La Monte Young
Born: October 14, 1935, in Bern, ID
Early Studies Trio for Strings Compositions 1960
La Monte Young’s beginnings are probably the most unusual of any modern composer. He was born in a log cabin in Idaho on October 14, 1935, and spent his childhood raised under the Mormon influence of his father, a sheepherder. He learned the guitar at age three, and began saxophone lessons at age seven. His aunt, a rodeo performer, served as his guitar teacher, and his father taught him saxophone. Young’s father was a difficult teacher, and would beat La Monte when he made any errors (Duckworth, Talking Music, 210). He moved to California and attended John Marshall High School, focusing on jazz performance. At the same time, he took classes at Los Angeles City College, playing in a jazz combo and in dance bands while also taking private lessons in counterpoint with Leonard Stein (Sadie, 673). High school marked Young’s first exposure to classical music through Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a piece that helped shape his future interest in classical music. He also found inspiration in the works of Claude Debussy and Anton Webern, the latter inspiring an early composition in 1956 entitled Five Small Pieces for String Quartet (Duckworth, Talking Music, 224-225). After graduation, Young attended Los Angeles State College and UCLA. He obtained his BA in 1958, and then went to Berkeley for his graduate work in composition. It was at Berkeley where he met another young composer by the name of Terry Riley, and the two became friends (Sadie, 673).
Trio for Strings:
The inspiration for Young’s first major work can be found in the composer’s childhood experiences. Young has stated that one of his first aural memories is that on the wind continuously blowing through his log cabin in Idaho, and the endless sound of crickets chirping outdoors. He also recalls going to his father’s workplace in Montpelier at the age of three or four and hearing the constant drone of the power plant generators next door (Duckworth, Talking Music, 222). These memories blended with a summer spent at his grandmother’s house in the late 1950s, where he spent the entire summer lying in bed meditating and listening to the sounds around him (Duckworth, Talking Music, 227). All these experiences helped La Monte Young appreciate the sound of long tones. This appreciation led to a desire to incorporate long tones into his work, and so at UCLA he began working on a piece based on long tones. He received permission to use the school organ, so that he could perfectly hear the sustained pitches as he composed (Duckworth, Talking Music, 227). The piece consists of one movement approximately 58 minutes long, entirely consisting of serial long tones and rests. For example, the piece opens with a viola playing C# for 4’23”, covering nearly 46 measures of the printed score. The violin and cello join in on Eb and D, respectively, and then all parts rest for four full measures (Potter, 34). Influenced by Webern’s trademark of precise notation, Young carefully timed each note; the length given above is determined by following the composer’s suggested tempo of an eighth note equaling 80 beats per minute (Duckworth, Talking Music, 227). Other suggestions by the composer included a complete lack of vibrato, a request to minimize the sound to the bow changing directions, and a request to make the differences between the pieces 11 dynamic changes (pppppp-fff) “just perceptible” (Potter, 35). All these combined suggestions indicate that Trio for Strings is a difficult piece, requiring almost unprecedented control by the string players.
While the original finished project lasted well over an hour, Young trimmed some of the sustain pitches out of fear that a newer composer like himself would not be able to get more than an hour of performance time at a concert. Trio for Strings was actually premiered not in a concert hall, but at the home of his Berkeley composition professor, Seymour Shifrin (Duckworth, Talking Music, 228-229). By this point in the year, Young had taken over Shifrin’s composition class, offering opinions on all compositions, the feeling they inspired and the technique behind them. Shifrin had seen a copy of the trio, and was concerned that Young did not know what it sounded like. So he arranged for the performance, with the audience consisting almost entirely of fellow students from his class. After the performance, there was discussion about the piece among the students, guided chiefly by Shifrin’s concern at the direction of Young’s work. Shifrin warned Young that if this was to be his method of composing, he would not be able to achieve a grade in the composition class. Young acquiesced to Shifrin enough to compose a work called Study I in a style more acceptable to his teacher, but maintained his interest in long tones and continued using long tones in his major works (Duckworth, Talking Music, 229-230).
The effect of Trio for Strings was earth-shattering to the modern music world. The piece forced musicians to evaluate sound and modern music in a new way, and history has marked the work as the first minimalist piece (Potter, 40). Its groundbreaking effect can be heard in Terry Riley’s In C, Reich’s early work, and all of minimalism afterwards. This is only natural; La Monte Young knew Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and Riley was a classmate of Young’s at Berkeley, even though he missed the trio’s premiere (Sadie, 273). Because of Trio for Strings, La Monte Young has the reputation of being the “father of minimalism.” However, Young’s compositional curiosity would soon have him developing not merely as a minimalist, but also as a John Cage-like avant-garde artist.
While studying at Berkeley in 1959, Young traveled to Darmstadt, Germany in 1959 to spend a summer studying with famed modern composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen seemed to have mixed feelings about the composer; although he helped Young’s music gain notoriety in Europe, and even took tapes from Young’s studio to play in Europe, Young suspected Stockhausen of hiding a long-toned piece he had composed for a concert because it clashed with Stockhausen’s belief in short tones (Duckworth, Talking Music, 232). While Young was originally excited to learn about Stockhausen’s work, he came away with another composer in his thoughts. Stockhausen had spent much of the semester discussing John Cage’s music, and even had David Tudor as a guest to perform Cage’s works (Sadie, 673). Because Stockhausen was so influenced by Cage, La Monte Young began to appreciate and gain influence from Cage’s work (Duckworth, Talking Music, 673). Upon Young’s return to America, he continued finding inspiration in Cage’s music, which led to his next major work: Compositions 1960.
