La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

19. Fluxus

FRANK J. OTERI: Then to the question of conceptual art. That was another thing that was happening, the whole Fluxus movement was something that you were a central part of as it was happening in time. You mentioned Yoko Ono‘s loft concerts before and we’ve barely touched on the Compositions 1960, Arabic numeral (X for Henry Flynt), and these pre-Well-Tuned Piano piano pieces, but they were very much a part of what was going on in Fluxus. The whole ideas of George Maciunas and works that were not just music, but that were somehow beyond music or beyond art that were the origins of performance art, really breaking down genres between genres of art.

LA MONTE YOUNG: The Compositions 1960 were a result of two things especially. One is my visit to Darmstadt in the summer of 1959 where I met David Tudor and heard him play live, heard him talk about John Cage, and just saw what a wonderful performer he was. He was one of my heroes. He was one of my greatest heroes. He was the greatest performer of new music that ever lived. I admired him very much. I met him that summer at Darmstadt when I was in Stockhausen‘s class. His ideas and John Cage’s ideas had a big influence on me. But at the same time, being at Berkeley in this very stifling academic situation also had an influence on me. The Compositions 1960 were a reaction to being at Berkeley. They were a sociological reaction. To some degree, they are a social statement. The music department allowed me to direct some of the noon concerts. I presented a few concerts in which we performed John Cage, Dennis Johnson, Richard Maxfield, and my own music. Of course the student body was not prepared at all for this level and they made various reactions. It was at that point, in 1959-60 that I began to realize how easy it is to manipulate an audience. It was later, when I began to have my group Theatre of Eternal Music and when I began to write and play The Well-Tuned Piano, that I strove to create pieces that were on a much higher level and which offered the audience a key to unlock a door which would then lead them to another level, which would unlock another door and take them up to another level which they could never have reached had I started out with this level were you get them all riled up, shouting at you, and tearing up their programs saying, “burn the composer” and this sort of thing, which I quickly, although inadvertently, learned how to do. I did a concert where Terry Riley and I accompanied Ann Halprin’s company at UCLA after I had been at Berkeley for about a year. It must have been around 1960 that we came down to UCLA and did a concert.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: I think it was in April 1960.

LA MONTE YOUNG: I presented some of my sustained friction sounds where you would drag a gong on cement. Terry and I would do cans on windows or a wastebasket on a wall. The whole place would really rumble and shake.

FRANK J. OTERI: Pulling chairs and…

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yeah…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yeah, those kinds of sounds.

LA MONTE YOUNG: …benches and so forth, that kind of sound. At this concert, my parents came and they left crying. They were in tears and just heartbroken to see what their son was doing. Of course I didn’t expect them to understand, but when you’re young you’re very idealistic. I was it at an age that I was hoping my parents would understand. Eventually it became clear to me that I had to do what I was going to do. I had to go out into the world totally alone and by myself. There was no way to know who would understand, or whether or not anybody would ever understand what I would do. When I wrote for Guitar in 1958, I played with this great young jazz guitar player Dennis Budimir. He later made a recording with Ravi Shankar. He was my guitar player. Tiger Echols, another young guitar player I played with, he disappeared, I lost track of him. These guys were really good. I’d show them the score of for Guitar, they would look at it, and then they would hand it back to me and say ‘far out man.’ Nobody ever tried to play it. It wasn’t until 21 years or so later that Ned Sublette said, I heard you have a piece called for Guitar. He took the piece and worked on it for months and months. Then he did the world premiere…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: …at The Kitchen. The old Kitchen on Broome Street, I think it was in ’79.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yeah, ’79.

LA MONTE YOUNG and MARIAN ZAZEELA [in unison]: Twenty-one years after it was written.

LA MONTE YOUNG: John Cage was there, and Merce Cunningham

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yes, because Ned also played a piece of John’s…

LA MONTE YOUNG and MARIAN ZAZEELA [in unison]: He did the Satie piece…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …what’s it called? Cheap Imitation.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yeah, Cheap Imitation.

