La Monte Young

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La Monte Young
La Monte Thornton Young

(1935-10-14) October 14, 1935 (age 85)
OccupationComposer, musician, artist
Musical career
Genres Minimalism, avant-garde, drone, microtonal, jazz
Years active1958–present
Associated acts

La Monte Thornton Young (born October 14, 1935) is an American composer, musician, and artist recognized as one of the first American minimalist composers and a central figure in post-war avant-garde music. [1] [2] [3] He is best known for his exploration of sustained tones, beginning with his 1958 composition Trio for Strings. [4] His works have called into question the nature and definition of music, most prominently in the text scores of his Compositions 1960 . [5] Despite having released very little recorded material throughout his career—much of it currently out of print [6] —some sources have described him as "the most influential living composer today". [2] The Observer wrote that his work has had "an utterly profound effect on the last half-century of music." [7]


Young played jazz saxophone and studied composition in California during the 1950s, and subsequently moved to New York in 1960, where he was a central figure in the downtown music and Fluxus art scenes. [5] He then became known for his pioneering work in drone music (originally called dream music) with his Theatre of Eternal Music collective, alongside collaborators such as Tony Conrad, John Cale, and his wife, the multimedia artist Marian Zazeela. Since 1962, he has worked extensively with Zazeela, with whom he developed the Dream House sound and light environment. [3] Beginning in 1970, he studied under Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath. Perhaps Young's best known work is The Well-Tuned Piano , an ongoing, improvisatory composition begun in 1964 and performed throughout subsequent decades. [8]



Young was born in a log cabin in Bern, Idaho. [9] [10] As a child he was influenced by the droning sounds of the environment, such as blowing wind and electrical transformers. [11] During his childhood, Young's family moved several times before settling in Los Angeles, as his father searched for work. He was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [11] He graduated from John Marshall High School. [10] Young began his music studies at Los Angeles City College, and transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), [12] where he received a BA in 1958. [9] [10] In the jazz milieu of Los Angeles, Young played with notable musicians including Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Eric Dolphy. [13] He undertook additional studies at the University of California, Berkeley from 1958 to 1960. [10] In 1959 he attended the summer courses at the Darmstadt School under Karlheinz Stockhausen, and in 1960 relocated to New York in order to study electronic music with Richard Maxfield at the New School for Social Research. His compositions during this period were influenced by Anton Webern, Gregorian chant, Indian classical music, Japanese Gagaku, and Indonesian gamelan music.[ citation needed ]

A number of Young's early works use the twelve-tone technique, which he studied under Leonard Stein at Los Angeles City College. (Stein had served as an assistant to Arnold Schoenberg when Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone method, taught at UCLA.) [14] Young also studied composition with Robert Stevenson at UCLA and with Seymore Shifrin at UC Berkeley. In 1958, he developed the Trio for Strings , originally scored for violin, viola, and cello, which would presage his work in proceeding years. The Trio for Strings has been described as an "origin point for minimalism." [15] When Young visited Darmstadt in 1959, he encountered the music and writings of John Cage. There he also met Cage's collaborator, pianist David Tudor, who subsequently gave premières of some of Young's works. At Tudor's suggestion, Young engaged in a correspondence with Cage. Within a few months Young was presenting some of Cage's music on the West Coast. In turn, Cage and Tudor included some of Young's works in performances throughout the U.S. and Europe. Influenced by Cage, Young at this time took a turn toward the conceptual, using principles of indeterminacy in his compositions and incorporating non-traditional sounds, noises, and actions. [16]


Young moved to New York in 1960. He initially developed an artistic relationship with Fluxus founder George Maciunas (who designed the book Young edited An Anthology of Chance Operations) and other members of the nascent movement. Yoko Ono, for example, hosted a series of concerts curated by Young at her loft, and absorbed, it seems, his often parodic and politically charged aesthetic. Young's works of the time, scored as short haiku-like texts, though conceptual and extreme, were not meant to be merely provocative but, rather, dream-like.[ citation needed ]

His Compositions 1960 includes a number of unusual actions. Some of them are unperformable, 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). [17] 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." [18]

