FRANK J. OTERI: To spiral this back to The Well-Tuned Piano and potential future performances of it, Michael Harrison is the only other person besides you who has ever played this. He has also studied Indian music and he has worked very closely with you. Let’s say some imaginary pianist at Juilliard or the Moscow Conservatory who is watching and reading our discussion on NewMusicBox with great interest says, I want to play The Well-Tuned Piano now. What does that person do to play The Well-Tuned Piano? How does that become a reality?
LA MONTE YOUNG: It’s possible. It’s very possible. Several pianists have asked me about it in the past. There’s only one answer: you have to become my disciple and learn it the way Michael learned it, the way I learned music from Pandit Pran Nath. I feel that is the only way to learn it. I’m not saying that eventually over time there won’t be people, who will listen to the recording so much, that they could be able to play it. That will happen. After I die, I won’t be able to control it completely. It will go out and become what it becomes. To me, it’s like my life. It’s not just something I write on a piece of paper and send off for a score rental fee. Nobody wants to pay you anyway when you send it out for the score rental fee, so why bother? It’s really an extraordinary experience to play The Well-Tuned Piano. The only way I would give anybody permission to play it, they would have to become my disciple of The Well-Tuned Piano, work with me on it for a long time, do things with me to help the piece grow, and learn it in that kind of way. Then if I consider them okay, I can give them permission to play it. I want to say that if my recordings survive, there’s no need for somebody else to play it. There are many ways of looking at it. It’s a great pleasure to teach a disciple, like Jung Hee Choi or Charles Curtis. I know the music will go on. But if nobody comes forward who is really going to learn it in the right way—and you have these recordings. It’s so fantastic that we have these recordings of Pandit Pran Nath. Even though I’m going forward with the tradition, I’m me and Pandit Pran Nath was Pandit Pran Nath. I’m going to try and keep the tradition pure and present it in the most pure way possible. But no matter how good I become at singing raga and no matter how much I try to sing exactly like him and retain the purity of the tradition, I will never sound exactly like him, just as he never sounded exactly like his teacher, and his teacher probably did not sound exactly like his teacher before him. Therefore, the recordings have great significance.
FRANK J. OTERI: In a Western classical sense, if there are these great pieces that in the canon, say, of piano music—the 32 Beethoven sonatas, the piano music of Chopin, the Etude Tableaux of Rachmaninoff, and taking it back to pre-piano music to earlier keyboard and harpsichord music, the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach—that have these elaborate traditions and people, in order to become pianists, have to play through these pieces to become pianists and be able to think about the piano. I almost think that people who are at conservatories ought to be made to learn to play The Well-Tuned Piano the same way that they learn Beethoven sonatas because it’s that level of a piece.
LA MONTE YOUNG: I’m sure they will. It will happen.
MARIAN ZAZEELA: They really could learn it from the recording, even though it’s not written out in the little dots. They could learn it and they could play it back. The question is, could they then go on and improvise within it.
LA MONTE YOUNG: There are many factors.
MARIAN ZAZEELA: Maybe.
LA MONTE YOUNG: Not everybody will be a La Monte Young. Not everybody will be a Pandit Pran Nath. But from time to time special, extremely creative people will evolve. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen. I can’t control it completely. During my lifetime I would teach somebody who would learn seriously as a disciple. If somebody learns it in that way, that’s very good.
MARIAN ZAZEELA: You know, Jon Catler has also studied The Well-Tuned Piano. He was one of La Monte’s tuning assistants.
LA MONTE YOUNG: Yes, and he plays things like it on guitar.
MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yeah.
