Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jamming with La Monte Young

La Monte Young seemed to hold to the precept that the best way for a composer to get recognized was through provocation. In his early days the Fluxus movement provided him with abundant opportunities to put his theory into practice. However, he really hit his stride when he prepared the electronic score "Two Sounds" Merce Cunningham's "Winterbranch." This was one of those rare instances in which the title described the music completely, expect for say what those sounds were. For many of us, one of them was highly reminiscent of fingernails scratching a blackboard; and both were played as loudly as the sound system could bear.

As he grew older, however, Young shifted his attention to the harmonic possibilities that would arise from performing with a scale tuned according to the rules of just intonation. Such a scale had the potential to introduce intervals far more dissonant than those of an equal-tempered chromatic scale, which is why the latter has become the tuning system of choice. Renaissance composers chose to avoid those intervals. Young was interested in exploiting them.

He did this with a vengeance when he recorded "The Well-Tuned Piano." This was basically a five-hour improvisation, played without any interruption on October 25, 1981, over the course of which he explored many of the possibilities of seeking out the dissonances of just intonation. The four-CD release of this performance is still a treasured object in my collection of recordings.

The obvious question was, "What would he do next?" The answer, ironically, was that he was already doing it. As early as 1960, he realized that the church modes, diatonic scales whose intervals involved even simpler ratios than just intonation, could be used for performing blues. Between 1960 and 1961 he worked up three blues pieces, two based on the dorian scale and one on the aeolian. The "Dorian Blues in G" has, since then, become an ongoing project that he now explores with electronic instruments (keyboards and guitars) tuned according to the just intonation system.

This has allowed him to move away from solos to group work with a group called The Forever Bad Blues Band. I just realized that my collection also has a two-CD album entitled Just Stompin', whose title offers up an elegantly informative play on words. This is a two-hour performance of "Dorian Blues in G" that Young recorded with guitarists Jon and Brad Catler and drummer Jonathan Kane on January 14, 1993.

Two things immediately impress the listener. First, the intervals are definitely a departure from what we usually hear guitars play. (The guitars have no frets to bias equal tempered intonation.) Second, it still sounds like blues; and, while there is a certain rhythmic persistence to it all, all of the performers get to improvise around the framework defined by Young's original (as in 1961) conception. The result is that this is a blues gig that really gets down to the nitty-gritty of the roots of blues practice and it reminds many of us of just how impoverished much of the work now being performed in the name of blues actually is.

As the hyperlinks show, both of these recordings are now out of print. That means that, while they are available through, they now go for "collectors' item" prices. This is too bad. They make for wonderful ear training, regardless of whether ones preferences are for blues, classical, or jazz. I almost with that one of those labels committed to "historically informed performance" would realize how "historically informed" Young is and would take the trouble to reissue gems like these.

1 comment:

Mark Arnest said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I was at this concert with some friends, and just at the moment my jaw was dropping - about an hour in - they were bored and wanted to leave. I stupidly left with them and have regretted it ever since...