In 1962 Young wrote The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. One of The Four Dreams of China, the piece is based on four pitches, which he later gave as the frequency ratios: 36-35-32-24 (G, C, +C#, D), and limits as to which may be combined with any other. [19] :163–165 Most of his pieces after this point are based on select pitches, played continuously, and a group of long held pitches to be improvised upon. For The Four Dreams of China Young began to plan Dream House, a light and sound installation conceived as a "work that would be played continuously and ultimately exist as a 'living organism with a life and tradition of its own,'" where musicians would live and create music twenty-four hours a day. [20] He formed the music collective Theatre of Eternal Music to realize Dream House and other pieces. The group initially included calligrapher and light artist Marian Zazeela (who married Young in 1963), Angus MacLise, and Billy Name. [3] In 1964 the ensemble comprised Young and Zazeela, John Cale and Tony Conrad (a former Harvard mathematics major), and sometimes Terry Riley (voices). Since 1966 the group has seen many permutations and has included Garrett List, Jon Hassell, Alex Dea, and many others, including members of the 60s groups. [21]

Young and Zazeela's first continuous electronic sound environment was created in their loft on Church Street, New York in September 1966 with sine wave generators and light sources designed to produce a continuous installation of floating sculptures and color sources, and a series of slides entitled "Ornamental Lightyears Tracery". This Dream House environment was maintained almost continuously from September 1966 to January 1970, being turned off only to listen to "other music" and to study the contrast between extended periods in it and periods of silence. Young and Zazeela worked, sang and lived in it and studied the effects on themselves and visitors. Performances were often extreme in length, conceived by Young as having no beginning and no end, existing before and after any particular performance. In their daily lives, too, Young and Zazeela practiced an extended sleep-waking schedule—with "days" longer than twenty-four hours. [22]


Beginning in 1970 interests in Asian classical music and a wish to be able to find the intervals he had been using in his work led Young to pursue studies with Pandit Pran Nath. Fellow students included Zazeela, composers Terry Riley, Michael Harrison, Yoshi Wada, Henry Flynt and Catherine Christer Hennix.

Young considers The Well-Tuned Piano —a permuting composition of themes and improvisations for just-intuned solo piano—to be his masterpiece. Young gave the world premiere of The Well-Tuned Piano in Rome in 1974, ten years after the creation of the piece. Previously, Young had presented it as a recorded work. In 1975, Young premiered it in New York with eleven live performances during the months of April and May. As of October 25, 1981, the date of the Gramavision recording of The Well-Tuned Piano, Young had performed the piece 55 times. [23] In 1987, Young performed the piece again as part of a larger concert series that included many more of his works. [24] This performance, on May 10, 1987, was videotaped and released on DVD in 2000 on Young's label, Just Dreams. [25] Performances have exceeded six hours in length, and so far have only been documented several times. It is strongly influenced by mathematical composition as well as Hindustani classical music practice. [26]

Since the 1970s, Young and Zazeela have realized a long series of semi-permanent Dream House installations, which combine Young's just-intuned sine waves in elaborate, symmetrical configurations and Zazeela's quasi-calligraphic light sculptures. [27] In July 1970 a model short-term Dream House was displayed to the public at the gallery Friedrich & Dahlem in Munich, Germany. Later, model Dream House environments were presented in various locations of Europe and the United States. In 1974, the two released Dream House 78' 17" . From January through April 19, 2009, Dream House was installed in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of The Third Mind exhibition. A Dream House installation exists today at the MELA Foundation on 275 Church Street, New York above the couple's loft, and is open to the public. [28]

In 2002, Young, along with Marian Zazeela and senior disciple Jung Hee Choi, founded the Just Alap Raga Ensemble. This ensemble, performing Indian classical music of the Kirana gharana, merges the traditions of Western and Hindustani classical music, with Young applying his own compositional approach to traditional raga performance, form, and technique. [29]


Young's first musical influence came in early childhood in Bern. He relates that "the very first sound that I recall hearing was the sound of wind blowing under the eaves and around the log extensions at the corners of the log cabin". Continuous sounds—human-made as well as natural—fascinated him as a child. He described himself as fascinated from a young age by droning sounds, such as "the sound of the wind blowing", the "60 cycle per second drone [of] step-down transformers on telephone poles", the tanpura drone and the alap of Indian classical music, "certain static aspects of serialism, as in the Webern slow movement of the Symphony Opus 21", and Japanese gagaku "which has sustained tones in it in the instruments such as the Sho". [30] The four pitches he later named the "Dream chord", on which he based many of his mature works, came from his early age appreciation of the continuous sound made by the telephone poles in Bern. [31]

