La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela at the Dream House

LA MONTE YOUNG: Disciples were highly prized if they were good at memorizing. It was part of the whole process. You raised the question. What about The Well-Tuned Piano; who’s going to play it? First I want to say that Michael Harrison did play it very well when he played a private concert that we presented…

MARIAN ZAZEELA: …It was at the Mercer Street Dia Art Foundation in 1987…

LA MONTE YOUNG: …I was myself impressed at how well he could learn it. I didn’t ever have him practice it for me until just shortly before the concert. He just learned the piece by helping me tune and sitting beside me during performances. And that’s very much the way I learned from my guru. Of course, there were some sit down lessons with my guru where he’d give me this and give me that. Just as I would say to Michael, write down this theme and Michael would write it down. That way I got a few themes transcribed. And then, later after the Gramavision recording came out, I let Kyle Gann transcribe a few more. And, of course, these are useful. But when I prepare for a concert of The Well-Tuned Piano, I spend a lot of time listening to my previous recordings and it gets in my ears. When Heiner Friedrich asked me to perform The Well-Tuned Piano in 1987, I said, “I’ve already done it” (meaning the one I was releasing on Gramavision that I recorded in 1981). I felt I couldn’t go beyond it.

MARIAN ZAZEELA: We had been working on the Gramavision recordings just before and we were getting it ready for release. So we had been listening to it over and over to write down all the themes and get all the timings right for the program booklet. So, of course, in listening to it we also realized that it really was really a fantastic work. But then when we brought the piano into Mercer Street and contemplated La Monte’s playing it again, he was a little bit in awe of what he had already done and was thinking, “I’m not so sure.” But within a week, he had already gone beyond it. It’s in his nature…

LA MONTE YOUNG: The process of writing down the timing of all of the themes to make the timed theme score was very labor intensive. I had to hear The Well-Tuned Piano again and again and again and again to go over everything because at that point I didn’t have a digital clock running. So I was dependent on the times on the VHS deck, and the timers are really not the same as real time. Plus there was tape slippage. So we had to go over it and over it to realign our zero and check it and make sure we had identified the material properly. In the course of that process, I really relearned the piece again that I had not played since 1981. My relationship with the piano is a very profound love relationship. I cannot stand to touch the keys unless I am preparing for a serious concert. I can’t just play with the piece. It becomes a big disappointment for me, because I sit down and I play something and it’s so beautiful and then it’s gone. Whereas, when I play the piece, it becomes a whole world. The process of discovery of Anahata Nada, the unstruck sound, and making it manifest is a completely involving process. The one reason that the light environment is so important in the process of creating music for me has to do with the fact that the body has several senses. I actually burn the incense for a reason. If I had another life to live, I would create my own incenses!

LA MONTE YOUNG: It requires tremendous discipline to achieve this level of concentration. When a yogi meditates to the point where he can actually take his energy up out of his body and go into the cosmic sound, the music of the spheres, he has to have tremendous discipline to do that. So in order to be in a state of bliss, you have to first develop an extraordinary sense of discipline. And this comes through rigorous practice. When I was first studying saxophone with my father when I was seven years old, he would hit me and so forth to get me to learn my lessons. It was typical. A lot of musicians learned this way. But when you’re a little boy, you don’t for sure understand why you have to practice. You know the story that is written about Hafizullah Khan and how he would practice with a rope around his neck while his guru would lie on the bed with the other end of the rope tied to his toe. If Hafizullah made a mistake or fell asleep, the guru would pull on the rope. During the day they would let him fly kites and then at night he had to practice, every night. When you’re living with your guru, everything is according to what your guru wants, his sense of time. If he wants you to practice from 10 PM to 4 AM, that’s when you practice. If he wants you to practice from 3 AM to 7 AM, that’s when you practice. You have no choice in the matter. In a love relationship between man and wife, it should be a two-way street, like 50-50. Or some days 40-60 and other days 60-40, but somehow it’s got to balance out and be a two-way street. The guru-disciple relationship is a one-way street. The guru is always right. You always do what he says. When he wants to go out, you go out. When he wants to stay home, you stay home. He wants to drink; you drink. If he doesn’t want you to drink, you can’t drink. It’s exactly what he wants. And in order to do that you have to really have an extraordinary understanding of what you’re doing, that you’re really doing it with purpose in order to give yourself up. They say that service to guru is greater than service to God, because the guru becomes a model of your relationship to God. You know the story of when everybody in the town knew Jesus was coming. And everybody was preparing their house for Jesus to show up, and then finally a beggar comes to the door of this woman’s house and he asks for some food and she says, “I’m too busy. The master is coming and everybody is preparing for him.” And of course we all know the story; that was Jesus. And we all can imagine what we would do if we were in the presence of God. How we would serve Him and how we would bow down to Him or Her, whatever. But when you have a guru, this is your chance to prove it. You can really serve somebody. This is how you would behave. And this is why in the choice of guru, it must be someone who you really respect completely. Otherwise you could never go through this process. It has to be a very highly realized being. And to us it was a magical relationship. And it wasn’t all roses. It was extremely hard work. We were completely sleep deprived for almost all of the time we were with him. He never allowed us to get any rest and if he thought we were resting, he would make us work. It was a very rigorous discipline. So in order to achieve this higher state of meditation where you can actually go out of your body and be in the mind of God, so to speak, in this cosmic sound, the yogi has to practice an enormous amount of discipline. Similarly, to sing raga or to perform The Well-Tuned Piano, to perform in this way that I want to perform, to bring this experience down, this very high spiritual experience, and make it manifest for people to understand and assimilate and enjoy and participate in, I have to work very hard to achieve that. When I’m performing The Well-Tuned Piano, or raga, I lead a completely disciplined life. I try to do nothing else in the week. In fact, when I do The Well-Tuned Piano, I require three months on location: a month of set up and practice and two months to perform. Because something that’s six and a half hours long, I can only perform once in a week. I need time in between to recover. And I lead a highly disciplined life. I’m only thinking about music. I try to only think about music. On the day of a concert, I try never to speak to anybody. Pandit Pran Nath taught me this. On the day of a concert, he would not allow us to speak to him. He would keep totally within himself, high up, focusing on the music. Because somebody can say something that’s absolutely a downer, so to speak, and no matter how high up you are, because you’re still a human being, you’re still in this world, these things can definitely have an effect on you. You and I had discussed doing this interview for a long time. But I had to get through the concerts. This concert that I just gave was very important to me. I had to get through that period, totally focused, in order to then free myself up so that I could really focus on this event. And the reason I do so few things in life, is because I’m always trying for this level of quality, this level of experience, and I find that I have to totally give myself to the experience in order to achieve it.