La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

5. La Monte's Approach to the Piano

FRANK J. OTERI: The piano has been so many things to so many different types of composers both in music that continues the Western classical music whether Barber or Babbitt, or jazz. And certainly someone like Thelonious Monk sounds nothing like Fats Waller. There are connections, but they are few and far between and the piano was the instrument that inspired most of the music of John Cage, but it inspired Rachmaninoff also. And it’s what led to this massive composition of yours. You had written fixed compositions like for Brass and Trio for Strings and you had even written some piano music like Arabic Numeral (any integer) or the Compositions 1960. But when you got involved in interacting with a retuned piano, instead of writing a series of pieces for this new instrument, you created one piece that became more than a composition. It was no longer: “I’ll write this piece then I’ll write that piece” but rather the piece became a way of life.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: We have to also recall that the work La Monte did on saxophone it’s not so well known and I don’t know if you ever heard it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes, I have, many years ago there was a festival of La Monte Young’s music on WKCR

MARIAN ZAZEELA: That was actually extremely formative going towards what he did with the piano. We were given the little spinet piano that my parents had in their house. They gave it to La Monte after we were married and were living down here on Church Street and had the space for it. So we had a piano in the house and we did some things with the saxophone, with the group. La Monte would actually go from saxophone to piano and gong and back to piano. We did these symmetrical sequences…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …We called it “Long Gong Set”…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: … And as he moved away from equal temperamentthe found these inherent problems in equal temperamentalthough he had the facility to play extremely fast on saxophone, he could not get away…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …The instrument is designed as an equal-tempered instrument…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: He could not adjust his embouchure to get the intonation that he wanted and still play as fast as he wanted. He thought about having a special shehnai made or a special saxophone made, but it was not really practical; there was no money for it. And he started to try to tune the piano. And this was really interesting because it was both a study in tuning and as well an introduction to a new instrument for him. And, with the piano, he was actually emulating some of the things he had been doing on saxophone. So the early 1964 version of The Well-Tuned Piano has a lot of relationship with the saxophone and that was definitely a stepping-stone to what he did. I think it is true that if it were another composer he might have said, “Well, I’ve written 80 pieces now.” You can take so many of the parts of The Well-Tuned Piano and say each one is a different piece. Between the ’64 versions of The Well-Tuned Piano which were done on tape (they were never performed live because we couldn’t make those arrangement to have a piano that would be tuned and kept in the same place for concerts at that time in his career). But later with The Theatre of Eternal Music and Dream Houses we started traveling to Europe with a group and half a ton of equipment and insisting that we have a week in advance on location to set up a light environment that we perform in and a projectionist, it became a more elaborate production. So by the time the opportunity arose to actually have a piano in a space and tune it and have it stay in that space for a while, it was no longer such an impossibility.

FRANK J. OTERI: You raise an interesting point about what The Well-Tuned Piano has become. It is so much more than a composition and the presentation of it is so much more than a concert, its full title really must be The Well-Tuned Piano in The Magenta Lights because ideally it’s not just a sound entity, but it is also a visual environment that you’re in. And about an hour ago, La Monte said something about it being documented on recordings, but it is so much about being in this sacred space.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: Yes, even with this wonderful achievement of the five hour recording that Gramavision put out we had the opportunity to put that out on five CDs and five LPs and five cassettes and the CDs were an hour long still, we had to find those breaks. It was quite unnatural. We spent a lot of time in the mastering studio finding where to make the breaks and whether they would overlap with the next one. And if you’re familiar with it, I think they’re very good, those transitions. It’s masterful. But it was like composing those endings and picking them up again, but it was not in the original composition at all. So, you’re perfectly right, that when this opportunity came to do a DVD… We came to video rather slowly because we tried some video back in the early ’80s but the result was so poor the technology was not yet well developed. You could not get magenta; you could not get this kind of blue. We just left it at that point thinking this is not going to work. And we couldn’t afford to work in film. So when we’re performing The Well-Tuned Piano in The Magenta Lights in 1987 at Dia‘s Mercer Street space, someone whom we knew had some video equipment and said, “You really should video it” and they offered to bring in their equipment. So, we did one performance that the man who used to have the Samaya Foundation did you ever know Barry Bryant? He died unfortunately some years ago and so he videoed one week. And then we felt that things were not very clear with him and he took the tapes. You know we’re very possessive about our work. And then we hired a camera person we knew and kept it under our own control. The last three concerts we videoed under our own control. The final concert in the seven concert series was recorded, however, the state of the art that we could manage at the time was Betacam and we used 20-minute Betacam cassettes. We had two cameras and we alternated, and we also ran a 3/4-inch. So for every hour, we had approximately six 20-minute Betacam reels.

LA MONTE YOUNG: In the end, there were about 22 Betacam reels for each camera as well as seven 3/4-inch one-hour back ups…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: So we had 51 reels of tape altogether…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …And it all had to be edited together…