A look into New York’s longest-running sound installation created by influential minimalist La Monte Young and multi-disciplinary artist Marian Zazeela.
“The daddy of us all” is a direct quote from Brian Eno regarding ‘Dream House’ creator La Monte Young. The descriptive has aged exceptionally well. In terms of New York’s experimental world of modern classical, 1960’s Fluxus avant-garde and 1970s minimalism, it’s been said that “John Cage was the universe and La Monte Young, its heart.” He was a figurehead of each of those momentous evolutions. Despite him not being a household name, he secretly shaped contemporary Western music.
Young’s extensive resume and skill with multiple instruments and styles allowed him to jump around scenes and places in search of sounds that hadn’t yet existed. Born in an Idaho log cabin, he made his way to Berkeley in the late ‘50s, broke into the outsider jazz scene as a saxophonist and gigged with some of our heavy favorites: Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Billy Higgins and Eric Dolphy. After lengthy tours with each, Young sought Karlheinz Stockhausen and Richard Maxfield’s tutelage to further develop his interests in experimental electronics.
He also adopted Arnold Schoenberg’s version of the 12-tone-technique to compose 1959’s Trio for Strings. A piece originally scored for violin, viola and cello, it’s been cited as the Big Bang of minimalism in music. It’s a work that’s focused deeply on individual pitches, a drone theory that Young called ‘dream music.’ The piece foreshadowed the enveloping wall of sine wave noise that would inhabit Young’s “Dream House.” David Paul of Seconds wrote of Trio for Stings: [“W]ith its silences and long tones, it paved the way for music based on tonality, drone, and infinite time spans, brushing aside elaborate formal development in favor of the contemplation of pure sound.”
Young is no stranger to decade-spanning projects focused on single notes and pitches. His landmark 1964 minimalist masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano is a 50-year work in progress. Partly improvisatory, it’s played on a grand piano that must sit in the performance space for at least three months to become settled into “just intonation.” The work can take up to 6 hours to perform, and Young has revived it multiple times throughout the years. The piece was also an early collaboration with Zazeela, who employed her famed light installation The Magenta Lights.
These performances coincided with the first Dream House installations, which eventually found a permanent residence in Young and Zazeela’s Church St loft in Tribeca in 1993. It’s still active today, and is among the most immersive sound rooms ever created — a space that, because of the array of specific pitches being multi-projected, makes sound become quite physical. The tones resonate so much that your whole body vibrates; with each small tilt of the head or minute movement, the overwhelming pitches modulate. You move and the ‘dream music’ changes. It’s a powerful, all-encompassing experience perfectly complemented by Marian’s vivid neon atmosphere.
Throughout the Dream House’s history, technical aspects have changed but are essentially this: an environment that pairs Young’s continuous sine wave composition with Zazeela’s Magenta Lights piece. Early versions of Young’s part were sections of his larger work The Turtle, His Dreams and Journeys. The more recent versions feature a composition with a 107-word title that begins with “The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224…”
Simplified: a cyclical composition made up of 108 sine waves produced with a Rayna synthesizer. An instrument with precise microtonal capabilities, it allows for varied relationships between frequencies that shift as the listener moves throughout the room.
It’s an incredible listening experience. Zazeela has described the piece as entirely unique: “Sound and light can be experienced as a new form or new media: the ‘sound and light environment’. The experience of the two mediums together as one requires a new, or at least different, mode of attention.”
Although not the best representation — you need to be in the room to fully experience it — here is a video of what the space looks like and 2D example of the composition you’d hear: https://vimeo.com/62965018
Everyone should get the chance to take part in the confounding auditory experience that is the Dream House, and we highly recommend further listening and exploration of these two New York underground luminaries.