Even Minimalists Get the Blues : Music: Influential composer La Monte Young has put together a roadhouse blues band to return to the stompin’ style of his jazz-influenced youth.
We’re hearing a lot from classically oriented composers these days about the influence of vernacular styles on their work. Often, though, that influence is practically inaudible in the actual music.
Not so for La Monte Young. His new ensemble is the Forever Bad Blues Band, his new album “Just Stompin'--Live at the Kitchen,” and you should take to heart all the implications in those names.
“I’m really consumed by music. I only do music--or a kind of music--if I’m totally drawn or compelled by my muse. I’m really hoping (the new album) will give me the opportunity to perform more,” the 57-year-old composer says. “I really feel I was created to perform as well as compose.”
“Just Stompin’ ” was released this summer as a two-CD set from Gramavision Records. It consists of just one piece--"Young’s Dorian Blues in G"--recorded live at the January premiere of the piece at the Kitchen in New York.
An album of instrumental, roadhouse blues may seem something of a departure for Young, a revered original, the seminal influence on both minimalism and the Fluxus movement and creator of a highly personal body of work. It makes, however, a clear, relatively compact and accessible expression of his obsessions with extended durations and just intonation, the acoustically pure tuning based on the natural harmonic series. It is also music with a long gestation period, going back to his student days in Los Angeles.
“I started out in jazz, back in the ‘50s out in L.A.,” Young says by telephone from his home in New York. “My first real creative outlet was improvisation.”
Young has played alto saxophone since he was 7, with his father as his first teacher. He went to John Marshall High School here, studied with William Green and then went on to Los Angeles City College, where everybody told him he should play in the dance band. The first-saxophone chair there was already tied up, but he auditioned and beat out Eric Dolphy for the second-chair position.
He and Dolphy became friends, and both played clarinet in the orchestra, where Dolphy was first chair. Other jazz musicians Young performed with in clubs and sessions at that time included Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and Don Friedman.
At the same time, he was studying with Schoenberg disciple Leonard Stein at Los Angeles City College and became extremely inspired by Webern. From the terse, pared-down creations of Webern to Young’s own long-spanned music seems quite a reach, but he finds a credible evolution there, where his early music became “like Webern in augmentation.”
Augmented indeed. He usually takes five to six hours to perform his solo piano piece “The Well-Tuned Piano,” and he confined “Young’s Blues” to two hours only because that was the length of the DAT tape available then.
“I think, in addition to my unique piano style, the just intonation and the Dorian mode, (“Young’s Blues”) is different because it is a very long, complex, evolved form--really very compositional in structure, not just song forms,” the composer says. “I’m totally disinterested in short song forms. I’m interested in evolved structures in extended time formats.”
In his earliest, Webern-influenced work, Five Small Pieces for String Quartet, from 1956--just recorded by the Arditti Quartet on its new collection of American music--each piece is about a minute long, but there is no question where Young’s spirit is now.
“There is no doubt a short work can be profound and very strong,” he says, “but a long work has the potential in the end to be much, much more.”
Young learned the importance of silence from both Webern and the contrast between the clarity of the rural sonic environment he knew as a child in Idaho and the noise of the big city he discovered when his family moved to Los Angeles. It figures in his idea of “eternal music,” but not so much anymore in actual performances.
“I have these enormous silences between performances,” Young says ruefully, “so when I get a chance to play, I seem to want to fill it up with sound.”
Young is willing to play pieces such as “The Well-Tuned Piano” only under very special and expensive circumstances. He insists on three months on location, one month exploring the acoustical environment and tuning, followed by two months giving weekly performances. With his Theater of Eternal Music Big Band, he had 23 rehearsals before the first concert.
“This is the way I really want to perform, but very few people can afford to present it,” Young concedes. “The blues band is a way I can perform without compromising my principals and still fit into the one-night format.
“This blues setting, with these young musicians, is a way I can show off my compositional skills and improvising, in a way that’s more affordable for more concert presenters.” (The Forever Bad Blues Band consists of Jon Catler on fretless and just-intonation electric guitars, Brad Catler on similar basses and Jonathan Kane on drums, with Young himself playing a synthesizer in just intonation.)
Esoteric as Young’s music may seem to some, he says he actively holds himself back in composition, so he doesn’t lose touch with an audience entirely.
“It is possible to create something so imaginative and so different it can’t even be recognized as a work of art,” he says. “There is a fine balance I have to find, where I can let myself go to the limit but still communicate with enough people that I can still earn a living. That has been a real challenge for me, because my work is very different.
“I don’t feel people need to understand the complete work at first. But if you just give them a key, they can unlock the doors and allow themselves into the more evolved levels of the music.
“This blues, ‘Young’s Blues,’ definitely has information that can reach out to a broad spectrum of music lovers.”
Both the extended duration and the static harmonic framework of “Young’s Blues” relate to what the composer--well-trained and accomplished in north Indian classical vocal music--calls “the drone state of mind.” The limited harmonic range of the blues pattern he employs provides a sonic constant against which “the imagination is able to take special flights of fancy” in the nuances of improvisation.
“This approach to sound allows us to intuitively understand significant vibrational-structure relationships existing in the universe,” he says.
Young’s newest composition, “The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer’s Second Dream of the First Blossom of Spring,” had its world premiere in June in Frankfurt, Germany, by the Ensemble Modern. Young helped prepare the performance, which also featured a light environment designed by Young’s wife, Marian Zazeela.
Hessische Rundfunk, the Frankfurt radio station, will broadcast the concert this month and wants to release it in CD format, but Young the perfectionist demurs.
“I think it would be better if we practiced it some more,” he says delicately. “It was wonderful for a first performance, but a recording has to be near-perfect.”
Young and Zazeela have also finished a new sound and light environment, along the lines of his famous Dream House concept from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s of an integrated, long-term multimedia space. They have a seven-year lease on an upper floor in the New York loft building where they have been since 1963 and hope to open what will essentially be a seven-year environmental performance in the fall.
Young and the Forever Bad Blues Band, who recently played “Young’s Blues” at Alice Tully Hall in New York, are trying to set up a tour to Los Angeles.
“The release of this CD will pretty much demonstrate what we’re capable of,” Young says. “We’re really determined to go out and get a lot of work.”