La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

18. The Sacred and the Profane

FRANK J. OTERI: So then the question you raise by these two separate streams in Western music: music coming out of the church and music for entertainment…

LA MONTE YOUNG: It’s the sacred and the profane, that same old concept.

FRANK J. OTERI: Would you consider your music and the work that you do to be part of Western classical music?

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yes. Yes, but it’s much more inclusive. I was very fortunate. I was an ethnomusicology major at UCLA, as well as composition because they didn’t have a composition department, really. They had a composition department, but you couldn’t be a composition major. But I was a composition major even though they didn’t have it. I was an ethnomusicology major and I was an English minor, or something like that. Finally, I got to Berkeley and there was pure composition as a graduate student. Because I was in ethnomusicology, I was able to listen to recordings from all over the world. UCLA had a big library. I could hear Korean music and the music of the drunken fishermen, a very famous piece. I could hear Eskimos sing into each other’s mouths. I could hear American Indian music. I could hear African music. I heard all kinds of music. So did a lot of other people, but to me it really meant something and I absorbed it. It became a part of me so that when I wrote, when I created, when I improvised I took into consideration the entire world of music in such a way that would not have been possible before my time because the recording did not exists. Imagine what it meant to Debussy to hear the gamelan orchestra that came to Paris. One instant in time and it had such a big influence on him. He was so carried away. I was able to play recordings of gamelan orchestra after gamelan orchestra. I really just soaked it up. When I began to write I took everything into consideration: Western classical music, Indian classical music, Gagaku, Chinese opera, African music. So I was in a different position. We find that a number of composers in our time have taken advantage of that new informational situation. Communication now takes seconds with email. We used to have to write a letter and wait a month to get the reply. Now we’re anxious if we don’t have the reply in five minutes. This access of information has changed everything. I really feel my music includes all of these subsets, so I’m really writing music on a cosmic level.

FRANK J. OTERI: Other forms of music making in the West and America today: jazz, rock. These are musics that you’ve had tremendous influence over and, in the case of jazz, have been influenced by. I can’t say that you were influenced by rock because you started composing before rock really happened and your evolution is almost simultaneous to the evolution of rock music. Where do you see those things fitting in as part of Western music?

LA MONTE YOUNG: We have to also take into consideration blues.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes.

LA MONTE YOUNG: When I played jazz I especially liked to play blues. Blues has a very strong static element. In early blues sometimes it was going along on one chord. You can still find examples of that kind of blues. In my blues piano playing—as with the Forever Bad Blues Band and the way I played behind Terry Jennings on something I haven’t released yet—I would stay on one chord for a long time before I would then move to another chord. It’s a precursor of what I did in The Well-Tuned Piano. Blues was a spiritual music, and it was involved with alcohol, too. Most of the blues musicians drank. Coming out of the conditions that black people were subjected to, blues was a cry of the soul and a reaching out to God for help. Under those circumstances the alcohol was a help. I think the two are really tied into each other. But somehow stasis was a very important concept in blues. It wasn’t until later when they tried to write it down that it became 12-bar blues. Originally nobody knew how many bars it was going to be. Even now you listen to some of the recordings of early blues players and you get these 13 1/2-bar rounds and 11 1/2-bar rounds, sometimes even in the same piece. You get different numbers of bars in the rounds because it wasn’t so fixed. But when they wanted a bunch of people to play together, then the question came to be how many bars are there going to be in a round and how many rounds is it going to be? Twelve is a very profound number. In Indian classical music the first tala is called ektal. Ek means one, the first tala. Twelve bars and/or 12 beats, if you want to call them beats.

FRANK J. OTERI: So blues evolved and began morphing into rock and roll, which was simultaneous to your coming of age as a composer. A lot of the people who played with you early on went on to be leaders in rock music. In a sense, just as you’re the father of minimalism, in some ways you’re the father of various schools of rock music that happened. You’re almost the father of punk rock in some ways.

LA MONTE YOUNG: It’s been said that I’m the father of punk rock because I influenced…

MARIAN ZAZEELA:Robert Palmer has written about your influence…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …and my influence on the Velvet Underground through John Cale. Of course Tony Conrad was in the original group that came before the Velvet Underground. Weren’t they called the Ostriches?

MARIAN ZAZEELA: The Primitives?

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yeah, the Primitives. They did a piece called “The Ostrich” or something?

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Right.

LA MONTE YOUNG: [laughs] “Doin’ the Ostrich.” I have to take whatever I did as some kind of blessing that came to me. I applied myself to devotion to my muse. Whatever it was that was inspiring me, I followed that throughout life. The influences I had happened without my trying. It just came out that way. These things happened. I have tried to remain devoted to this higher sense of inspiration because I’ve found that if I follow that it’s much greater than anything I can do personally. It’s like I said earlier in the discussion: the reason that what I’ve done has been so influential is not because I did it, it’s because I open myself up to this higher flow of information. That information is the truth. Therefore when people hear the truth, they recognize it, and they want to be a part of it.