LA MONTE YOUNG: Performance of music for me is a spiritual experience. I didn’t exactly realize that that was what it was when I was a little boy and first began to perform music. But, in Indian musical theory, they conceive of two kinds of sound. Actually, it’s best to think of it as two kinds of vibration: the struck sound, that is the sound that we can hear and feel manifest physically; and the unstruck sound, which is the Pythagorean equivalent of the music of the spheres. The unstruck sound is considered to be vibrations of the ether. We can think of this as vibrations on an atomic level. We can think of it as vibrations on any level. The unstruck sound, we are told, is Anahata Nada. Nada means sound. Actually, it translates very well as vibration. Anahata Nada is the unstruck sound. Ahata Nada is the struck sound, this is music that we can experience as vibrations of air molecules, water molecules… We’re told that Anahata Nada, the unstruck sound, the unstruck vibrations, are actually a concept in the mind of God, that these unstruck vibrations are like an abstract mathematical concept in the mind of God. Yogis practice bringing their energy up, the kundalini energy, through the chakras up to the fifth chakra in the voice area, the sixth chakra up here in the forehead, and the seventh chakra in the back of the top of the head.
Sound, music, the study of raga, Indian classical music, is considered a form of yoga, the fifth form of yoga. And it can be practiced in such a way that it’s a meditation. And it’s a way to find union with God. Yogis practice a discipline, nada-yogis practice a discipline where they bring the energy up and listen to the sound inside their heads, the sound of the sixth and seventh chakras, and this is a preparatory exercise for finding a way out through the top of your head to meditate on the music of the spheres, the unstruck sound, the Anahata Nada. And the Anahata Nada is a concept in the mind of God, so when you go out and find that place, you’re actually inside the mind of God. And we can think of music as the language of God, all music. Now, what we speak in this language becomes interesting. We can say that folk music, popular music, rock, rap, it’s all the language of God.
One of the questions that became interesting to me as my music evolved over the years is how it happened that I actually discovered this process of writing long sustained tones. You know, the idea of writing long sustained tones came to me around 1957 when I wrote for Brass, which had the long sustained tones in the middle section, and Trio for Strings in 1958, which was pretty much all sustained tones and silences. How did this come to me? What happened? It came to me totally by inspiration; this is what I’ve always said. Not only did nobody tell me to do it; people told me not to do it!
I had become very inspired in the ’50s… I started to play jazz in high school in the early ’50s and it turned out that the high school I went to, John Marshall High School, was a hotbed of jazz activity. As soon as I got there, the very first day I walked onto the campus, I was drafted into a Dixieland band that played every morning before band first period outside the band bungalow and from there it was just one step after another. This tenor player, Pete Diakonoff started bringing me records of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, The Birth of the Cool, Lenny Tristano, Lee Konitz, and telling me stories of all the jazz musicians who were at John Marshall before me and also telling me that as soon I graduated I had to go to L.A. City College and play in the L.A. City College Dance Band because it was the best college dance band in America. And so, this was the atmosphere I walked into, this Mormon hillbilly from Idaho and Utah.
When I was the age of about four or five, my dad hitchhiked from Idaho where we were living at the time, in Montpelier, to L.A. to get work. It was the middle of the Depression. There was no work. We were extremely poor. When I was born, my dad was a sheepherder in Bern, Idaho. He was herding sheep up in the hills and mom and I would stay down in the log cabin. And every day mom would get on a horse and sometimes I would go with her and take food up to dad who was living in a teepee, herding sheep. So, we were extremely poor to begin with. The rent on the cabin was five dollars a month but dad couldn’t afford it so the landlord just let him to do work on the cabin for the rent. In the midst of the Depression, nobody had any money. It was extremely rough and it’s something you can’t recover from. You find yourself saving every little thing for the rest of your life just because you were born during the Depression. And so, dad hitchhiked to L.A. and was eventually able to bring mom and the rest of the family on a train. I had been tap-dancing and singing at the Rich Theatre in Montpelier. I started when I was five years old. And my aunt Norma, who was a rodeo singer, had started teaching me cowboy songs and how to play the guitar when I was two years old. So I was very interested in music from the beginning. In grade school I wasn’t sure if I going to be a visual artist or a musician. They let me paint in the back of the room in grade school instead of doing geography so that I could represent the class at exhibitions.
