Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Case of La Monte Young

I haven't done anything snarky for, how long? Couple weeks? So, overdue. I just read an article on Vulture about avant-garde composer La Monte Young. The article is titled "Minimalist Composer La Monte Young on His Life and Immeasurable Influence" which describes it pretty well. Here is an excerpt:
Young isn’t interested in temporal popularity; he believes his music will be exalted, because it leads toward enlightenment. “People have written that I’m the most influential composer in the last 50 years, and I think that’s true,” he says. “What’s more, when I die, people will say, ‘He was the most important composer since the beginning of music.’ It’s not just a work of genius — I did things no one ever dreamed of and I set up an approach to sound that parallels universal structure.”
Hmm, "immeasurable influence"? Well, first you should read the Wikipedia article on Young that I linked above and then the Vulture article. Then let's see if we can measure the immeasurable. Oh, and while you are reading, let's listen to the piece that Young considers to be his masterpiece (or a portion of it at least), The Well-Tuned Piano:

I first read about La Monte Young many years ago in a 20th century music history where they discussed his concept music:
His Compositions 1960 includes a number of unusual actions. Some of them are un-performable, but each deliberately examines a certain presupposition about the nature of music and art and carries ideas to an extreme. One instructs: "draw a straight line and follow it" (a directive which he has said has guided his life and work since).[5] Another instructs the performer to build a fire. Another states that "this piece is a little whirlpool out in the middle of the ocean." Another says the performer should release a butterfly into the room. Yet another challenges the performer to push a piano through a wall. Composition 1960 #7 proved especially pertinent to his future endeavors: it consisted of a B, an F#, a perfect fifth, and the instruction: "To be held for a long time."
There was a time in the 60s and 70s when this sort of thing was considered very important and the argument was that it cleared away traditional limitations and presuppositions enabling artists to achieve true creative freedom, blah, blah, blah. But as I discussed in my recent post Cultural Hegemony I think this is mostly a smokescreen. There was a huge cultural upheaval in the 1960s, true, but it has become clear that much of the explanation and analysis of it was self-serving and deeply confused. The real story of this time likely still has to be written. But if we just take a look at La Monte Young, his career may offer some clues. First of all, it seems clear, if you read the articles I linked, that he was quite clever in being in the right places at the right times and connecting with the right people. For example, imagine this kind of sponsorship for someone whose approach is as radical as Young's:
For years, he had an indulgent patron in Dia, which spent $4 million to convert the old Mercantile Exchange building into a customized palace. He and Zazeela moved there in 1979; Dia gave them 22 assistants and a yearly budget of $500,000, which allowed Young to install a dedicated “beard sink,” where he could wash his whiskers. But the Dia founders were more generous than prudent, and after they were deposed, the building was sold in 1985.
This is the sort of thing that Young was doing:
Young invited Cale to join the Theatre of Eternal Music, a group that performed long drones, with only a few notes, at extreme volumes (120 to 130 decibels), creating overtones and phantom notes that ring in the ears even though they don’t exist. Some listeners “fled from the physical pain of the volume after two minutes,” Ron Rosenbaum wrote in the Village Voice in 1970.
So, would you sponsor him? Here, have a listen:

That is just a small part of the whole piece. No, you don't have to listen to the whole thing, I certainly didn't.

I think that Young came along at just the right time. His examination of "presuppositions" and "extreme ideas" were very appealing to a certain artistic set in the 60s and 70s. The nuttier you were, the cooler you were. If you were influenced by non-Western music, so much the better. The most popular musical act of the time, The Beatles, showed some of the same characteristics: they had non-Western influences, used drones and weird electronics. But, and here is the interesting thing: they actually created some good music. La Monte Young had all the trappings, just a couple of years ahead of the crowd, but created no good music. How can I say that, you ask? After all, I have only listened to a tiny part of his output. In this case, the part is a pretty good guide to the whole. He succeeded in doing what he was trying to do and, by his own testimony, it was not to create anything I would have the slightest interest in. His Theatre of Eternal Music is mere barbarism imported into Western culture at a vulnerable moment. It is nothing more than a sonic annoyance. La Monte Young, in addition to being a music experimenter, was a drug dealer and a nut case. Here is the kind of thing that his disciples believe:
“Are you aware of the 528 movement?” asks Jon Catler, a guitarist who plays with Young. He’s referring to people who believe in the healing power of music in which a C is retuned to 528 hertz. “Supposedly, these frequencies can be used to repair DNA. It’s the frequency of hemoglobin and chlorophyll. It’s kind of a life-giving frequency. This information was known hundreds of years ago, but was buried and secreted. Now there’s a global community waking up to this fact. It can’t be suppressed any longer.”
The real mystery here is how Western civilization got interested in this kind of insanity. I'm not sure the whole story has been told, but a couple of histories have taken a stab at it. Possibly the most useful from an artistic point of view is the masterful From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun. He writes of this period:
Distrust attached to anything that retained a shadow of authoritativeness--old people, old ideas, old conceptions of what a leader or a teacher was meant to do. In the same spirit, the period cultivated the anti-hero. [op. cit. p. 783]
Someone like La Monte Young (or, probably, John Cage) was inspiring and cool simply because they rejected all traditional aesthetic standards. But when you do that, at the end of the day, you have something that has no aesthetic quality.

