Your La Monte Young Listening Guide

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Experimental music still constitutes only a speck of music sales, streams, and performances, but it’s never been bigger or easier to find. You can choose between a five-CD Steve Reich boxed set or a ten-CD Steve Reich boxed set. Maybe you’d prefer a dozen discs of Pauline Oliveros. Even less-celebrated experimentalists, such as Laurie Spiegel, are not only being reissued but well received. You’d have to be a pretty minor Minimalist not to have even one record in print. Either that or a genius, pioneering control-freak who spends years preparing each release, like La Monte Young, featured in this week's issue of New York

A near-mint copy of Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano sold on eBay last month for more than $400. (I have a vinyl copy. Offer $350 and it’s yours.) He hasn’t released many records, and the ones he has released are out of print. If you want to hear his music, you’ll need to put on your wading boots. Even then it might be difficult because Young doesn’t hesitate to file DMCA takedown notices, forcing music to be removed from websites. By the time you click on these links, some might already be gone.

Unfortunately, we could find no performance of Composition 1960 #2, which instructs the performer to “build a fire in front of the audience,” or “Piano Piece for Terry Riley #1,” which reads:

Push the piano up to a wall and put the flat side flush against it. Then continue pushing into the wall. Push as hard as you can. If the piano goes through the wall, keep pushing in the same direction regardless of new obstacles and continue to push as hard as you can whether the piano is stopped against an obstacle or moving. The piece is over when you are too exhausted to push any longer. 

One of Young’s most accessible pieces — and one of the few he’s ever recorded — is Dream House 78’ 17”, two separate drone pieces released on vinyl by the French label Shandar in 1974 and never reissued. You can buy a copy on Amazon for only $598 (plus $3.99 shipping). It features future Talking Heads collaborator Jon Hassell on trumpet.

On YouTube, there are numerous links for the Gramavision version of The Well-Tuned Piano (recorded in ’81, released in ’87), usually split into one-hour excerpts. Helpfully, the San Francisco–based Radio Valencia has a podcast where you can stream or download continuous audio from The Well-Tuned Piano in the Magenta Lights, a 1987 performance running six and a half hours, released by Young as a DVD on his own Just Dreams label in small quantities (536 copies), priced at $146, and now out of print. Being able to download the audio is great, even if a flight from New York to San Francisco isn’t long enough to hear the whole thing.

“Trio for Strings” is the foundational piece of Minimalism. Young, who wrote it in 1958, told me: “The entire work is pretty much made up of sustained tones. There’s an occasional short tone, and it comes as a pulse, like a cricket in the night or the special hoot of an owl. Today, because so many people have gone on to work with drones and other sustained tones, it doesn’t seem so astonishing. At the time I did it, there was absolutely no precedent for it in the history of music.” Nonetheless, one commenter on rateyourmusic.com calls it “sub-par serial string drones with unimpressive use of silence.”

Here is Young’s late guru, Pandit Pran Nath, a master of the kirana style of Indian classical vocal music, which dates to the 13th century and involves tiny gradations of pitch.

For as long as it lasts, here’s a download of his out-of-print albums, plus a lot of other stuff that isn’t identified or tagged, from a file-sharing site. It’s more than 24 hours of Young. “A lot of my music is online already,” he told Vulture. “People can put things out fast and dirty, and to some degree, the world is satisfied with that.” He’s not among them. “We’re not interested in putting out junk, we’re interested in perfection. It takes time to put out masterpieces.”

The score for Young’s “Composition 1960 #7” consists of two notes, a B and an F-sharp, with the instruction: “To be held for a long time.” When it was performed by a violinist, a violist, and a cellist at Judson Hall in 1962, Howard Klein of the New York Times sneered that the 48-minute piece was “witless” and derided “the dreary affectation of the evening.” Here’s a shorter recent performance, with two distorted guitars.

The hideous, impaling screech of Young’s “2 Sounds” (1960), which Young calls “Friction Noise Music.” One sound is made by scraping a tin can against a pane of glass; the second is made by abrading a gong with a drumstick. “When the first sound starts, you cannot imagine that any more horrible sound exists in the whole world,” Cornelius Cardew wrote. “Then the second comes in and you have to admit you were wrong.” Nonetheless, both Simone Forti and Merce Cunningham choreographed dances to it.     

In “Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, Etc.” (1960), performers drag and shove furniture along a hard floor. “The sound was magnificent,” John Cage kvelled after he performed in its New York premiere. Performances have been as brief as five seconds and as long as 50 hours.

And also: 

Lastly, here are some similar noises being made by puppies.