Monday, April 27, 2009

Young's Paradox

I was recently asked to write something about La Monte Young, as a teacher and friend, but those relationships are works in progress and I'm loathe to sum them up as there is too much left to be done.  Here, though, is one observation about his music: 

There is a central paradox in Young's composition and performance practice that gives the music a large part of its highly individual character and charge.  Although his earliest mature compositions were frequently without a global tonal center (a number of the early pieces are twelve-tone, but the slow tempo often strongly invites a localized sense of tonality), his subsequent concern for precision in the domain of pitch has continuously increased, and with it, he has progressed up into unexplored regions of the harmonic series,  reinforcing a form, if highly expanded, of tonal centeredness.  However, in his rhythmic practice, the actual articulation of those pitches in musical time, remains free, from regular metre and, often, from even a steady pulse.

The Well-Tuned Piano, for example, alternates in texture between a free articulation of the simplest pitch configurations, both melodically and in simple harmonies, dyads or triads, in a manner suggestive in speed and mood of an alap, an unmeasured prelude, or a very deliberate recitative, and "clouds",  which are larger pitch collections, frequently at or past the boundary between a chord and a fused sonority of timbral rather than chordal complexity,  articulated by a continuously developing motion of the hands and individual fingers, keys, hammers, and wires, intuitively adjusting the speed and patterns in order to lock into textures in which the entire acoustical complex is self-reinforcing, bringing out internal melodic and harmonic patterns as well as phenomena — beating and combination tones especially — which create a whole larger than the sum of the component parts.  

The special charge here, for me at least, is that the potential tension between the clarity of the immediate pitch relationships — however expansive the particular relationships may in fact be — and the complexity of the actual sounding surface is always resolved by an optimistic assertion of a greater potential for our capacity to perceive music  (this assertion is related to, but not identical with, John Cage's assertion of a universal music-interpretive competence;  "I can eventually figure out if I'm in the best seat" (Young) is a different proposition from "everyone is in the best seat" (Cage).)  

The sources of Young's style are a heterodox assembly of consequences and influences that happen to have reinforced themselves particularly well.  Young's own study and practice of forms of Bebop and free jazz as well as an alap-heavy style of North Indian Classical vocal music both landed the composer-performer in ametrical territory (not to mention the important experience of musical traditions with their own solutions to the real time articulation and ornamentation of static pitch configurations), and while Young has always been a man with the tempo of a tortoise in the exercise of everyday life and he grew up in a household and church in which talk of both "all time" and "eternity" was everyday chatter, the pursuit of ever-greater accuracy in intonation, requiring an ever-longer sampling period and Young's attachment to electronic tone generation, with its potential for both more accuracy and more continuous playing durations, have only increased the openness of his rhythmic and, indeed, formal sensibility, while altering none of the rigor of his pitch selection.    


No comments: