Interview with La Monte Young, 1989 by David B. Doty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
The following interview took place on the afternoon of September 2, 1989, in the Berkeley, California residence of North-Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. It was originally published in 1/1, The Journal of the Just Intonation Network, issues 5:4 and 6:1, Autumn 1989 and Winter 1990.
DD—How did you first become aware of the possibility of Just Intonation?
LMY—Well, I think that I became interested in harmonics sometime around the very early 1960s—'60, '61, '62, somewhere in there. Possibly earlier. I know that when I had my physics of sound class at L.A. City College under Walter O'Connell, sometime in the mid-to-late '50's, that I did not pick up on Just Intonation. A lot of information was taught about the nature of sound, and something may have been taught about ratios, but I didn't catch on. However, in working with sustained tones, one has a remarkable opportunity to listen to harmonics. And I began to work with sustained tones in 1957, in the middle section of For Brass, and then, more extensively, in the Trio for Strings, which I completed in September, 1958. However, I recall Terry Jennings coming to New York sometime in the early 60's and talking about—he had made a tape of his saxophone playing with tamboura—and talking about how the Indian musicians at UCLA were listening to the harmonics in the tamboura when they were tuning. So I know I was interested in them by then, however I'm not sure that Terry Jennings introduced me to them at that point, but I do remember that incident. And Dennis Johnson has pointed out that he thinks that I had been interested in the seventh partial for a long time. He remembers it coming up very early in our discussions and I was really quite crazy about it. However, what really opened me up to Just Intonation was when Tony Conrad joined my group, The Theatre of Eternal Music, sometime in early '63. I was playing sopranino saxophone at the time, and Marian and Billy Linich (now known as Billy Name) were singing drones, and Tony joined the group on violin, and he had a background in math and the sciences. And he pointed out to me that with the integers you could analyze all of the ratios that were in the harmonic series, all of the ratios that were otonalities. And suddenly, I just took off, it just all went on like a light bulb and from that time on, I was just totally, completely captivated by Just Intonation. And I really felt that it was the most incredible revelation I had had in music. It became the key to my understanding of the relationship between sound and feelings, and to my development of my theories about universal structure, and our perception of universal structure, and our perception of time, and our understanding of our relationship to time and universal structure.
DD—You mentioned your longstanding attraction to the seventh harmonic. Do you think there was a relationship between that and your experience playing jazz saxophone?
LMY—Definitely. I mean, I figured out early on that the seventh partial was a kind of blues seventh that is really used a lot in blues. At one time I used to say that it was the blues seventh. Now I like to refine that and say that it is the primary blues seventh, around which other sevenths are embellished. One of the interesting things about the seventh degree of the scale and the third degree, that is what we think of as mi in do-re-mi or ga in sa-re-ga or as E in the key of C... what's interesting about those areas is that there are many, many, many places in those two areas where you can have degrees of the scale that are strong and meaningful, and there are many, many, many more places where you can have degrees of the scale that can be embellishments to these other places that are strong and meaningful. This is not to say that this is impossible with other degrees of the scale. It's simply to say that it's especially possible with these degrees of the scale.
DD—I understand that you don't use the prime number five ...
DD—In any of your tunings, or just in The Well-Tuned Piano?
LMY—Really, in any of my tunings. I guess the way it happened was, by the time I got to the Trio for Strings, I began to realize that this interval of a major third didn't convey any of the feelings that I was interested in. I think it's a perfectly legitimate interval, I sing it in Indian classical music, I know what its role is in the history of music, I think it's beautiful, but I have never... except in the Sarabande... You know, I wrote some music in traditional forms, and some of those pieces came out very well and I have them played on concerts, like my F Minor Prelude and my Sarabande, and in the Sarabande, it's filled with major thirds, it's built on minor triads with major sevenths. However, that was written as a study. The fact that it came out beautiful and inspired is another thing. I wasn't starting out writing in what I think of as the "La Monte Young mode." In the Trio for Strings, I excluded all intervals of thirds and sixths, both major and minor.
DD—Both harmonically and consecutively?