LA MONTE YOUNG: He did Cheap Imitation, so John and Merce were there. So it was a really elite, hardcore audience. You know, really avant-garde. Jackson MacLow was there. They all considered it really beautiful, but look how long it took for this piece to get a performance. I was surprised when in the last 10 to 20 years I actually developed a following of people who could understand my music. I was so accustomed to not being understood that I had given it up.

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back those early conceptual pieces, how did you first come in contact with the Fluxus movement in New York?

LA MONTE YOUNG: No, no! I influenced the whole Fluxus movement. There was no Fluxus movement before me.

FRANK J. OTERI: But how did these people come together?

LA MONTE YOUNG: George Maciunas was in the class that Richard Maxfield gave at the New School. I was Richard Maxfield’s teaching assistant. George met me. He came and heard me at Yoko Ono’s loft.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: You know, Kyle Gann, as good a scholar he is, he has it wrong in his essay. First of all he says that La Monte and Richard co-curated the series at Yoko Ono’s loft. That is wrong. La Monte curated it on his own.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Richard didn’t even know Terry Jennings and Terry Riley, except through me.

[speaking at the same time]

MARIAN ZAZEELA: It’s kind of a question of semantics. If you want to talk about Fluxus, you really shouldn’t refer to Fluxus until the word Fluxus came into being. It wasn’t until late ’61.

LA MONTE YOUNG: There was no word Fluxus when I did those Yoko Ono loft concerts. George came and heard my 1961 compositions that I premiered there.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: [speaking alone] The first Fluxus events were in June ’62 in Wuppertal. This is documented in Jon Hendricks’s Fluxus Codex.

LA MONTE YOUNG: As Gil Silverman said, George always said that La Monte was número uno.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yeah.

LA MONTE YOUNG: I was the main influence on George Maciunas. Henry Flynt describes it in an essay…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Well, it leads up to Flynt’s essay in our book Sound and Light. He wrote an essay for the Ubi Fluxus ibi motus exhibition at the 1990 Venice Biennale that had a Fluxus pavilion that we were all part of. He wrote a very scathing essay about Fluxus that’s published in that book.

LA MONTE YOUNG: As Henry says, at the time he met us, George was still showing social realism in his gallery. He was saying, “why can’t I express myself?” We were trying to tell him that he should be presenting this stuff that I was presenting at Yoko’s loft.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yeah. Henry said they had to drag George kicking and screaming into the 20th century. You know, let him know what he really should be showing. Then he went along.

LA MONTE YOUNG: He not only went along, but eventually he caught on…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: He gave it his own spin, which was not really this direction that La Monte…

LA MONTE YOUNG: Well, I like to think of George as one of the Marx Brothers. He was so good at this kind of slapstick vaudeville. I mean he was funny, very humorous. He didn’t completely, at all, understand the depth of my work. But he understood the humorous side, like the Compositions for David Tudor. In No. 1 you bring a bail of hay and a bucket of water on stage for the piano to eat or drink. The piece is over after the piano eats or decides not to. To me the concept was extremely important. The humor is there. Nobody laughs harder than me when I see that piece performed. Some people have done hilarious realizations of it. It’s very funny. George got that, but he didn’t so much get the deeper side of it. Then you have these second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-generation Fluxus artists doing warmed over versions of my 1960 Compositions. The thing is, my compositions came from somebody who had done music his whole life, from somebody who had a rigorous training in music, who had won scholarships in music, and a lot of these guys were just tenth-rate artists. They were like that guy that you meet in the music department at school who could do one very creative piece and bang away on the piano. It really sounds like something, but he doesn’t know any music history, he has no technique, he has no understanding why he’s doing it or what his own personal revolt is about, and as a result he’s unable to bring it up to a higher level where it really can do something in relation to the entire history of music and mankind.