Jazz is one of his main influences and until 1956 he planned to devote his career to it. [32] At first, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh influenced his alto saxophone playing style, and later John Coltrane shaped Young's use of the sopranino saxophone. Jazz was, together with Indian music, an important influence on the use of improvisation in his works after 1962. [32] La Monte Young discovered Indian music in 1957 on the campus of UCLA. He cites Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Chatur Lal (tabla) as particularly significant. The discovery of the tambura, which he learned to play with Pandit Pran Nath, was a decisive influence in his interest in long sustained sounds. Young also acknowledges the influence of Japanese music, especially Gagaku, and Pygmy music. [33] [34]

La Monte Young discovered classical music rather late, thanks to his teachers at university. He cites Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Pérotin, Léonin, Claude Debussy and Organum musical style as important influences, [33] but what made the biggest impact on his compositions was the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. [33]

Young was also keen to pursue his musical endeavors with the help of psychedelics. Cannabis, LSD and peyote played an important part in Young's life from mid-1950s onwards, when he was introduced to them by Terry Jennings and Billy Higgins. He said that "everybody [he] knew and worked with was very much into drugs as a creative tool as well as a consciousness-expanding tool". This was the case with the musicians of the Theatre of Eternal Music, with whom he "got high for every concert: the whole group". [35] He considers that the cannabis experience helped him open up to where he went with Trio for Strings, though sometimes it proved a disadvantage when performing anything which required keeping track of the number of elapsed bars. He commented on the subject:

These tools can be used to your advantage if you're a master of [them]... If used wisely—the correct tool for the correct job—they can play an important role... It allows you to go within yourself and focus on certain frequency relationships and memory relationships in a very, very interesting way. [36]


Young's use of long tones and exceptionally high volume has been extremely influential within Young's group of associates: Tony Conrad, Jon Hassell, Rhys Chatham, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt, Ben Neill, Charles Curtis, and Catherine Christer Hennix. It has also been notably influential on John Cale's contribution to The Velvet Underground's sound; Cale has been quoted as saying "LaMonte [Young] was perhaps the best part of my education and my introduction to musical discipline." [37]

Brian Eno was similarly influenced by Young's work, calling him "the daddy of us all." [2] In 1981, Eno referred to X for Henry Flynt by saying, "It really is a cornerstone of everything I've done since". [38] [39]

Andy Warhol attended the 1962 première of the static composition by La Monte Young called Trio for Strings . Uwe Husslein cites film-maker Jonas Mekas, who accompanied Warhol to the Trio premiere, claiming that Warhol's static films were directly inspired by the performance. [40] [41] In 1963 Young had joined Warhol's musical group The Druds, a short-lived avant-garde noise music band, but finding it ridiculous, quit after the second rehearsal. [42] [43] In 1964 Young provided a loud minimalist drone soundtrack to Warhol's static films Kiss , Eat , Haircut, and Sleep when shown as small TV-sized projections at the entrance lobby to the third New York Film Festival held at Lincoln Center. [44]

Lou Reed's 1975 album Metal Machine Music states "Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young's Dream Music (sic)" [45] among its "Specifications".

The album Dreamweapon: An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music by the band Spacemen 3 is influenced by La Monte Young's concept of Dream Music, evidenced by their inclusion of his notes on the jacket. In 2018, Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3, along with Etienne Jaumet of Zombie Zombie and Indian dhrupad singer Céline Wadier, released Infinite Music: A Tribute to La Monte Young. [46]

Bowery Electric dedicated the song "Postscript" on the 1996 album Beat to Young and Riley.[ citation needed ]

Drone rock pioneer Dylan Carlson has stated Young's work as being a major influence to him. [47]

Young's students include senior disciple Jung Hee Choi, as well as Michael Harrison, Arnold Dreyblatt and Daniel James Wolf.[ citation needed ]


