La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

4. The Evolution of The Well-Tuned Piano

FRANK J. OTERI: To take it specifically to what brings us together here, The Well-Tuned Piano… It’s almost 40 years old at this point. And now, with the release of The Well-Tuned Piano on a single DVD, it is a great moment in this 40-year history of The Well-Tuned Piano, and also, the two of you being together this year will be just overactually 41 years, since 1962.

LA MONTE YOUNG: Yes, it’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: This remarkable moment in time has not stayed fixed; it has evolved. The Well-Tuned Piano has not stayed the same as it was when you first created it; it is so much more. And you can’t really say that for compositions in the Western classical sense. It’s interesting that The Well-Tuned Piano happened after you were dealing with the concept of long sustained tones, after you were dealing with and starting to think about just intonation and the relationships of intervals with one another and the purity of sound. In so many ways, the piano as a construct is antithetical to all of these things. On a piano, you can’t really sustain a tone. Yes, you can press a pedal but the decay cannot be prolonged. It’s not like bowing a string or blowing into a brass or woodwind or singing until your breath runs out. It’s a chopped, percussive sound. And pianos are traditionally tuned in 12-tone equal temperament, where you don’t have any of these pure relationships between the intervals. And it’s also a manufactured instrument that comes out of a factory, which is the opposite of a guru and a teacher. And you took this instrument and you turned it into something completely different. You remade it into your own instrument in spite of all of the piano’s qualities. Why the piano? What brought you to the piano?

LA MONTE YOUNG: This is a great question! It all goes back to the lyre of Orpheus and the harp of David. From the beginnings of time, it seems that stretched strings became an instrument of measurement for men and women to study music. It seemed that with our voices we could go directly to God, but when we became interested in the measurement of the whole thing, we began to stretch these strings and make them different lengths and different tensions. Some people say that this approach to the relationship between music and mode goes back to the lyre of Orpheus. Actually, it goes back further. It goes back to the Vedas. And we can find these ideas in the Vedas, going through Greek thought, through Orpheus, through Plato, on up to the present time. And the piano is this glorification of Orpheus’s lyre and David’s harp. It’s just a big lyre that’s been set up in such a way that you can press the keys and strike the strings and you can manipulate the pedals and do various kinds of sustenances. When I began to study music I was two years old. In the beginning my dad was teaching me cowboy songs and my aunt Norma who used to sing at the rodeo was teaching me cowboy songs and playing the guitar. We know she was teaching me in Bern when I was about two years old and by the time I was five they had me singing and tap dancing at the Rich Theatre in Monpelier. But my mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Grandy, owned a piano, and before I left for California, between when I was one and five years old, we would sometimes go over to Grandpa’s house and I would sit at the piano. Of course, somebody taught me “Chopsticks” [laughs]. I found it so profound to sit and play the interval of a second; I didn’t know what I was doing but I would just listen to the sound of the piano. And later, I had saxophone lessons from the time I was seven years old. My dad bought me an alto saxophone and he taught me saxophone. My dad’s uncle Thornton had taught him saxophone. Uncle Thornton had had a swing band in L.A. in the late ’20s. This was a dance band. When I was ten, we moved to Utah where my father managed my Uncle Thornton’s celery farm for four years before we moved back to L.A. and I went to John Marshall High School. I was living on Uncle Thornton’s celery farm working out in the fields all day. But Uncle Thornton also gave me some coaching in saxophone and he introduced me to sheet music of Jimmy Dorsey. So it was through Uncle Thornton that I began to get some sense that jazz existed, although our radio hardly worked. We were like hillbillies, you know, farmers, cattle people, sheep people, and we were extremely poor. My family never really recovered from the Depression. They never ever earned a whole lot of money but somehow I was always learning music. And so Uncle Thornton gave me the sheet music from his dance band. But I didn’t have any piano lessons until around 1955 after I was already at L.A. City College. But every jazz musician starts to play chords because sometimes the piano player doesn’t show up so somebody has to lay down some changes so that some of the other guys can play. So I started to play piano. And especially after I met Terry Jennings because I liked to listen to him play and I would play piano for him. When I graduated from John Marshall High School, Terry Jennings entered. And this valve trombone player named Hal Hooker brought me a recording of Terry Jennings. I was astonished. He sounded just like Lee Konitz when he was only in the tenth grade. It was remarkable…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: …You played in an orchestra when you were in Utah. So you were aware of pianos and many other instruments. Maybe you didn’t play it, but…

LA MONTE YOUNG: I’ve played music my whole life. The piano exists. The piano exists. You can’t avoid the piano!

MARIAN ZAZEELA: There was probably always a piano in church…

LA MONTE YOUNG: At the world premiere of The Well-Tuned Piano, the live world premiere in Rome in 1974, Pandit Pran Nath was there. And he said, “You literally transformed the traditional instrument of Europe before their eyes.” Somehow, by tuning the piano in just intonation, it takes it back to the lyre of Orpheus and the harp of David which had to be tuned in a much simpler way, and it brings out some of those characteristics. The piano just depends on what you do with it. It’s like everything else. Remember when electronic instruments came out and the Musician’s Union said, “This is going to be a problem. Musicians are going to be out of work” and so forth. They weren’t really. It just became another instrument. And what you do with electronics is what’s important.