But, by the time I had graduated from John Marshall high school and entered L.A. City CollegeI made the L.A. City College Dance Bandand then went on to UCLA, somehow in that period I did a lot of things that were extremely formative. Playing jazz, for one thing, opened up the understanding of how to improvise. And improvisation has something to do with being tuned into a higher level of inspiration.
In Indian Classical Music, improvisation is very highly classicized. They speak of three kinds of improvisation. The first kind is the unfolding of the pitches. The way we do in the alap section of the raga at the beginning, you introduce each pitch and gradually build a structure with these pitches. This is the first kind of improvisation. The second kind of improvisation is combination/permutation different kinds of patterns that bring the pitches in different relationships to each other that make musical sense within each particular raga. And then the final form is “swimming like a fish and flying like a bird.” This is the highest form and Guruji explained after you’ve studied for twenty years, then he can put you on stage and what you do is forget everything that you’ve learned and you open yourself up to this higher inspiration. He said, “You don’t think about people; you tune yourself into this higher source and if you really do it and become very pure and very focused, it comes through you and it produces everything.” And somehow I was totally inspired to write long sustained tones. I didn’t understand exactly why but I thought I really had to do it.
At UCLA, I heard the school Gagaku orchestra, and before I got to UCLA I heard Ali Akbar Khan‘s recording of the first full-length raga ever released in the West. Raga Sindh Bhairavi. It was released on Angel Records around ’55 and I’ve always tried to determine whether I heard it in ’56 or ’57, where exactly in there did I hear it. But it had such an influence on me, when I got home I first heard it on the radio I jumped into my little blue ’39 Ford convertible and drove down to Music City which was a record store that was a whole block. You know how things are in L.A.: really gigantic. And so I found it immediately ’cause obviously it was a promo I had heard on the radio! But I bought it and I took it home to my Grandma Wilde’s house where I was living (she was my father’s mother who married Leonard Wilde after divorcing my Grandfather Leonard Young). She was like my first music patron because when I was living in my parents’ house there were so many brothers and sisters there were six siblings all together; I was the eldest. I would leave my saxophone on the bed and the kids would sit on my reeds and so forth and I was already a serious musician in high school, so I eventually moved to my grandmother’s house. When I bought this record, I went into my room and I listened to it for days and days. Every time I went into my room I would listen to it and it had an enormous effect on me. It was the first time I ever heard tambura. On the recording they introduce each instrument and say this is Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on sarod and this is Chatur Lal on tabla and then they each play a few notes, and Dr. Shirish Gor on the tambura, and there I heard tambura for the first time, the drone. A drone with nothing else around it, just a drone. Only for an instant, you know, it seemed like so much then but when I go back to the recording and listen it’s only a few seconds. But this recording and Japanese gagaku music and the music of Anton Webern that I had been listening to all somehow jelled together to make what became the beginnings of what my music was.
And, why did I write long sustained tones? Well, if we have a concept of the music of the spheres, it is continuous. And through long sustained tones I was able to make a model manifest that was especially representative. Before my music it’s very difficult to find just long sustained tones. You can find examples here and there, just snippets of it. I heard some great music once of Eskimos singing into each other’s mouths singing perfect fifths. Great! So fantastic! The concept has been around, but it’s always been somewhat associated with the spiritual process and through the long sustained tones it was possible to discover the importance of rationally-related intervals, rationally-related frequencies, because when the tones are very short it’s very difficult to analyze them. For example, how did Indian classical music develop such an elaborate system of frequency relationships. If I sing a tone today and then sing it again a year later, it’s hard to say if I sang the same tone or not. Some people are better at it than others. But if I sing it today and I sing it tomorrow, it’s still hard. Even if I do it an hour from now… But if we sing together [La Monte and Marian sing together], you can immediately tell whether we’re singing the exact same frequency or not. And then we can work on it and make it more and more perfect. Pandit Pran Nath said that when you’re singing and you’re perfectly in tune it’s like meeting God. The meaning of this statement is that the concentration is so much to sing perfectly in tune that you literally give up your body and go to a higher spiritual state. Sound… Musicians like to think that sound is the highest form of meditation, that it takes you the furthest. Certainly, in my experience this is the case. I feel through sound I have come closest to God and closest to the understanding of universal structure. We can think of this abstract structure and you know the Sufi story when God created the body the soul did not want to go inside. It could see that this was a trap, this life of physical hell, and God used music to lure the soul into the body because the soul already loved music because it is the language of God. But there was a reason why the soul had to come to earth. By taking on a body, we can experience physical sound and we can study vibrations in a way that is manifest to us and is comprehensible. When you and I listen to music, we have an experience which, when we’re at the beginnings of our lives is hard to quantify. It’s really hard to understand the mystery of what music is. But if we conceive of it as the language of God and that it is given to us as a means for understanding universal structure, it takes on a whole new meaning. And it includes all music, but some is much more to the point and gets you to a higher place. But it all utilizes this principle of vibration and through vibration, we are understanding something about the nature of vibrational structure.
