La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

3. The Guru-Disciple Relationship

LA MONTE YOUNG: I found that when I was studying with Pandit Pran Nath I was learning on a level that was far beyond the level I was learning on before. As I was beginning to say, I had already influenced generations of composers and I didn’t think I’d be taking a teacher. And when I met Pandit Pran Nath, we were drawn together like iron filings to a magnet. Suddenly some process began to take place…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: He lived on this floor. He lived in this space before we had the Harrison Street place.

LA MONTE YOUNG: He sang right here where we gave the concert the other day. He sang many concerts here.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: This was also his living space. His shrine is now here. We came upstairs and he gave us lessons here.

LA MONTE YOUNG: For many years, before we had this space, he was also living with us downstairs on our floor. We essentially studied in what is called the guru-shishya tradition, the tradition where the disciple lives with the teacher. And this tradition has been going in our gharana, the Kirana gharana of Indian classical music for generations. And it’s disappearing in India. People go to school now and study music. And Pandit Pran Nath said that you absolutely cannot learn raga in school, it cannot be done. He said to me, “The slow way is the fast way. The only way to learn it is by spending three lifetimes.” The first lifetime is with the guru. The second is a lifetime of practice. And the third lifetime, you sing. This way of learning is so different from the way we learn in Western schools. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Western system of education. I’m a product of it and it gave me so much. I’m a firm believer in it.

But I think that the guru-disciple method of learning goes far beyond it. And in the 26 years that our guru was alive and we knew him, we spent about 50 percent of our time with him. So that’s like spending about 13 years continuous with a teacher, living together. And we served him night and day. And some days, he wouldn’t even give us a lesson, he’d just maybe hear us practice from a distance or we would just do work for him and that was that. One time he had been with us for a few months, and he’d hardly given us a single lesson. So we said to him, as the days were getting short, “Guruji, you know, you haven’t given us a lesson.” And he said, “What, I have to teach you like children? We used to be proud of the fact that our children just learned by being around us, and they’d learn to sing the way they learned to talk.” In musicians’ families, there are stories of mothers whispering the talas into the ears while they are little babies. And they pride themselves that the children just grow up doing it. And he really taught us on this highest level and it takes a lot of time. He would sing a composition for us after dinner or give us a lesson when he was having a drink. He would give us a lesson when he really felt inspired to give us a lesson, or teach us something, or tell us something. And we went with him everywhere he went and took care of him constantly, so this was totally a different experience.

And, in fact, Jon Hassell, who also studied with Guruji, once said to me, “La Monte, how can you be Guruji’s slave? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to lose yourself?” And I said, “Well, Jon, when you’re really there. There’s nothing to lose.” There was nothing to lose. I had made up my mind that I was doing this to learn. I admired him and I was going to do it. I was able to give myself up. And in return, he gave something enormous. So, this was entirely a new way of learning. It’s not something rigid that’s written on a page (and that certainly has its values) but it was something actually that makes a step in the direction of immortality. Because when the guru dies, he literally can give his soul to the disciple. You can think of this musical process and part of that entire transformation and what the guru leaves with the disciple is what was the most important thing in the guru’s life. And so the disciple then takes that on and becomes a guru and teaches the next generation. So it’s a different process from writing it down, but the way you have to memorize things, there’s something very related to it as well. You memorize and memorize, and you repeat things, and you do it over and over with the understanding on the most advanced level that things will change. In fact, a great artist is expected to make a contribution to the tradition. A great artist is expected to know the tradition completely, but also to be able to contribute something eventually.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said something just now that crystallized a connection that had never before occurred to me. You mentioned your being influenced by Webern very early on, and now you’re talking about becoming a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath. Well, it’s not exactly analogous to the guru-disciple relationship, but the relationship that Webern had with his teacher, Schoenberg, was so much more than the standard teacher-student relationship. It was a lifetime thing as well. And Webern didn’t lose himself. He became himself through the process of studying with Schoenberg. And it’s interesting that of the three things you mentioned that shaped your music, a decade before you even met Pandit Pran Nath, you were hearing Indian music, improvising with jazz musicians, but also hearing and studying the music of Webern, who had this very special relationship to a teacher.

LA MONTE YOUNG: That’s right! When Dennis Johnson, Terry Jennings and I were in L.A. in the ’50s and I was writing long sustained tones, they were the first two people who gave me any support whatsoever. They were the first two people, in fact, to follow me in this style of writing long sustained tones. We used to think of ourselves as the three romantics, you know, something like Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and we were all very interested in the relationships of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. Somehow they represented something important to us. And Webern gave such a clarity in his music, such a pristine beauty. Yet, the important thing for a really good guru is not for La Monte Young to turn out little La Monte Youngs. But to let the student, to teach the student how to find the student’s own self, and to find the student’s way to this higher level of inspiration which will give them something that is extraordinary and allow them to be completely creative and go beyond any fixed formal structure that might be considered to be “IT.” That’s not necessarily “IT.” A fixed formal structure is a model for something else, and it’s necessary for the student to be able to receive this creative impulse that comes through them and allow them to create something that is really meaningful for people on earth.

When I perform I never think about the audience. This has been for a long time, even before I met Pandit Pran Nath. However, I think the music is for the audience completely. But I don’t think about trying to please them. I think that it’s my responsibility to give it to them on the highest level so that eventually, when they’re ready for it, which might be right this minute just as it comes (some people are really on top of it, but some people may not be). That is the difference between what I think of as high art and entertainment, if you will. It’s one thing to make people feel good on a simplistic level. There’s nothing wrong with it. Everybody needs to feel good on a simplistic level sometimes. But what comes through me when I perform, when I go into this highest state of spiritual communion, has to do with spiritual process and it flows through me. And if the people are there, it flows to them. But I never think about them. I think about being pure and letting it flow through me. Somehow I learned very early on how to focus and how to concentrate and I have to be in a very focused state to let this through me.