposition and variations and recapitulation." A set of four notes that recurs in the Trio became known as the "Dream Chord," a harmonic basis for Mr. Young's subsequent music.
Despite the Trio's significance, it is nearly impossible to hear. Mr. Young has never issued a recording or published the score, and performances are rare. "It's part of the lore of Minimalism, and it played an important role early on, but it's an invisible actor," Mr. Grimshaw said. Because Mr. Young guards the Trio so carefully, each transformation over the years - to just intonation, to different instrumentations and now to its "original" length - has fundamentally altered its nature. Aside from bootlegs circulated privately, one cannot listen to the Trio in any other form except the one currently sanctioned by its composer. (Mr. Young did note that there were plans to record this latest iteration.)
At the exact centre of the Trio lies a single B flat. As Mr. Grimshaw describes it, that pitch closely resembles the fundamental drone of the "Dream House" and the tamboura that Mr. Young sings atop in his ragas, and even the noise of the electrical grid that the composer cites as a powerful early memory. The Trio thus extends backward and forward in Mr. Young's musical cosmology, both a singular historical flash point and part of an evolution. For Mr. Curtis, the revisions represent "an ongoing process of completing the work, in a way, of continuing to work out the potentialities that are latent in the piece." As Mr. Young remarked of this newest - or oldest - version: "It's the way it really should have been, and can be, and will be."