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Young's work has called into question the nature and definition of music. Despite having released very little recorded material throughout his career--much of it currently out of print--Vulture described him as the most influential living composer today.The Observer wrote that his work has had "an utterly profound effect on the last half-century of music." His evolving composition The Well-Tuned Piano, first conceived in 1964, has been characterized as "one of the great achievements of 20th-century music" by The Guardian.
A number of Young's early works use the twelve-tone technique, which he studied under Leonard Stein at Los Angeles City College. (Stein had served as an assistant to Arnold Schoenberg when Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone method, taught at UCLA.) Young also studied composition with Robert Stevenson at UCLA and with Seymore Shifrin at UC Berkeley. In 1958, he developed the Trio for Strings, originally scored for violin, viola, and cello, which would presage his work in proceeding years. The Trio for Strings has been described as an "origin point for minimalism." When Young visited Darmstadt in 1959, he encountered the music and writings of John Cage. There he also met Cage's collaborator, pianist David Tudor, who subsequently gave premières of some of Young's works. At Tudor's suggestion, Young engaged in a correspondence with Cage. Within a few months Young was presenting some of Cage's music on the West Coast. In turn, Cage and Tudor included some of Young's works in performances throughout the U.S. and Europe. By this time Young had taken a turn toward the conceptual, using principles of indeterminacy in his compositions and incorporating non-traditional sounds, noises, and actions.
When Young moved to New York in 1960, he had already established a reputation as an enfant terrible of the avant-garde. He initially developed an artistic relationship with Fluxus founder George Maciunas (who designed the book Young edited An Anthology of Chance Operations) and other members of the nascent movement. Yoko Ono, for example, hosted a series of concerts curated by Young at her loft, and absorbed, it seems, his often parodic and politically charged aesthetic. Young's works of the time, scored as short haiku-like texts, though conceptual and extreme, were not meant to be merely provocative but, rather, dream-like.
His Compositions 1960 includes a number of unusual actions. Some of them are un-performable, but each deliberately examines a certain presupposition about the nature of music and art and carries ideas to an extreme. One instructs: "draw a straight line and follow it" (a directive which he has said has guided his life and work since). Another instructs the performer to build a fire. Another states that "this piece is a little whirlpool out in the middle of the ocean." Another says the performer should release a butterfly into the room. Yet another challenges the performer to push a piano through a wall. Composition 1960 #7 proved especially pertinent to his future endeavors: it consisted of a B, an F#, a perfect fifth, and the instruction: "To be held for a long time."
In 1962 Young wrote The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. One of The Four Dreams of China, the piece is based on four pitches, which he later gave as the frequencyratios: 36-35-32-24 (G, C, +C#, D), and limits as to which may be combined with any other. Most of his pieces after this point are based on select pitches, played continuously, and a group of long held pitches to be improvised upon. For The Four Dreams of China Young began to plan Dream House, a light and sound installation conceived as a "work that would be played continuously and ultimately exist as a 'living organism with a life and tradition of its own,'" where musicians would live and create music twenty-four hours a day. He formed the music collective Theatre of Eternal Music to realize Dream House and other pieces. The group initially included calligrapher and light artist Marian Zazeela (who married Young in 1963), Angus MacLise, and Billy Name. In 1964 the ensemble comprised Young and Zazeela, John Cale and Tony Conrad (a former Harvard mathematics major), and sometimes Terry Riley (voices). Since 1966 the group has seen many permutations and has included Garrett List, Jon Hassell, Alex Dea, and many others, including members of the 60s groups.
Young and Zazeela's first continuous electronic sound environment was created in their loft on Church Street, New York in September 1966 with sine wavegenerators and light sources designed to produce a continuous installation of floating sculptures and color sources, and a series of slides entitled "Ornamental Lightyears Tracery". This Dream House environment was maintained almost continuously from September 1966 to January 1970, being turned off only to listen to "other music" and to study the contrast between extended periods in it and periods of silence. Young and Zazeela worked, sang and lived in it and studied the effects on themselves and visitors. Performances were often extreme in length, conceived by Young as having no beginning and no end, existing before and after any particular performance. In their daily lives, too, Young and Zazeela practiced an extended sleep-waking schedule--with "days" longer than twenty-four hours.
