La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

17. Working with Musicians and Orchestras

LA MONTE YOUNG: But the Trio for Strings, little did I realize when I wrote it that it was so hard to play. You see, at the time I wrote it, the head of the ethnomusicology department at UCLA was also the university organist and he let me write the piece on the organ in Royce Hall. So I had this enormous pipe organ at my fingertips and one of the things that had been a factor in the music that I had written before, such as for Brass, was that I had written them at the piano. And so the durations were in my mind but I was never able to really hear them sustained and when I wrote for Guitar, the piece that was in between for Brass and the Trio for Strings, I actually wrote it on my Aunt Norma’s guitar. Remember, she had taught me cowboy songs and guitar accompaniment and she was living in my grandmother’s house at that time too, and she let me write the piece on her guitar so I actually could hear the sounds of it. Because one of my composition teachers said to me that it’s very important to write the piece specifically for and ideally on the instrument. And I began to learn that this is a very important part of musical composition, that you really should write for the instruments. That’s why it was important for me to work directly with the Kronos Quartet. And from that point on I began to write by working with musicians and in fact I took it so seriously I began to organize my own groups and from that time on all of my musical process was real music making as opposed to armchair composing. I almost completely got away from the idea of writing. Even though I have the kind of mind that thinks abstractly and is able to create abstractly, I found that through the process of working on real music directly with musicians and hearing it as you create it, I took that concept to the extreme and I found that it gave back much more than I was getting through the process of notation. Therefore notation became an adjunct to music making, whereas the recording allowed me to be completely free and I could improvise and create on the spot. You see, my creative process is such that, because I learned how to improvise when I was young, when I was in high school, the ideas just flow through me. If I stop to write it down, it’s very, very different what I do, because you can’t keep the flow going. It takes so long to write, whereas if you record it while you’re playing it or—like the way my raga ensemble performed with me—we’ve worked together over such a long period, singing together, exchanging phrases, I teach them all of these phrases and Marian and I had lessons together with Pandit Pran Nath, then I teach Jung Hee Choi and Charles Curtis and our disciple Rose Okada who plays sarangi. We teach them various patterns and ragas and how it goes. And of course, no performance is ever exactly the same. I mean, with the notational process we can make everything exactly the same and there is something to that. It’s important. On the other hand, it’s been my experience that process of live improvisation with a group that has been instructed over many, many years can produce something that is on a much more profound level.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, has there ever been a desire for you to write for, say, symphony orchestra?

LA MONTE YOUNG: Well, you know, I used to talk to Charles Curtis about this. You know Charles was first solo cellist of the Hamburg Radio Orchestra, for years. And I used to talk about, you know one time the Brooklyn Phil was asking me to do something and I said, O.K., let’s do the Orchestral Dreams. And in the Orchestral Dreams I said, I want 8 French horns, 8 trumpets with Harmon mutes, 8 trombones and 8 tubas. At first they were saying, O.K., O.K. And then they started to get serious and they said, well, you know we’ve only got 3 tuba players on salary and we’ve only got 5 horns on salary and we’ve only got 3 trumpets on salary, and I have to bring in all these extra musicians? So I was saying, O.K., I’ll bring in these other musicians, you pay them. But it could never come about, plus I said I wanted many rehearsals…And I decided that working with my own group was better. The Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band, that’s my symphony orchestra. 23 pieces. O.K., if I could get a bigger group, but you have no idea how devoted those musicians were! They were the best freelance musicians in New York City. I mean, the lead tuba player…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: …Steve Johns…

LA MONTE YOUNG: He plays first tuba with the Metropolitan Opera and the Symphony and he’s just a great tuba player. All the musicians in the group were on that level. The trumpet players, some of the best jazz players in town and each group of musicians—and Jon Catler on guitar, you know, just intonation specialist, Brad Catler, on bass and…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Actually that is one of our very next releases because we did receive a grant from the Mary Flagler Cary Trust a few years ago to put out the Big Band and that was going to be our next release on Gramavision but then Gramavision folded and so we looked around for several years for another record company, but we couldn’t get it out. But eventually, we will definitely put it out on Just Dreams and it should come out maybe in this year.

FRANK J. OTERI: I can’t wait. Is that the concert I heard at Dia?

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yeah.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yeah.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: It’s going to be the last one of the series. I don’t know which one you came to.

