La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

23. Choosing Intervals

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to plunge into the theory for a bit. That’s the one thing we haven’t done. That wonderful tuning system that is so rich in possibilities that is based on pure fifths and pure sevenths, and combinations of those intervals, but avoids thirds. Yet, the third is the most common interval in the harmonies of Western music. I guess for starters, why did you avoid the thirds?

LA MONTE YOUNG: It’s interesting if we look at the history of Western classical music. If we were to tune it in just intonation, it would all be factorable by 2s, 3s, and 5s: 2s being octaves, 3s being 5ths, and 5s being the major 3rds. What I did in The Well-Tuned Piano was base it on 2s, 3s, and 7s. I noticed when I was composing the Trio for Strings, and early on, that major 3rds were not expressing the musical feeling that I was having. The third became so overused in Western classical music. Every cadence at the end of the composition eventually had to have a third in it. A major third was more common and a minor third was considered special. Which intervals have been in vogue over time is an interesting study. Back at the time of organum, fifths and fourths were considered good, while thirds were considered too dissonant.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s because they were using a Pythagorean third which was super sharp, and it was dissonant.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yes, the Pythagorean third was dissonant. Then, gradually over time the 5:4 interval works its way in and people could not live without thirds. Although I didn’t realize exactly why at the time I created the tuning for The Well-Tuned Piano, I knew that major thirds were not creating the feeling that I wanted to create.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: This goes back to the Trio for Strings, you pretty much avoided thirds then. So it goes back a long way.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Although in The Well-Tuned Piano you have the 9:7, which is a bigger third. It doesn’t convey the same feeling at all as the 5:4 major third conveys. The Well-Tuned Piano then is based on a system of 2s, 3s, and 7s. One is able to sense it immediately as a classical tuning system because it has the same number of factors that the Western classical music system has: 2s, 3s, and 5s. But it leaves the 5 out and puts the 7 in. After that I did many other things in tuning. In the Dream Houses I have, to a great degree, focused on this area between the 9:7 interval. The symmetry in the current Dream House is all made up of microtones within the 9:7 interval. I became fascinated with this area of the scale. First I worked on 56, 57, 58, 59, skipped 60 because it’s a multiple of 5, 61, 62, 63, 64, skipped 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, skipped 70, 71, and 72. Those were the tones I worked with in a work I called The Big Dream. Then I began to do symmetries with those and began to go into higher octaves of the same 9:7 interval. For some reason these ratios within 9:7 convey something very profound for me. I find it necessary to present these intervals. They create a different feeling than anybody has ever worked with extensively before. The special Rayna synthesizers that I use allow me to enter intervals that have large numerators and denominators. They have very precise relationships that hardly drift, or don’t drift over time. Therefore it is possible to make up periodic composite waveforms out of very complex intervals and therefore the waveform itself is more complex, but it’s periodic. The fact that it’s periodic allows the human mechanism to recognize it, remember it, and treat it as something that it can work with. In the study of vibrational structure we have to begin somewhere. Like in math, if you begin with the integers then this can lead you to many, many different places. Similarly, if you begin with the rational numbers and learn what they are, physically, musically, vibrationally, and spiritually, then they’re like stepping stones toward other more evolved places.