La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

24. Physical Limitations of Instruments

FRANK J. OTERI: Obviously on the piano, there are exceptions—Michael Harrison developed ways with pedals that he was able to get more than 12 intervals on a conventional piano and certainly in the 19th century Möllendorf designed a quarter-tone piano, Wyschnegradsky in the ’20s, Haba, and all these people worked on elaborate designs, Joe Maneri in Boston has this elaborate keyboard—if you are working with other instruments, say, a string quartet, you can have more than 12 intervals in a scale. Are there compositions of yours that use more than 12 intervals in a given piece?

LA MONTE YOUNG: Well, for example, in the current sound environment in the Dream House there are 32 unique frequency ratios. When the Theatre of Eternal Music Big Band played, they were playing with an environment that was the ancestor of this environment. I can’t remember how many frequencies it had, but it had a number.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: It was 20. We were performing, what was it called?

LA MONTE YOUNG: The number of frequencies that you have available to work with, of course in just intonation, is limitless…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: The Lower Map of the Eleven’s Division from The Romantic Symmetry in Prime Time from 144 to 112 with 119.

LA MONTE YOUNG: …the number you work with at any giving time doesn’t matter. More is not necessarily better. Depending on the group, and depending on what they have to refer to in order to stay in tune, the most important thing is that they can be perfectly in tune. They have to work from a point that they can actually hear. When I first began to learn to hear some of the intervals in just intonation, I was working on the ration 63. Sixty-three is 9 x 7. I actually learned to hear it as a whole step, a 9:8 interval, above 56. That is the seventh harmonic. In the Big Band, there was a sine wave for every frequency that the musicians could tune to. A similar technique was used when I wrote Chronos Kristalla for the Kronos Quartet. Everybody thinks that natural harmonics on strings are in tune, but they’re not unfortunately. It would be nice if they were. They have a special quality that I wanted to make use of. You know, Chronos Kristalla is made up of all natural harmonics on strings. I wanted the sound of natural harmonics. They sound like sine waves. They have a special timbre coming out of the string, being that one frequency component, but they’re not perfectly in tune. In fact, sometimes they’re horribly out of tune. What I had to do was provide the Kronos Quartet with a Rayna synthesizer that was dedicated to that chord, the 8 pitches of “The Magic Chord,” up in the octaves that they were going to play their natural harmonics. They would tune their strings in such a way that the natural harmonics that they played were in tune with this pitch standard before they would start the concert. It meant that they could only really play one or two harmonics on each string. Each string was dedicated to only one, or at the most two harmonics. You couldn’t have one in tune and have the other one in tune. That’s how out of tune harmonics on strings are. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact. It’s true of all strings. The string is not a perfect vibrational medium. It has its physical limitations. As a result, it vibrates in such a way that the harmonics are not perfectly in tune. The harmonics on the piano are somewhat better, but they get consistently sharper as you go up. When we tune The Well-Tuned Piano, we have to listen in many ways. We have to listen to the combination tones that are produced by the whole envelope of the composite waveform, as well as listening to the unisons of the harmonics. Sometimes we have to sacrifice one harmonic, usually the fifth, in order to get the third or seventh perfect. At the same time we listen to the combination tones to make sure that the whole envelope really lines up. The tuning of a string, which is an imperfect resonating body, is a very intricate and detailed process. It’s not simple at all. There are decisions that have to be made all along the way. Every tuning of The Well-Tuned Piano is somewhat unique because things change: the strings get older, the temperature is never the same even though you try to control the room temperature. We’ve actually documented each tuning of The Well-Tuned Piano since about 1981. Bob Bielecki created a measuring device, a several digit counter. He would measure the tuning, right after Michael had finished tuning it and just before I would play it for the concert. Each succeeding concert, instead of Michael having to start by ear, he could first tune it up to the numbers that he had recorded from the last tuning and then perfect it by ear beyond that point. Each tuning had the potential of getting better, but each tuning was slightly different by some milli-nothing. Depending on which area he had tuned most perfectly, I would tend to spend most of my time in that area. For instance, in the last concert of The Well-Tuned Piano, the one that is on the Just Dreams DVD, The Well-Tuned Piano in The Magenta Lights, Michael did an especially good tuning of the “Magic Harmonic Rainforest Chord.” Within this chord is an area called “Blues for Eurydice.” It’s a new section I composed and developed during the 1987 series. He tuned it so well that I spent much more time than usual in that area, maybe an extra hour. So when I was coming towards “The Romantic Chord”—I try to never look at the clock when I’m playing The Well-Tuned Piano, but I glanced at the clock. I always try to record one tape that goes straight through; otherwise it takes years before you get a copy to listen to. I like to sit back and listen to it from beginning to end. In the PCM process we had tape that would last…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Six hours.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yeah, six hours. I was already heading into the fifth hour it seemed like when I was getting into “The Romantic Chord.” Usually “The Romantic Chord” had been the longest section. I shortened “The Romantic Chord” and went on into another totally new section, which is called “Orpheus and Eurydice in the Elysian Fields.” To me, it’s one of the most beautiful sections. Somehow the recording came out to 6 hours and 24 minutes. I thought, oh, I’ve done it this time. They won’t have it all on one tape and it will take them forever before they could provide me with a tape that I can listen to. Luckily, by some stroke of good fortune, that particular tape had enough tape and it made it all the way to the end so that I had a digital recording of The Well-Tuned Piano, 6 hours and 24 minutes. It became 6 hours and 25 minutes in the process of making the DVD.