In the system of just intonation, every frequency is related to every other frequency as the numerator and denominator of a whole number fraction. That is my definition of the system of just intonation. I find it very workable for me. And only these harmonically-related frequencies make composite waveforms which are periodic: three times seven comes out to be some whole number, four times seven, etc. And after a certain number of cycles of these two going along, the pattern repeats. In equal temperament, the pattern does not repeat. So we’re presented in equal temperament with extremely complex sound. The reason it works is because it’s really modeled on the simple diatonic scale and the chromatic embellishments in between. So we always have a memory of what that was and we think it into place when we hear music in equal temperament. We never really got away from the diatonic scale and its chromatic embellishments.
Even Schoenberg himself, the master of the democracy of the twelve tones, wrote very tonal music and he often analyzed it in that way. He was always thinking of how this was relating to tonality because it’s a simple physical phenomenon that we are totally enmeshed in. And without periodicity, we have no concept of time. Our entire concept of time is dependent on the concept of periodicity. So, rationally-related frequency ratios, whole number frequency ratios, produce periodic, composite waveforms. Therefore, these periodic patterns are particularly understandable and usable by the human mind. When we listen to music, we listen to vibrations of air molecules come and strike the ear drum and enter transferred through the ear mechanism up through the neurons into the cerebral cortex and to some degree make patterns that are very much similar to the air molecule patterns that are coming against the ear drum. The profound effect of when we hear music in just intonation has to do with recognizing these structures and their relationship to all vibrational structures. And the profound thing that we experience when we hear music that is very beautiful is an understanding of specific patterns of vibrational structure.
By the time I discovered Pandit Pran Nath in 1967, I had already influenced generations of composers with my music. And I had not imagined that I would take a teacher. Again, it had been very hard for me to get through school because I had to really go against most of what my teachers were telling me in order to become myself. I have found that in life, most people really don’t want me to be what I want to be. I have to isolate myself in order to allow myself to really be what I need to be. And I discovered early on if I really listen to this strong sense of inspiration that was coming through me and allow myself to be that, that it was guiding me and it was giving me the truth. And the reason my music has been so influential is not because I created it, it’s because it’s coming directly by revelation and it is the truth. And when people hear it, they understand that it’s the truth and it’s something that’s far beyond me. I could never do it. As much as I have studied, and as much as I have practiced, and all of these things put together, how seriously I have dedicated my life to the study of music, this thing that comes through me is some other kind of miracle. It’s like a blessing. It has to do with seeking it. I wanted it. It was something I was interested in, in the abstract, and somehow I was given it. And this extraordinary energy that I have when I perform, to do The Well-Tuned Piano for six hours and twenty-four minutes, or sing raga for two hours straight, somehow I’ve always found music flowing out of me. I used to go to sessions in Los Angeles, jazz sessions. I used to play at this place called the Big Top on Hollywood Boulevard, one of the most creative session spots in the whole L.A. area. As soon as they saw me walk through the door, they knew I was going to play for a long time. Other guys would go on the stand and take a couple of choruses, but I would never stop. I was just playing and playing. And somehow, something began to flow through me. Improvisation helped me understand this process.
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