Monday, October 02, 2006

Landmarks (19)

La Monte Young: Chronos Kristalla (Time Crystals) from The Magic Chord x 4 (1990- ) for string quartet.

Since the mid-1960's, Young's works can be be heard as belonging to one of two major projects. I identify the first project as including the ensemble music and installations composed for the Theatre of Eternal Music, including The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, which reached a provisional definition in the restrictions of a theoretical document, The Two Systems of Galactic Light Intervals Tracery, and, more recently, has received new impetus through a series of installations and live vocal/instrumental/electronic performances in which the selection of pitches is based instead upon symmetrical arrays of pitches found high in a harmonic series. The performance practice used in these pieces, in particular that used in Young's own vocal performances, as developed in this project is deeply connected to -- without ever materially quoting -- Young's long-term study of North Indian Classical Music.

The second project, and the one to which Chronos Kristalla belongs, was initially defined by The Well-Tuned Piano (1964- ), which can be understood as a particular instrument, a particular tuning scheme for that instrument, a developing technique for playing that instrument within that tuning environment, and as a single, evolving, composition. In much of Young's work, the distinction between composition and improvisation is difficult: the composition clearly changes over time, from performance to performance, but the improvisation (perhaps extemporization is the better word) is done within incredibly strict parameters, demonstrating a discipline that again finds a close parallel in his study of North Indian Classical Music.

The Well-Tuned Piano is a piece of music for a piano, but it is also something more than that. One effect of the tuning and the playing techniques developed by Young (in particular, the rapid chordal figurations, known as "clouds", which Young intuitively hammers in a highly sensitive play between interference beating, reinforced upper harmonics, and just intervals between the fundamentals) is to remove the instrument from the narrowly-defined timbral world of the piano. In this wider timbral space, the listener is often party to illusions of voices, horns, electronic instruments, and indeed, certain areas of the tuning have long-been associated by Young with instruments other than the elegant Börsendorfer: the "Opening Chord" of the work was clearly music for brass, and in Chronos Kristalla, the potential of "The Magic Chord" as music for strings has received an initial realization.

"The Magic Chord", an eight-toned complex perhaps most immediately identified by the poignantly narrow 28:27 minor seconds and wide 9:7 major thirds, is played here two octaves higher than it is played in The Well-Tuned Piano, and played entire in natural harmonics by the quartet. Tuning precision is achieved by tuning the harmonics (not the fundamentals!) precisely to a special synthesizer. The immediate sensation of the tuning, the tessitura, and the natural harmonics is astonishingly close to that of the Japanese Sho, the freed-reed instrument which provides the tonal backdrop for the Court music, Gagaku, a musical tradition with which Young has been familiar since the 1950's.

I have cautiously called this an "initial realization". This is for two reasons: the first is that the performance style of this music remains a project in development. The score -- the most detailed, more-or-less conventially notated score that Young has produced since his student years -- is to some extent a direct transcription from portions of a performance of The Well-Tuned Piano. The nature of that transcription, and in particular the transcription of the clouds from Young's distinctive keyboard style to an ensemble string texture, remains a work in progress. But as importantly, the larger potential of The Well-Tuned Piano remains unexplored. Young's intention to transcribe the "The Opening Chord" for brass ensemble is already known and it is not difficult to extrapolate from there and to imagine that the string and brass music could combine into something of orchestral dimensions, and that this orchestra might eventually be joined with the solo piano.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw this performed in Berkeley, CA ten years ago by Le Quatuor Kronos. Why, oh why are there so very few La Monte Young recordings in legal existance, or at least this piece and his string trio? Or at least put it out on his own label, distributed from his own site, even if it becomes priced a tad high (see Stockhausen's personal catalog).