LA MONTE YOUNG: On the other hand, a lot of classical musicians are really just very rigid. It makes no difference if they play The Well-Tuned Piano or not, because it’s not going to help The Well-Tuned Piano. The Well-Tuned Piano is an extraordinary experience. I put my life’s blood into it. The records convey something that is literally out of this world. Unless somebody can do that… I don’t know? Going back to the Trio for Strings, it’s nearly impossible to play. Eckart Schloifer, a really terrific viola player who was the founder of the Trio Basso, said that it’s impossible. It just can’t be played perfectly the way you want it. He’s right. I wrote it on an organ. The organ could speak and sustain those tones unfailingly. Eventually, a whole younger generation of string players will evolve, the same way these little kids learn how to play the Wagner horn parts. They start practicing when they’re nine years old or four years old. They know them by the time they grow up. The same thing will happen. People will practice the Trio for Strings, they’ll learn it, and they will be able to play these incredible performances. Similarly, people will listen to The Well-Tuned Piano and if they’re going to do it, you can’t stop them. There’s this famous story in Indian classical tradition: Guru Dronacharya lived in this cave and he was the guru of all the young warriors. He was the top guru. He taught them archery, spirituality, and everything. Arjuna was his main disciple. He said to Arjuna, you’re the greatest and you’ll be the only one. Of course Krishna was Arjuna’s charioteer. Krishna led Arjuna into battle in the great war of the Mahabharata where fathers fought against sons, brothers fought against brothers, and uncles fought against nephews. One day Arjuna was practicing archery in the woods. An arrow came and split his arrow in half in the air. Arjuna went and found this fellow and said, “Who are you?” I’m Ekalavya. He says, “Who’s your teacher?” He said, “Guru Dronacharya.” And he said, “Guru Dronacharya? I’ve never seen you around.” So he said, “He didn’t take me, but I am his disciple.” Arjuna went back to Guru Dronacharya and he said, ‘you told me that I was the greatest. I’d be the only one. I was shooting in the woods and this young fellow comes and shoots my arrows in half in the air. He said he’s your disciple.” Guru Dronacharya says, “O.K., let me see. Take me to him.” They go to the woods and shoot an arrow and the arrow comes, cutting it in half. They find Ekalavya and guru Dronacharya says, “Who are you?” He says, “I’m your disciple, Ekalavya.” Guru Dronacharya says, “I don’t know you?” He says, “I know. I came to you and you didn’t accept me, but I truly believe that I am you’re disciple.” He said, “O.K. then, if you’re my disciple then give me your thumb.” So he cuts off his thumb immediately and gives it to guru Dronacharya to show his devotion. Some years later, Arjuna is in the forest shooting arrows and another arrow comes again and cuts his in half. Meanwhile, without a thumb, Ekalavya had learned to shoot left handed. Arjuna returns to guru Dronacharya who says, “He feels in his heart that he is my disciple. This is the meaning of devotion.” If somebody wants to do it and they really believe in what they’re doing, you can’t stop them. They’ll do it. If somebody really wants to learn it from the recording, it’s possible. They can’t learn it from the notation in my book. The book is only this thick and it only has some sketches of the themes. They would either have to learn it from me directly or from listening to the recordings over a long period of time, as well as figuring out how to tune their own piano in order to do it.
FRANK J. OTERI: Could they do it from hearing the recording and hearing it that way, not being exposed to Indian music and not being exposed to all the other music that shaped who you are?
LA MONTE YOUNG: You see, I think my performances are unique. They always will be. Likewise, I think Pandit Pran Nath’s recordings are unique and different than mine, and always will be. I think both are important. Recordings have simply given us a new tool. It does not relieve the disciple of their burden of seriousness in leaning, but at the same time it gives us a new way to carry information into the future. You can’t say. Someone may evolve who captures the entire spirit of the thing, and really can do it.
FRANK J. OTERI: The reason I bring this up about having the context of the music is that there is this wonderful recording of piano music by Milton Babbitt performed by this pianist named Martin Goldray. He plays the music so well but apparently knew nothing about the structure of it beforehand at all. It sounds wonderful. He makes Babbitt sound like Franz Liszt. It just dances off the ear and it’s remarkable. He has no theory behind the performance, it’s just the musicality of having learned it and making it his own. It’s not informed by notions of integral serialism. The question then becomes, could somebody play this music who is not immersed in the theory behind it and just feels it as music?
LA MONTE YOUNG: I think so. I think so very much. You see, we talk of a certain number of senses, five or six, or whatever, but music is an introduction to an entire other process of perception, evolution, and experience. People can evolve and do miraculous things. Some people may evolve who really capture the spirit of The Well-Tuned Piano and can play it just fine from listening to it on the recording. I think it would be good if they studied with me, the way Michael did, because I can convey something to them, the way Pandit Pran Nath conveyed something to me. The future can create beings that evolve in ways that are far beyond our imagination.