The dread miasma of the 60s still hangs over us, apparently, because we can't seem to stand up and say that even someone as absurd as La Monte Young is not worth our time because he has created nothing but pointless ugliness and called it music. All the intelligentsia are still genuflecting before all the grizzled wackos of the 60s. So yes, La Monte Young has had, if not immeasurable influence then certainly quite a bit of influence. All bad.


Ken Fasano said...

Funny you should mention Barzun's magnum opus - I am reading it right now. In his discussion of Renaissance artists, he mentions that practice came before theory, although theory was also important. Among artists such as Young, though, theory comes first - and practice is often merely disappointing. Young's intonation theories may be of use - or at least interest - but his implementation of them is just boring, in my opinion (Well-Tuned Piano). His early Fluxus-period pieces may have a weaker aesthetic value than the Well-Tuned Piano (Music for Chairs is just annoying - I attended a performance once); but (how to quantize this???) the Goldberg Variations have so much more --- what??? --- than the Well-Tuned Piano!

Bryan Townsend said...

Aesthetic Quality!

Ken Fasano said...

Yes, now we're back to aesthetic quality. If we assume that the Goldberg Variations > Well-Tuned Piano, because the Variations has greater Aesthetic Quality, then how do we prove it?

Ken Fasano said...

Is it a matter of durability? In 100 years, it is likely people will still be listening to Bach; people other than Masters degree students looking for an interesting paper will have no idea who either LaMonte Young or Taylor Swift were. In that case, how do we know what the "aesthetic quality" of a current work is, without waiting for the next flyby of Pluto? Perhaps by comparing a new work with older works that have proven durable?

Bryan Townsend said...

I kick around these kinds of questions in various posts here. I think that I know just about enough about philosophical arguments to get into trouble. So here goes: I think that "proof" has different characteristics depending on the field or discipline. Obviously we are not talking about the kind of proof that would be required in a problem in mathematics or symbolic logic. Nor are we looking for some kind of statistical proof (though in all those cases, there is difficulty in distinguishing correlation from causation). I think instead we are looking for persuasive evidence and you touch on one important example: durability. I took up this from a rather unusual angle early on here in these posts:

But I took up the question of aesthetic judgement in some other posts and my inspiration was David Hume:

Have a look and see what you think!

Marc Puckett said...

Strike that name from the list, then; thanks. I did listen to five minutes of the Well-Tuned Piano, though.

But I doubt that 'durability', in the sense that some artefact survives for a hundred or a thousand years, makes any difference, so far as the aesthetic judgment itself goes: although it is a peculiarity of our barbarian age that some artists think that ephemerality is a good. I think you can argue that an artist or maker must intend that her creation have 'stability', meaning (I make it mean this: I expect that in the scholastic tradition there is a proper word for the attribute I'm trying to get to, although stabilitas in the monastic culture is an analogue) that it is not evanescent or ephemeral, that it is meant to have its own proper and not limited-by-outside-actors-or-circumstances existence. The sculpture, once carved, may survive five hundred years or five, and yet be worthy of being judged beautiful; likewise a painting or any other created work. Hmm; perhaps.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I think it is important to listen to music like this so you can compare it to the grandiose claims made about it. The proof of the pudding...

Durability, often described as "the test of time" is important evidence in the sense that many, many different musicians and listeners over a long period of time have found value in the music. I think that an important piece of evidence in favor of assigning high aesthetic value to Bach's music is that in the three hundred years since he wrote it, it has steadily become more and more popular amongst serious music lovers. When he died he was an obscure Saxon organist, now the New York Times puts him first on the list of greatest composers. But this is just an indicator or symptom of aesthetic quality. For the quality itself, we have to look at the music and do so without being blinkered by our own biases. In David Hume's essay on the standard of taste there is a lot of good advice about this sort of thing. The three last links in my comment above are my comments on Hume's aesthetics.

David said...

Bryan, this post and the discussion in the comments lead me to my Oxford English Dictionary where I discovered pithy, digestible and authoritative parameters (definitions) of two of the essential elements in the debate: "noise" and "music".

OED:"Noise": "sound, the aggregate of sounds occurring in a particular place or at a particular time; (also) disturbance caused by sounds, discordancy, (in early use) esp. disturbance made by voices, shouting, outcry.

OED: "Music": n. "the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, expressive content, etc...."

I think that it can be safely said that all music is, at some level, noise. But is all noise music? There is a continuum and at some point, the subject will become only noise, the beautiful elements in the definition of music having all been eliminated. That is sound without harmony, melody, rhythm etc. is (a) mere noise or (b) more noise than music.

To my ears, based solely on your sound clips, La Monte Young can certainly lay claim to being a noise artist, but me thinks he over-reaches when he lays claim to being the most influential composer of all time.

Inspired by such musical works as Young's "Straight Line" and "Campfire", I might just "compose" something tonight. All I need is a honking Canada Goose next to a rail line with a speeding freight train. (Or is that too musical?)


Bryan Townsend said...

David, I think you have a good grasp of what Mr. Young is up to!