THE WELL-TUNED PIANO
La Monte Young
Gramavision 18-8701-2 (five records, CDs, or cassettes)
THE HARP OF NEW ALBION
Celestial Harmonies CEL 018/19 (two records or CDs)
The liner notes for the new CD release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band refer to it as “nothing less than the most important and revealing compact disc release there can ever be.” I suppose there are people who really believe that, but allow me to offer a dissenting opinion.
Many people familiar with the name La Monte Young have never heard a note of his music. His underground reputation started in the early 60s, but his recording history has been spotty. Aside from two small magazine discs, there has been one recording of Map of 49’s Dream (“49” was the name of Young’s turtle) and Studies From the Bowed Disc on the German Edition X label, and one of Dream House and Drift Study 14 on French Shandar; neither of these has been easily available in America. In 1968, Columbia attempted to record Young’s music to release along with their first Terry Riley record, but the project foundered on Young’s insistence on acoustic authenticity and Columbia’s refusal to keep putting money into the project. Given that history, and Young’s reputation as the father of minimalism, the inventor of meditation music, the inspirer of the Velvet Underground, and an intrepid explorer in the mysteries of tuning, I submit that this recording of Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano is destined to be the most important recording of the 1980s.
Among other things, The Well-Tuned Piano makes clear once and for all how far Young’s musical intentions are from those of the minimalists with whom he is so often grouped (an association he has promoted himself, for understandable PR reasons). Tuning is the essence of Young’s mature output, and he is fond of quoting his teacher, Pandit Pran Nath: “Singing in tune with a drone takes all your concentration; when your tone becomes perfectly in tune, you become one with the drone and the Creator.” Young sees his interest in Yogic meditation as parallel to Cage’s interest in Zen. His aim is, through long exposure to specific pure tunings, to create in the performer (himself in this case) and in the listener a state of heightened awareness. Minimalism, on the other hand, was so long accused by the music press of inducing a semiconscious, trancelike state that the prophecy became self-fulfilling; the mind numbing literalness and heavy amplification of Philip Glass’s repetitions seem to be the very basis of his popularity.
Young began composing The Well-Tuned Piano in 1964, and went public with it in 1974; that first performance lasted some two hours a and 40 minutes. He has since performed it over 60 times, including seven weekly performances in New York; the one I heard in its entirety clocked in at five hours and 19 minutes. The recording, made in 1981, runs five hours and a minute. Young continues to add material to the piece, and says he now has more sequences than will fit into one performance. While Young’s reputation was built on drone pieces (electronic or instrumental tones sustained for hours, weeks, and even months), The Well-Tuned Piano has more notes than any other piano piece I know of (except possibly those of Kaikhosru Sorabji), and Young hopes this recording will show once and for all how little justice the minimalist label does to his work.
The piece uses a complex tuning system, Young’s special brand of just intonation made of ratios based on the numbers 2, 3, and 7 (omitting 5, interestingly: Young doesn’t like the sound of major and minor thirds). Every pitch on his 90+-key Bosendorfer imperial grand is an overtone of an E-flat at ten octaves below the piano’s E-flat range. (Among the system’s oddities, C-sharp on his keyboard ends up sounding lower than C.) Tones related by pure ratios combine their waveforms to create sum and difference tones, and in performance this results in an incredible array of auditory illusions: it sounded as though Young were singing, whirling a didgeridoo, clicking wood blocks, running a motor, even moving the piano fitfully around the room. Most impressive, when the music gets going, the listener’s ear supplies the “missing fundamental,” the low E-flat throbbing ominously, at 18 vibrations per minute. On the recording, due to the very nature of microphones, these effects are only faintly suggested; yet there are more than a few moments when a low airplane roar of “undertones” makes you aware that you’re hearing more than just the notes Young is playing.
The interruption of the music necessary on records and CDs, together with the more desultory attention recordings invite, vitiates the essential attunement one gets from five continuous hours of exposure to Young’s scale. But there are advantages to the recording, the primary one being the liner notes second-by-second account of the form. The Well-Tuned Piano is divided into six large sections, each based on a different chord: “The Opening Chord,” “The Magic Chord, “The Romantic Chord,” etc. Within each section, themes come and go, echo past sections, anticipate coming ones, merge, and reappear in new tunings. These themes (in a list that Young calls the “score”) are identified by whimsical titles that reveal a sense of humor beneath the work’s portentous spirituality: “The Theme of the Dawn of Eternal Time, “Young’s Bose Brontosaurus Boogie,” “Homage to Brahms,” “The Shimmering Pool Reflecting the 288/147 Premonition of the Theme of the Dawn of Eternal Time Recalled in the 189/98 Lost Ancestral Lake Region.”
The liner notes list these themes with timings so that you can follow with a stopwatch (or CD digital time counter) and keep track of what’s going on. This is tremendously helpful, because some of the themes are so simple that the unforewarned ear falls to distinguish them. When you know what to listen for, a whole new sense of form appears. Many of the titles refer to water imagery, and the overall operative metaphor seems to be rain: each theme begins from only two or three notes, growing with imperceptible gradualness into dense clouds (Young’s word). In the vastness of this sensuous sonic continuum, chord changes can pass by unnoticed, but when you learn how to listen those changes can be electrifying. For example, when at 15:44 on the first disc the first note of the “Magic Chord” enters for the first time, a whole new tonal vista opens up, like flying a plane over the side of a canyon. It’s interesting, too, that after decades of serialists and minimalists trying to purge music of memory and anticipation, Young works here entirely in those categories, in a way reminiscent of Wagnerian leitmotifs.
