La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

2. Improvisation vs. Composition

LA MONTE YOUNG: One of the questions that you had raised, Frank, had to do with this relationship between improvisation and written composition. It’s interesting, you know Morton Feldman and I had a long interview about this very subject. I tend to think of it as all one and the same. You get these ideas and either you stop and write them down or you don’t. Once recording was created, it opened up an extraordinary possibility. I believe that the definitive version or versions of The Well-Tuned Piano are the recordings. I have a score that’s very thickit’s about an inch and a half thickand it’s got most of the themes written down and even transcriptions of some special variations. But it would be an enormous project for one person to transcribe one performance. And after 1962 when I wrote the Death Chant, for the death of Jackson and Iris Lezak MacLow’s baby, I didn’t write anymore completely notated scores until I wrote Chronos Kristalla for the Kronos Quartet in 1989-90. And I was going to make that more of a set of instructions for them to put together, but they specifically requested that they would like me to write out as much of it as possible. So I did. I wrote a complete notated work for them, an hour and a half long…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Have you heard it?

FRANK J. OTERI: Never, I’d love to hear it…

LA MONTE YOUNG: Well, Kyle Gann thought very highly of it. He said it was my second most important masterpiece after The Well-Tuned Piano. But, certainly, I surprised myself when I wrote it down because in a way I found that the written out version is perhaps more imaginative than anything anybody might have put together. It’s hard to say. It’s really hard to say. But when I’m performing The Well-Tuned Piano, I could never play it from a written score. People ask me, “Do you have a score? Do you have something written down? Do you have music in front of you?” I can’t play from music. I have never played from music since I don’t know how long. I’ve played in dance bands, of course, and orchestras, but that was in the 50s. I was in school orchestra since the second grade. But I gave up that kind of playing because, first of all, it’s of no interest to me, and second of all, The Well-Tuned Piano is an enormous structure, it’s a whole big set of ideas and part of the fluidity of the experience has to do with things coming to me as they come to me.

FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly early on, you wrote Trio for Strings and for Brass, both of which are completely notated. I think the whole question of whether or not to completely notate a piece relates to the whole question of whether or not you want other performers to play your music. How does this music live beyond you? How does it live beyond the 20th, now the 21st century? And yes, it’s great. Now we have recordings and so much of the music that evolved during the 20th century, jazz, rock, etc., will live on because of recordings. And this is true of other improvisation-based musics around the world, Indian classical music, Ghanaian drumming, Iranian music, Arabic maqams, etc. All this music can be preserved now on recordings. But Western classical music evolved this whole tradition of survival based on other people playing music from scores. Is it possible for someone else to perform your music?

LA MONTE YOUNG: This is why I became so interested in the guru-disciple process.

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