Young considers The Well-Tuned Piano--a permuting composition of themes and improvisations for just-intuned solo piano--to be his masterpiece. Young gave the world premiere of The Well-Tuned Piano in Rome in 1974, ten years after the creation of the piece. Previously, Young had presented it as a recorded work. In 1975, Young premiered it in New York with eleven live performances during the months of April and May. As of October 25, 1981, the date of the Gramavision recording of The Well-Tuned Piano, Young had performed the piece 55 times. In 1987, Young performed the piece again as part of a larger concert series that included many more of his works. This performance, on May 10, 1987, was videotaped and released on DVD in 2000 on Young's label, Just Dreams. Performances have exceeded six hours in length, and so far have only been documented several times. It is strongly influenced by mathematical composition as well as Hindustani classical music practice.
Since the 1970s, Young and Zazeela have realized a long series of semi-permanent Dream House installations, which combine Young's just-intuned sine waves in elaborate, symmetrical configurations and Zazeela's quasi-calligraphic light sculptures. In July 1970 a model short-term Dream House was displayed to the public at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich, Germany. Later, model Dream House environments were presented in various locations of Europe and the United States. In 1974, the two released Dream House 78' 17". From January through April 19, 2009, Dream House was installed in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of The Third Mind exhibition. A Dream House installation exists today at the Mela Foundation on 275 Church Street, New York above the couple's loft, and is open to the public.
Young's first musical influence came in early childhood in Bern. He relates that "the very first sound that I recall hearing was the sound of wind blowing under the eaves and around the log extensions at the corners of the log cabin". Continuous sounds--human-made as well as natural--fascinated him as a child. He described himself as fascinated from a young age by droning sounds, such as "the sound of the wind blowing", the "60 cycle per second drone [of] step-down transformers on telephone poles", the tanpura drone and the alap of Indian classical music, "certain static aspects of serialism, as in the Webern slow movement of the Symphony Opus 21", and Japanese gagaku "which has sustained tones in it in the instruments such as the Sho". The four pitches he later named the "Dream chord", on which he based many of his mature works, came from his early age appreciation of the continuous sound made by the telephone poles in Bern.
Young was also keen to pursue his musical endeavors with the help of psychedelics. Cannabis, LSD and peyote played an important part in Young's life from mid-1950s onwards, when he was introduced to them by Terry Jennings and Billy Higgins. He said that "everybody [he] knew and worked with was very much into drugs as a creative tool as well as a consciousness-expanding tool". This was the case with the musicians of the Theatre of Eternal Music, with whom he "got high for every concert: the whole group". He considers that the cannabis experience helped him open up to where he went with Trio for Strings, though sometimes it proved a disadvantage when performing anything which required keeping track of the number of elapsed bars. He commented on the subject:
These tools can be used to your advantage if you're a master of [them]... If used wisely--the correct tool for the correct job--they can play an important role... It allows you to go within yourself and focus on certain frequency relationships and memory relationships in a very, very interesting way.
Brian Eno was similarly influenced by Young's work, calling him "the daddy of us all." In 1981, Eno referred to X for Henry Flynt by saying "It really is a cornerstone of everything I've done since".
Andy Warhol attended the 1962 première of the static composition by La Monte Young called Trio for Strings and subsequently created his famous series of static films including Kiss, Eat, and Sleep (for which Young was initially commissioned to provide music). Uwe Husslein cites film-maker Jonas Mekas, who accompanied Warhol to the Trio premiere and claims that Warhol's static films were directly inspired by the performance.[page needed] In 1963 Warhol, Young, and Walter De Maria briefly formulated a musical group, which included lyrics written by Jasper Johns.
Lou Reed's 1975 album Metal Machine Music states "Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont Young's Dream Music (sic)" among its "Specifications".