LA MONTE YOUNG: The last one was the best.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that’s the one I was at.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Oh.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Because we did four live concerts in the series.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Monday night was Big Band night so we would rehearse this group on Monday nights, because it’s their off night from the Metropolitan Opera and so forth. And these musicians donated their time; we had 23 rehearsals before the first concert. I paid them well for the concert, but it was based on how much attendance they had had at the rehearsals. If people didn’t show up as much, I didn’t pay them as much for the concert. But the thing was, their attitudes were so fantastic. Steve Johns would leave a rehearsal saying, oh boy, I need a tape to take home so I can practice my drone. He was playing one tone! Or two tones all night long and he wanted to practice his tone. You know, what an attitude!

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s great.

LA MONTE YOUNG: It was so rewarding to find musicians that took such a serious approach to music and cared so much about what they were doing.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: You know, there is one thing about this. It has to be 2 CDs. It actually just fits in 2 CDs, it could be a little over, but it might be nice to release it as an audio DVD.

LA MONTE YOUNG: We might release it as a DVD, as a music DVD.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: In fact, you know something about that, right?

FRANK J. OTERI: Audio DVDs. Yeah, I know that Mode Records did this audio DVD of the Morton Feldman 2nd String Quartet, which is a 6-hour piece.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Right. And they released it as several CDs.

FRANK J. OTERI: They released it as 5 CDs and…

LA MONTE YOUNG: I wanted to address your question of the symphony orchestra, whether I would ever write a piece for them. I used to discuss this idea with Charles Curtis because he’s had so much experience playing in orchestras. He said, “You know, it’s an institution. Why do you want to even try to deal with them?” They don’t give you any of the conditions that you want. Terry Riley was invited to write a piece for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The conductor was very interested in Terry’s music and he commissioned the piece…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Wasn’t it Leonard Slatkin?

LA MONTE YOUNG: After the first rehearsal the orchestra stood up and booed the piece. I mean, why do you have to put up with this kind of indignity? It’s unnecessary and just because the symphony orchestra is a machine supported by the establishment—that’s the reason. That’s the only reason. And it’s no reason for me to want to do a symphony. I get so much satisfaction out of working with musicians like in the Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band. Would I want to work with a large group? Absolutely. Would I like to have eight French horns, eight tubas, eight trumpets in Harmon mutes

MARIAN ZAZEELA: You know from the very beginning he conceived of the Trio for Strings as a string orchestra piece, also. But we’ve never had the opportunity to have that realized…

LA MONTE YOUNG: The finances, of course, are a factor. But I have found that you can get more love out of a group of musicians that you gather yourself, tell them what the conditions are and that this is how it’s going to be and we want to do this together, if we want to do it together. They decide if they want to do it. If they want to do it, we do it. As opposed to dealing with this—you know when you go to Europe there are masters of red tape, like in France or Italy if you want to get something done it’s impossible because there are so many more signatures that you need. Then you got to go here and get another signature, then go there for another, and eventually you can’t do it. It’s impossible. That’s what happens when you get hooked up with a symphony orchestra. It’s made for this kind of music that can be played by a machine. I used to say that I want five rehearsals. They would laugh at me! No way! They we’re going to give me one rehearsal and play it. I don’t want that. The one thing that I’m known for is quality. I got it by hard work, by dedication, and, quite frankly, by establishing alternative spaces where I could invite musicians to do something that took a lot of time. Imagine when you go into a union hall… You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t do anything. O.K., that had its place in time. There were two lines. There was a line of music coming out of the churches and the cathedrals, out of religious experience, and out of ritual. Then there was another line of theater and so forth that came out of entertainment, dances and various kinds of entertainment. To some degree the symphony orchestra, with all its pretensions of being high art, is really tied in to this entertainment factor. Where does it pay? Can we do this piece? I’ve heard so many stories of Webern and Schoenberg not being allowed the number of rehearsals they wanted and they had to just go right in, put it on the stands, and play it. It requires people who have a concept—the way Heiner Friedrich had a concept—that there was something more important in life, that it should be funded and should be made possible. Very few beings that have money have this sense, or sensitivity, because it’s rare that you both have the money and the concept at the same time. The mentality that goes after earning the money isn’t often the mentality that is able to produce the high artistic-spiritual experience. On the other hand, if the money is sometimes handed to you and you have that mentality anyhow, if you happen to have it anyway, then occasionally a person comes along who is willing to spend their money in such a way that it can do some of these things that establishments usually don’t want to do.