Studio recordings

Live recordings

Compilation appearances

List of works


  1. Strickland 2001.
  2. 1 2 3 Tannenbaum, Rob. "La Monte Young Discusses His Life and Immeasuable Influence". Vulture . Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 Owelnick, Brian. "The Well-Tuned Piano - La Monte Young". AllMusic . Retrieved June 12, 2016.
  4. Nechvatal, Joseph. "Biography: Flawed Composition". Brooklyn Rail . Retrieved October 7, 2020.
  5. 1 2 Jeremy Grimshaw, Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young. Oxford University Press, 2012 ISBN   0199740208
  6. Walls, Seth Colter. "La Monte Young: 'I'm only interested in putting out masterpieces'". The Guardian . Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  7. Sommer, Tim. "Experimental Music Pioneer La Monte Young Speaks at Red Bull Music Academy Festival". The Observer . Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  8. Service, Tom. "A guide to La Monte Young's music". The Guardian . Retrieved June 12, 2016.
  9. 1 2 "La Monte Young papers, 1959-2006".
  10. 1 2 3 4 "La Monte Young".
  11. 1 2 "Questions about La Monte Young, music, and mysticism". OUPblog. April 10, 2012.
  12. Miller, M. H. (July 22, 2020). "The Man Who Brian Eno Called 'the Daddy of Us All'". The New York Times.
  13. Henken, J., "Even Minimalists Get the Blues: Music: Influential composer La Monte Young has put together a roadhouse blues band to return to the stompin’ style of his jazz-influenced youth.", Los Angeles Times , September 4, 1993.
  14. LaBelle 2006, 69.
  15. Robin, William. "La Monte Young Is Still Patiently Working on a Glacial Scale". New York Times . Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  16. Duckworth 1995, 233.
  17. Young 1963, "Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris," 117.
  18. Mertens, Wim (1983). American Minimal Music. Kahn & Averill. p. 26.
  19. Duckworth, William, & Richard Fleming, eds., Sound and Light: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1996), pp. 163–165.
  20. LaBelle 2006, 74.
  21. LaBelle 2006, 71.
  22. Young, La Monte; Zazeela, Marian (2004). Selected Writings. Ubuclassics. p. 18.
  23. Young, La Monte (1987). "Performance History". The Well-Tuned Piano: 81 x 25 6:17:50-11:18:59 PM NYC (Media notes). La Monte Young.
  24. Palmer, Robert (April 5, 1987). "A Maverick Eases into the Aboveground: La Monte Young". New York Times. ProQuest   110815286.(subscription required)
  25. Gann, Kyle (2002). "Pinned Down by the Piano". The Village Voice. 47 (36): 122. Retrieved November 7, 2012.
  26. Gann, Kyle (Winter 1993). "La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano". Perspectives of New Music. 31 (1): 134–162. doi:10.2307/833045. JSTOR   833045.
  27. LaBelle 2006, 73–74.
  28. "Dream House". Retrieved July 26, 2020.
  29. Young, L., & Zazeela, M. (2015). "The Just Alap Raga Ensemble, Pandit Pran Nath 97th Birthday Memorial Tribute, Three Evening Concerts of Raga Darbari". MELA Foundation, New York.
  30. Zuckerman 2002.
  31. Potter (2000), p. 23-25
  32. 1 2 Potter (2000), p. 26-27
  33. 1 2 3 Strickland (1991), p.58-59
  34. Strickland (2000), Sound, [ page needed ]
  35. Potter (2000), p. 66
  36. Potter (2000), p. 67
  37. Quoted in Eno and Mills 1986, 42.
  38. Aikin, Jim. "Interview with Brian Eno". Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  39. Aikin, Jim. "Interview with Brian Eno". Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  40. Husslein 1990
  41. Blake Gopnik, Warhol:  A Life as Art London: Allen Lane. March 5, 2020.  ISBN   978-0-241-00338-1 p. 319
  42. Blake Gopnik, Warhol:  A Life as Art London: Allen Lane. March 5, 2020.  ISBN   978-0-241-00338-1 p. 297
  43. Scherman and Dalton 2009, 158–59.
  44. Blake Gopnik, Warhol:  A Life as Art London: Allen Lane. March 5, 2020.  ISBN   978-0-241-00338-1 p. 415
  45. Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music (1975), double vinyl LP, RCA Records (CPL2-1101), "Specifications": text copy, image copy (reissue).
  46. "Arp: Zebra Review—Sonic Chef Cooks Up Ambitious Treat". The Guardian. Retrieved July 20, 2018.
  47. Pouncey, Edwin (November 2005). "Earth" (The Wire 261). The Wire. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007.
  48. Statement on Table of The Elements CD Day of Niagara April 25, 1965. MELA Foundation. Retrieved on 2012-09-16.

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Further reading