31 VII 69 10:26-10:49 pm Munich from Map of 49's Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery; 23 VIII 64 2:50:45-3:11 am the Volga Delta from Studies in The Bowed Disc [a.k.a. The Black Record] (Edition X, West Germany, 1969)
Dream House 78' 17"--La Monte Young Marian Zazeela The Theatre of Eternal Music (Shandar, 1974)
Excerpt "31 I 69 c. 12:17:33-12:24:33 pm NYC" [included on Aspen #8's flexi-disc (1970)] from Drift Study; "31 I 69 c. 12:17:33-12:49:58 pm NYC" from Map of 49's Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals (1969) [included on Ohm and Ohm+ (Ellipsis Arts, 2000 & 2005)]
566 for Henry Flynt [included on Music in Germany 1950-2000: Experimental Music Theatre (Eurodisc 173675, 7-CD set, 2004)]
List of works
Scherzo in a minor (c. 1953), piano;
Rondo in d minor (c. 1953), piano;
Annod (1953-55), dance band or jazz ensemble;
Wind Quintet (1954);
Variations (1955), string quartet;
Young's Blues (c. 1955-59);
Fugue in d minor (c. 1956), violin, viola, cello;
Op. 4 (1956), brass, percussion;
Five Small Pieces for String Quartet, On Remembering A Naiad, 1. A Wisp, 2. A Gnarl, 3. A Leaf, 4. A Twig, 5. A Tooth (1956);
Canon (1957), any two instruments;
Fugue in a minor (1957), any four instruments;
Fugue in c minor (1957), organ or harpsichord;
Fugue in eb minor (1957), brass or other instruments;
Fugue in f minor (1957), two pianos;
Prelude in f minor (1957), piano;
Variations for Alto Flute, Bassoon, Harp and String Trio (1957);
Death Chant (1961), male voices, carillon or large bells;
Response to Henry Flynt Work Such That No One Knows What's Going On (c. 1962);
[Improvisations] (1962-64), sopranino saxophone, vocal drones, various instruments. Realizations include: Bb Dorian Blues, The Fifth/Fourth Piece, ABABA, EbDEAD, The Overday, Early Tuesday Morning Blues, and Sunday Morning Blues;
Poem on Dennis' Birthday (1962), unspecified instruments;
The Four Dreams of China (The Harmonic Versions) (1962), including The First Dream of China, The First Blossom of Spring, The First Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, tunable, sustaining instruments of like timbre, in multiples of 4;
Studies in The Bowed Disc (1963), gong;
Pre-Tortoise Dream Music (1964), sopranino saxophone, soprano saxophone, vocal drone, violin, viola, sine waves;
The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys (1964-present), voices, various instruments, sine waves. Realizations include: Prelude to The Tortoise, The Tortoise Droning Selected Pitches from The Holy Numbers for The Two Black Tigers, The Green Tiger and The Hermit, The Tortoise Recalling The Drone of The Holy Numbers as They Were Revealed in The Dreams of The Whirlwind and The Obsidian Gong and Illuminated by The Sawmill, The Green Sawtooth Ocelot and The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer;
The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-73/81-present). Each realization is a separately titled and independent composition. Over 60 realizations to date. World première: Rome 1974. American première: New York 1975;
Sunday Morning Dreams (1965), tunable sustaining instruments and/or sine waves;
Composition 1965 $50 (1965), performance piece;
Map of 49's Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery (1966-present), voices, various instruments, sine waves;
Bowed Mortar Relays (1964) (realization of Composition 1960 # 9), Soundtracks for Andy Warhol Films "Eat," "Sleep," "Kiss," "Haircut," tape;
The Two Systems of Eleven Categories (1966-present), theory work;
Chords from The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys (1967-present), sine waves. Realizations include: Intervals and Triads from Map of 49's Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery (1967), sound environment;
Robert C. Scull Commission (1967), sine waves;
Claes and Patty Oldenburg Commission (1967), sine waves;
for Guitar (Just Intonation Version) (1978), guitar;
for Guitar Prelude and Postlude (1980), one or more guitars;
The Subsequent Dreams of China (1980), tunable, sustaining instruments of like timbre, in multiples of 8;
The Gilbert B. Silverman Commission to Write, in Ten Words or Less, a Complete History of Fluxus Including Philosophy, Attitudes, Influences, Purposes (1981);
Chords from The Well-Tuned Piano (1981-present), sound environments. Includes: The Opening Chord (1981), The Magic Chord (1984), The Magic Opening Chord (1984);
Trio for Strings (1983) Versions for string quartet, string orchestra, and violin, viola, cello, bass;
Trio for Strings, trio basso version (1984), viola, cello, bass;
Trio for Strings, sextet version (1984);
Trio for Strings, String Octet Version (1984), 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 2 basses;