But listening to The Well-Tuned Piano can be equally enjoyable on less active level. The sound of Young’s Bosendorfer is captured with meticulous clarity, and every listener’s first comment about the recording is, “It doesn’t sound like a piano!” The accuracy of Young’s tuning requires a closer unison between the three strings on one note than normal (unsynchronicity between strings is a characteristic part of the piano sound), and the tones here sound purer: at times like a prepared piano, elsewhere even like a gamelan. In such pristine acoustic circumstances, Young’s hesitant cadences, his gentle, ebbing and swelling torrent of sound have a calming influence. Everyone who buys this set owes it to him- or herself to lock the cats and kids out for the afternoon, take the phone off the hook, and revel in five hours at a continuous sitting, to get some idea of what the authentic experience is like. Lying down or sitting in a comfortable, meditative pose, as the audience does in Marian Zazeela’s colored-light environment in Soho, is most conducive to long-span listening. Don’t drink, though, because Young’s aim is to sharpen the senses, and those who dull them beforehand exhibit an alarmingly universal tendency to fall asleep.
Terry Riley. four months older than Young, calls him his “mentor” in the liner notes to The Harp of New Albion. He graciously acknowledges that debt, too, in an homage to Young in the booklet for The Well-Tuned Piano, the symbol of a warm artistic friendship such as is rarely found in classical music. Throughout his career, Riley has played Aaron to Young’s Moses, offering in more accessible, bite-sized (and frequently recorded) pieces the ideas that one otherwise had to spend hours at Young’s apartment to hear. If we knew vaguely what Young was like, it was because we had heard Riley. The Harp of New Albion, ten piano solos in Riley’s tamer (yet still fascinating) intonation, continues that role, and makes a more manageable album for those not yet ready to spend five hours in Young’s baffling ocean of sound.
One immediately notices that The Harp of New Albion is more conventionally Western in its musical logic than The Well-Tuned Piano. The title itself is a New World reference, a harp reputedly left in 1579 at Nova Albion (now San Francisco Bay) by Sir Francis Drake. Like Young, Riley conceptualizes the piano (again, a Bosendorfer Imperial) as a gigantic harp, and like Well-Tuned Piano, the piece is improvised by following various paths through precomposed segments. Riley’s styles, though, are far more varied and discrete, less idiosyncratic and more eclectic. Several movements (for example, “The New Albion Chorale,” “Cadence on the Wind”) are frankly impressionistic, alternating pensively between lush sonorities. Others (“The Magic Knot Waltz”) borrow from ragtime and traditional jazz, while “The Orchestra of Tao” clearly transfers to the keyboard near-Eastern vocal technique. Only in the primitive, rumbling arpeggios of “Ascending Whale Dreams” does Riley imitate Young’s stochastic clouds.
What holds New Albion together is, first of all, Riley’s elaborate improv technique, more finger-clean than Young’s and immediately recognizable by every Riley fan; and secondly his tuning. C-sharp is Riley’s polestar, and his piano is justly tuned to sound “correct” only in that key. But none of the movements of New Albion is in C-sharp; three are in D, two in A-sharp, two in B-sharp, and so on. As a result, every movement has different scale steps that sound slightly unusually placed. Thick chords, such as the Satie-esque sonorities that open “Cadence on the Wind,” sound voluptuously exotic, and since Riley presents his material more quickly and conventionally than Young. his tuning is more easily assimilated. But though every tonality in New Albion has a different flavor, the constancy of the tuning creates a powerful coherence. It manifests unity on a level at which we Westerners are not used to hearing it, but the process is entirely perceptually convincing.
One of the nicest things about both albums is the chance to finally hear just intonation in the sharply definitive context of the piano. Much of the recorded just intonation music has used either the diffuse sound of percussion (Harry Partch’s music) or the vibratoed uncertainty of voices (Stockhausen’s Stimmung); and even Ben Johnston’s Sonata for Microtonal Piano doesn’t present its tuning with clearly tonal reference points. On Riley’s and Young’s pianos, struck chords shimmer delectably in the air, inviting us to go inside and learn the mysteries of pure pitch ratios, while dronelike pedal points serve as reassuring guides.
So which album to get first? Listeners disinclined to experimentation will undoubtedly find The Harp of New Albion an easier dose. It totals over 110 minutes, but on CD you can easily program brief movements, each enjoyable as a self-contained vignette. More new-music fans, I suspect, will be eager to satisfy their curiosity about the elusive La Monte Young, even if it means hours of intense listening. After all, The Harp of New Albion is merely the latest and best of a dozen-odd recordings by a superb performer we know well. The Well-Tuned Piano, on the other hand–for, its influence, its formal originality, its fluid improvisational tonal style, its lengthy gestation, and its monumental ambitions–may well be the most important piano music composed by an. American since the Concord Sonata