By 1960, Young had won a Berkeley scholarship to study in New York City with John Cage and Richard Maxfield. Though Cage was out of town at the time, Maxfield continued Young’s education by teaching him about electronic music. Young was also aided by David Tudor, who introduced him to a number of New York avant-garde artists and musicians, such as artist Yoko Ono. In December of 1960, La Monte Young gave New York City’s first loft concert in Ono’s loft on Chambers Street (Potter, 49-50). Several of the pieces Young performed at this loft concert became part of Compositions 1960, a compilation of avant-garde experimental works inspired partly by John Cage and David Tudor, and partly by Eastern writings, particularly the Tao and haiku-form poetry. As Young said, “You see, what differentiates my event pieces…is that mine were crystallized down into this haiku-like essence-focusing on one event…” (Duckworth, Talking Music, 233-234).
The pieces that make up Compositions 1960, like Cage’s anti-music works, are extremely difficult to categorize. They are not music in the sense that most concert-goers are familiar, yet the artistic thought and philosophy behind them are unmistakable. Some of the pieces resemble Trio for Strings in that they consist of long tones, with the difference being that they have no form. One example of a piece like this is 1960 #7, in which a B and F# are to be sustained for a long time. Another example of this type would be 1960, #13, in which the performer is told to “prepare any composition and then perform it as well as he can” (Potter, 51). The point of these pieces seems to be different experiences at each performance; different musicians are unlikely to play a note for the same length each night or to pick the same pieces. The result is infinite variety in the simplicity of the score.
Moving away from traditional musical sound, some pieces have instructions for events that create sounds that are not traditionally musical. Composition s: 1960, #10 fits this category. In this work, the performer is asked to “Draw a straight line and follow it” (Duckworth, Talking Music, 234). This action involves sound, just not of the type normally heard in a concert setting. This concept fits in with Cage’s anti-music performance pieces where musicians would play a game of chess or listen to the radio. By performing non-musical acts in a musical setting, the very concept of sound’s relationship to music is questioned. The audience wonders what separates sound from music, and in fact, should there even be a separation. A more poetic variation of this type occurs in Piano Piece for David Tudor #1, the performer is asked to put a bale of hay by a piano in order to feed it or let it eat by itself. If the first option is chosen, then the piece ends when the piano is fed. If the second option is chosen, the piece ends once the piano has eaten or has chosen not to eat (Potter, 51). This rather humorous scenario serves three purposes. It blends the natural sound of the action with performance art, it makes the audience re-evaluate the concept of the piano in its relation to music, and it creates the non-musical sounds an audience must evaluate to determine whether the sounds create music.
Along the same lines, a third type of piece uses absence of sound to make its point. There are two contrasting examples that demonstrate this concept. One provides a puzzle similar to Cage’s 4’33” in that there is no planned sound. 1960, #4 consists of the lights being turned off, and the audience being told it had provided the music after the lights had been turned on (although the score stated that informing the audience of their part was not necessary). While composing a piece in which random audience noise is the music seems experimental enough, an even more complex approach occurs in 1960 #5. This piece instructs the performer to “Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.” Young intended for this piece to make people listen to objects they are only used to seeing, and vice-versa (Potter, 50-51). It also opens up the door for a number of philosophical questions: If one cannot hear a sound, but one knows it must be there, does that sound exist? How can one listen to an object one believe is near-silent? Can a sound that one does not hear be classified as music? While musicians and philosophers may debate this question throughout eternity, the point of the work is not to answer the question, but to make the audience aware that there is a question to be asked, and for individuals to ponder their own answers.
The final category of pieces in Compositions 1960 is made up of works that seemingly have no musical connection. Piano Piece for David Tudor #3, a part of the larger work, merely states that “Most of them were very old grasshoppers.” 1960 #15 contains the text, “This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean.” These are the pieces Young feels are the most radical because there are no real instructions, yet they must be performed (Potter, 234).
La Monte Young was not modest about his role in minimalist music history. “I think it’s true,” he once said. “I think it would have never started without me.” Young describes his early repetitive works as an influence on Terry Riley’s In C, and describes In C as being the catalyst for everything else. Riley agrees that his seminal work could not exist without the Trio for Strings, which he calls “the landmark minimalist piece,” (Duckworth, Talking Music, 239, 282). Thus, the consensus among minimalist composers is that La Monte Young’s work created the genre, and that he is truly “the father of minimalism.”
Unfortunately, there are very few La Monte Young audio works available for listeners who want to hear his music. The following texts are not links, but examples of some of the pieces included in Young's Compositions: 1960.
Compositions: 1960, #10
“Draw a straight line and follow it”
Compositions: 1960, #13
"The performer should prepare any composition and then perform it as well as he can."
Piano Piece for David Tudor #3
"Most of them were very old grasshoppers."