Trio for Strings Postlude from The Subsequent Dreams of China (c. 1984), bowed strings;
The Melodic Versions (1984) of The Four Dreams of China (1962), including The First Dream of China, The First Blossom of Spring, The First Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, tunable, sustaining instruments of like timbre, in multiples of 4;
The Melodic Versions (1984) of The Subsequent Dreams of China, (1980) including The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer's Second Dream of The First Blossom of Spring, tunable, sustaining instruments of like timbre, in multiples of 8;
The Big Dream (1984), sound environment;
Orchestral Dreams (1985), orchestra;
The Big Dream Symmetries #s 1-6 (1988), sound environments;
The Symmetries in Prime Time from 144 to 112 with 119 (1989), including The Close Position Symmetry, The Symmetry Modeled on BDS # 1, The Symmetry Modeled on BDS # 4, The Symmetry Modeled on BDS # 7, The Romantic Symmetry, The Romantic Symmetry (over a 60 cycle base), The Great Romantic Symmetry, sound environments;
The Lower Map of The Eleven's Division in The Romantic Symmetry (over a 60 cycle base) in Prime Time from 144 to 112 with 119 (1989-1990), unspecified instruments and sound environment;
The Prime Time Twins (1989-90) including The Prime Time Twins in The Ranges 144 to 112; 72 to 56 and 38 to 28; Including The Special Primes 1 and 2 (1989);
The Prime Time Twins in The Ranges 576 to 448; 288 to 224; 144 to 112; 72 to 56; 36 to 28; with The Range Limits 576, 448, 288, 224, 144, 56 and 28 (1990), sound environments;
Chronos Kristalla (1990), string quartet;
The Young Prime Time Twins (1991), including The Young Prime Time Twins in The Ranges 2304 to 1792; 1152 to 896; 576 to 448; 288 to 224; 144 to 112; 72 to 56; 36 to 28; Including or Excluding The Range Limits 2304, 1792, 1152, 576, 448, 288, 224, 56 and 28 (1991),
The Young Prime Time Twins in The Ranges 2304 to 1792; 1152 to 896; 576 to 448; 288 to 224; 144 to 112; 72 to 56; 36 to 28; 18 to 14; Including or Excluding The Range Limits 2304, 1792, 1152, 576, 448, 288, 224, 56, 28 and 18; and Including The Special Young Prime Twins Straddling The Range Limits 1152, 72 and 18 (1991),
The Young Prime Time Twins in The Ranges 1152 to 896; 576 to 448; 288 to 224; 144 to 112; 72 to 56; 36 to 28; Including or Excluding The Range Limits 1152, 576, 448, 288, 224, 56 and 28; with One of The Inclusory Optional Bases: 7; 8; 14:8; 18:14:8; 18:16:14; 18:16:14:8; 9:7:4; or The Empty Base (1991), sound environments;
The Symmetries in Prime Time from 288 to 224 with 279, 261 and 2 X 119 with One of The Inclusory Optional Bases: 7; 8; 14:8; 18:14:8; 18:16:14; 18:16:14:8; 9:7:4; or The Empty Base (1991-present), including The Symmetries in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119 and with One of The Inclusory Optional Bases: 7; 8; 14:8; 18:14:8; 18:16:14; 18:16:14:8; 9:7:4; or The Empty Base (1991), sound environments;
Annod (1953-55) 92 X 19 Version for Zeitgeist (1992), alto saxophone, vibraphone, piano, bass, drums, including 92 XII 22 Two-Part Harmony and The 1992 XII Annod Backup Riffs;
Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic Chord (2002-2003), cello, pre-recorded cello drones and light design;
Raga Sundara, vilampit khayal set in Raga Yaman Kalyan (2002-present), voices, various instruments, tambura drone;
Trio for Strings (1958) Just Intonation Version (1984-2001-2005), 2 cellos, 2 violins, 2 violas;
Duckworth, William. 1995. Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice-Hall International. ISBN0-02-870823-7 Reprinted 1999, New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN0-306-80893-5
Eno, Brian, and Russell Mills. 1986. More Dark than Shark. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN0-571-13883-7
 Ghosn, Joseph. 2010. "La Monte Young". Marseilles, France : Le Mot Et Le Reste.
Grimshaw, Jeremy. 2005. "Music of a 'More Exalted Sphere': Compositional Practice, biography, and Cosmology in the Music of La Monte Young." Doctoral dissertation, Eastman School of Music. Ann Arbor: UMI/ProQuest.
Herzfeld, Gregor. 2007. Zeit als Prozess und Epiphanie in der experimentellen amerikanischen Musik. Charles Ives bis La Monte Young. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 285-341. ISBN978-3-515-09033-9
Husslein, Uwe (ed.). 1990. Pop Goes Art: Andy Warhol & Velvet Underground: anläßlich der gleichnamigen Ausstellung in der Hamburger Kunsthalle, 30.11.1990-3.2. 1991. Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Popkultur 1. Wuppertal: Institut für Popkultur.
LaBelle, Brandon. 2006. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York and London: Continuum International Publishing.