La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

10. On Minimalism

FRANK J. OTERI: So, the whole question of how to use repetition, to take this back now to Western classical music, whatever we want to call this tradition that we trace back to Gregorian chant in the West that evolved into contrapuntal music to symphonies to late romanticism to Webern to you… You have gone down in the history of Western classical music as the father of this genre that is called minimalism, which is music based on repetition, which is still very much a part of the language of Western classical music now, more than 40 years later. Do you accept that word for your music? Do you feel that it describes what you do? Do you feel the music that came after your work by other composers and is also called minimalism is connected to the music you do?

LA MONTE YOUNG: Well, I think the fact that I created something and had an enormous influence is indisputable. What it’s called is very interesting. How much can words really describe it? I have my own definition of minimalism, which is that which is created with a minimum of means. There were a great deal of precedents for minimalism before me. There was haiku. There were these paintings of Hokusai. Ancient Chinese calligraphy. Some parts of Webern are very minimalist. In fact, the reductiveness in the Bagatelles, these very short little pieces, there’s something very minimalist about them. Can minimalism describe everything I did? Impossible. Can it describe some important aspects of what I did? I think so. People search for tags for a means of description. Can music ever be described in words? It’s an interesting question. As Dan Wolf wrote in the Introduction to The Well-Tuned Piano booklet, The Well-Tuned Piano is really a maximalist work. We strive to describe music and our musical experiences and musical trends and musical genres. I’m O.K. with being called a minimalist to some degree. I realize that it’s only one aspect of my work. Certainly, within The Well-Tuned Piano, which is extremely maximalist, there are elements that we associate with minimalism. I think that eventually people will understand that my entire contribution was much more vast. I was an influence on concept art and on conceptual art. I was an influence on Fluxus. I did a number of things that grew out of my understanding of music history and the history of the world, yet in their first appearance they somehow seemed radical, like they were totally new. When we study history, we find out where we’ve been, and it puts us in a position where we have perspective and allows us to maybe do something new. But at least we can take all of that into consideration and let it feed our creative process so that what comes out of it takes into consideration what has been done up until this time. You know, they say: “Beware of the man who’s only read one book.” There used to be composers you would meet in college. They were these wild young guys and they could bang the piano and do all kinds of things. It was really something to hear them. But there was only one thing they could do, because they didn’t know any other history and they didn’t have enough training and they didn’t have enough tradition. So, on the one hand, they had enormous potential. But, on the other hand, if they had also had enormous training, they would have then been able to take that creative impulse and really go beyond and beyond. John Cage once said, “Artists are bearing gifts.” They’re special emissaries bearing gifts for people, and they have an enormous responsibility to leave something important. It has to be something that’s good for the people. And you don’t do that by giving people what they want, you do it by giving the people this higher source of information that comes through you that you make manifest in some physical model that actually moves them deeply into the state where they want to have this experience and go higher into this exalted state.

FRANK J. OTERI: So to bring it back to repetition let’s eliminate the word minimalism from this because it’s sort of become a buzz word…

LA MONTE YOUNG: It only has a limited usefulness.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: And also, if you recall what Kyle Gann wrote in his very important essay that received the Deems Taylor Award…. He acknowledges that repetition and the cyclic part of minimalism is what is mostly known as minimalism, he would reject any definition of minimalism that did not start with 1960 #7 and the sustained drones that La Monte Young initiated into contemporary music. So we can’t really only rely on that cyclic definition of minimalism.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s about hearing something for a long time. You played the saxophone very fast over drones and that then in turn led to your approach to piano playing. This total speed is exactly the opposite of holding a sustained tone for a long time, yet it isn’t. There’s an ancient Greek paradox about an arrow or a bird in flight. If something is moving, can it be somewhere while it is moving? And if it is always somewhere, how can it be moving? I reached the feeling I still have about music back in 1981 when I first heard The Well-Tuned Piano at 6 Harrison Street. I was a freshman at Columbia and I was hearing Bruckner for the first time and I was hearing Schoenberg. I was getting all this information at the same time. Everyone at Columbia seemed to be into this rigid interpretation of twelve-tone music and anything else was invalid. But what I loved about twelve-tone music, was that since you got rid of the tonal pull of various intervals, it no longer had to be goal oriented and that meant there was a stasis to it.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: I think that’s what La Monte liked about it too.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Stasis as opposed to Fluxus.

FRANK J. OTERI: That stasis is what you heard in Webern and translated into your own Trio for Strings and for Brass. Those pieces with long sustained tones were serial pieces, but you were hearing the stasis of no longer needing to go anywhere.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: La Monte’s concept of playing the saxophone so fast and then later playing the piano so fast, was that the notes actually blurred together and made a chord. He felt that he was aiming at sustaining chords over long periods of time. Certainly with the clouds in The Well-Tuned Piano, you can feel that he achieved it, because you do actually get to that point. Of course he has the sustain pedal on continuously, so there are a lot of sustained notes. So, actually, that was his goal to have the pitches go so fast that they would create a continuous chord.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that actually connects this music to visual art. And Marian, I wanted to talk with you about your being a visual artist and the influence that that in turn has had on La Monte’s work and the influence that you have had on each other. Morton Feldman, in his writings about his music going back to early ’50s, talks about how he wanted to create music that floated like color field paintings. If you look at Mark Rothko’s paintings, you can see a connection to Morton Feldman’s music. There’s something painterly about the music. And there’s something painterly about La Monte’s music and about all this that we’ve come to call minimalist music. It’s no longer about something happens over here, and it develops like a Dickens or a Thackeray novel, but rather it’s a canvas. Your ears are paying attention to this music the way your eyes would look at a canvas. It’s all happening at once and you focus on one detail, then another, but it’s there all at once.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: What’s more, as a student of Paul Feeley and Tony Smith at Bennington in the late ’50s, I was very influenced by their interest in the ideas of Clement Greenberg and the idea of getting rid of three-dimensionality and having the flat canvas be the flat canvas and not reference another space that it wasn’t. In the paintings I did through 1962 when I stopped painting and came to work with light, that was my main intention and focus, to flatten out this flat area, to keep this two-dimensional canvas two dimensional. The opportunity I had to present my work with music, I would say, allowed other elements to come into play that went beyond making two dimensions be two dimensions. And that was to create an atmosphere that was conducive to listening to music and paying attention to it for a long period of time.