La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

25. Perceptibility

FRANK J. OTERI: The question of perception, and this is really the last area that I wanted to get into, perception on the part of players, perception on the part of listeners, the audience. We talk about these intervals and…you both hear them, I hear them as a composer and as somebody who listens to music day in and day out. The average person who hears this music, might have a perception that it sounds different than what they’re used to. To some people it might sound out of tune. Is the perception of the intervals essential to appreciating the music?

LA MONTE YOUNG: I think you haven’t phrased the question properly… the thing is this: people hear the interval automatically. The interval is this set of frequency relationships that we can think of as the mathematical abstract. The Anahata Nada, the music of the spheres, the unstruck sound can be thought of as a mathematical abstract. The interval comes, and it comes through our neurons up through the cerebral cortex and makes patterns. Now, each one of us is different, and each one of us has different learned conditioning, but the mathematical abstract is the same. We differentiate the moods that we get through a particular set of frequency ratios from the more mundane moods of personal feelings. Happy, amorous, sad, war-like, these are moods indeed. But the moods that intervals create, that music create are very specific to the mathematical abstract. That is what is it that makes Dorian sound like Dorian every time we hear Dorian. It’s that we hear those same intervals coming again and again, and even though each one of us is different and has a different set of learned preconditioning, to some degree we all hear this same set of patterns. And how we respond may indeed have to do with our preconditioning, in part. But in part, the degree to which that we can leave all of that, and go directly to the abstract, that is the true feeling of the interval. You know when you call forth a raga it’s like calling forth a spirit, and that spirit is literally that set of vibrational relationships. You can think of that set of vibrational relationships as a spirit, because it’s a very ethereal thing. Very few people have defined it the way I’m defining it, very few people have been able to say exactly what’s going on here. And the spirit of the raga is this set of vibrational relationships that comes in certain ways that are defined by what are the traditional melodic patterns of that raga, what are the typical notes to cadence on, what are the typical notes to begin on, what are the most common ornaments for that raga, what are the most common shadings of that particular mode. And this is a set of information that when presented together in one construct, we recognize as Raga Yaman, Raga Darbari, Raga Bhairavi, and although we can say, well, this raga is more sad, that raga is more happy, that’s just bringing in some common terminology from everyday usage. It’s O.K…. It helps us do something, but the real definition lies in the numerical relationships, the sets of melodic patterns, the set of ornaments, the set of microtonal shadings… These are what go in, really, to making up the raga. And people are in a situation throughout existence where they are dealing with the interrelationship of what they have learned, with the interrelationship of what they’ve experienced. And the degree to which they can become part of a new experience, and be taken up into that world, the way I spoke of getting into the world of the sound of my lecture in 1960. When you go inside the world of the sound, I said, you can go so far into it that the outside world disappears at times, the world that you were in, the physical world that we live in disappears as you go way deep into this world of the sound. Well that’s the same kind of experience that we’re talking about when you go deep into the world of the raga or The Well-Tuned Piano. And incidentally, in reference to your earlier comment, it was actually with The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys that I began the idea of a piece that becomes a whole life of its own, even before The Well-Tuned Piano. But The Well-Tuned Piano comes out of some music I was playing, Pre-Tortoise Dream Music I call it, that was long, sustained tones when I was still playing saxophone, I went from the fast saxophone to playing long, sustained tones as I began to work more and more on the intonation and also harking back to the Trio for Strings and Composition 1960 # 7. But, through the process of discipline we can give up the physical body and go into a spiritual state that can bring us in direct communion with God. And music has the potential to do this on a level that can teach us something about universal structure, vibrational structure.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, you referenced something that makes me almost want to take this yet somewhere else. Certainly with ragas, there are certain ragas that are appropriate to sing in the evening, sing in the morning, different times of the day, because those different combinations of intervals effect listeners in different ways. Is there an ideal time then, using that same idea, to play The Well-Tuned Piano? Would there be certain times of the day that you wouldn’t give a concert of The Well-Tuned Piano? And mind you it’s a seven or six hour endeavor no matter when you begin. But the performances that I’m aware of have all been evening performances. Could it be done as an afternoon performance? Or morning?

LA MONTE YOUNG: It can be done anytime. I think that the thing is, there are two schools of thought. In South India, they like to make fun of North Indians by saying “I can enjoy my raga any time of day, 24 hours a day.” In North India, they’re very much into this idea of certain times of day and night, and certainly Pandit Pran Nath was a master of this approach to music. But it might be performed differently at different times of day, and certainly whether the sun is shining, or whether it’s night makes a big difference in how we feel, and how we react. But on the other hand, The Well-Tuned Piano could be played at any time, and intervals will have their, what I’ll call abstract mathematical effect at any time of day or night. This is not to say anything at all against the idea that a night raga should be performed at night, a midnight raga should be performed at midnight, and a morning raga in the morning.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: You know, even within the North Indian idea of that, Pandit Pran Nath used to give the example of, say the komal ‘re’…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …The flat second degree…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: He would say it’s really a different flat ‘re’ in the morning than the flat ‘re’ in the evening. But actually what it is, is the approach and the way it’s articulated is what’s different. A lot has to do with coming to the note from where you come from, and the way you come, and the way you slide, or the way you would approach it. And so these factors also are a part of what to North Indians give them the sense that this is the evening, and this is the approach of the morning.

LA MONTE YOUNG: But there are different forms of flat ‘re’, there are definitely different degrees, as well as different approaches to them. It’s complex and it’s extremely evolved. But, this is a special, thing that ragas must be performed at a certain hour of day, and night, and certainly I believe that that’s how they work the best. And it’s tradition and it’s something that is given to us and we take advantage of, and we learn it, and make use of it, but at the same time, I believe The Well-Tuned Piano could be played at any time of day, but I think it’s especially a night piece, and as I think it through, even though I live on a schedule where sometimes my day is night, and sometimes my night is day and I’m asleep during the day and I’m awake all night, there is a certain peace that comes with the night. You see, there’s a long tradition. People could only see when the sun was out. And so they had to do a lot of things when the sun was out that had to do with seeing, yet they learned to hunt at night for certain animals. It became a much more complex process and gradually over time we learned how to work at night and now we have all-night supermarkets and all-night factories, and all-night movies, and a lot of things go on at night. You know there are nocturnal animals and there are diurnal animals. We in our process of evolution have reached a point where we are able to affect our own evolution in our own lifetime. We are at a very evolved point in evolution as humans, and I believe that some of us can actually change ourselves in our own lifetime. What are we doing when we’re learning these special intervallic ratios? Well, nobody ever listened to them before. Until I had a Rayna synthesizer I couldn’t listen to these intervals. So, I’m affecting my own evolution by learning what these intervals are, by listening to them, by presenting them to people to listen to, we’re changing. They found that some of these big cats that escaped in London and lived in the parks—well, maybe not in London but in England there, you know—they already started to change in their lifetime, just by being in a different environment. Like some people had owned a panther or something and abandoned it and it got loose in a park and then created a family and animals change very quickly if they’re put into a totally new environment. And because of our extreme intelligence, we’ve developed the ability to evolve so much, we have the capability I think to actually influence our own evolution and if our imagination is great enough and our ability to tune in to the highest source of vibration is pure enough, we can do things that are really remarkable.

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