LMY—Pretty much. Definitely harmonically. Consecutively not as consistently because I was working with such long, sustained tones that you don't tend to hear the consecutive intervals as melodically ... I mean you can hear them melodically and I definitely do think about them, but they're just stretched out over such long periods of time that you don't hear them as much. Definitely harmonically. Most of my music grows out of a harmonic basis. So I began to leave out multiples of five, starting with leaving out the major third, and using multiples of three and seven. I always liked perfect fifths and perfect fourths, and I liked minor sevenths. Actually, you see in my group, in '63 and '62, one of the pieces I was playing was a type of blues. Well, my approach to blues is I do the I chord for four bars, and I do the IV chord for two bars, then I do the I chord for two bars, and the V chord for one bar, the IV chord for one bar, and the I chord for two bars. So that I'm on the I chord for a long time, basically for six bars because of the two ending bars and the first four bars. So I took out some of the little changes that can be in between, like you can do the first measure I and then the second measure IV, and then go back to I for two bars.
DD—And no turn-around at the end?
LMY—Right, and no turnaround at the end. Right, in the last two bars you can do I-IV-I-V or something. There are various ways of doing the last two bars. So I started taking all those things out to make it a more static form. I did it in various modes. I used to like to play blues in Dorian, and I used to play Aeolian blues. And in Dorian blues, when I would go to the IV chord, I would leave out the major third of the IV chord, the sixth degree of the scale. Gradually I began to just play a scale that was like ... If you’re in G Dorian (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G') I began to just playa scale that was C, G, Bb, C', and sometimes with the D also, and playing that mainly over the IV chord. But there was another development before that which I didn't finish mentioning. After I was playing [the simplified blues progression described above] then I decided that I would take that progression and allow each chord to last as long as I wanted. So then I would play on the I chord for a long period of time that was completely improvised. And since I was often playing piano in the group, when I wasn't playing saxophone, then I could determine how long that would be. But when I worked with my group, The Theatre of Eternal Music, I would have them sustain the drones on bowed violin and viola, and bowed guitar, and voices. Gradually, in the course of staying on each chord as long as I wanted, I began to settle in on the IV chord and I would do whole sets on the IV chord. And on the IV chord, there's one cut that we did called Early Tuesday Morning Blues, in which I'm just playing, in this key of G Dorian, C, G, Bb, C'. Those are the only notes, and I play them over all the octaves of the sopranino saxophone, extremely fast. Out of this very fast playing on the IV chord without a third, I developed this piece, Pre-Tortoise Dream Music, which led into the tuning of The Well-Tuned Piano. So it can be said that The Well-Tuned Piano grew out of blues.
DD—I haven't encountered in your writings any mention of the primes 11 or 13.
LMY—Right. I like them. I just am not as, see in a lifetime, a lifetime is very short and there's only so much you can do and once you start working with long sustained tones, they take a lot of time and so I had to really focus on the intervals that most attracted me. I really like 13 a lot. I especially like 13 in combination with 7. It's very beautiful, 13/14. I have done some work with it. In fact I have recordings of a chord that I composed that was going to be a music box that Claes and Patty Oldenburg commissioned back in the late '60's when I was working with 13. Tony Conrad used to like to play 13, too. I like it a lot in combination with 14. 12:13:14 is a wonderful triad, but I just haven't had time to work with it. I mean 11, too, could be very nice. I've done practically nothing with 11. What I've learned is that for clarity one has to exclude, and that in the same way that our model, the system of Western classical music, is so strong and powerful, it excluded everything above 5, so it just had 2, 3, and 5. It couldn't handle 7. In Indian classical music, 7 is included. But I found that in order to make very clear, precise statements that it's necessary to exclude something. This is, for instance, what the modes were about, this is what ragas are about. They have certain sets of tones that you use over and over and these create a very profound state. You don't use all the tones at once. And so my work is very much growing out of modal thinking and I've always been interested in stasis-static music. Working with a specific set of tones allows one to create a strong mental state because of the clarity and persistence of that set of tones, so that one can again use this set of tones as a drone state of mind, and you get to know it extremely well. If you have too much material all at once it becomes very hard to develop the same deep mental state with the material, and since I come from the point of view of the yogic approach to meditation, which is concentration and focus, as opposed to John Cage's approach to meditation which is a certain type of Zen where you let everything happen. I'm interested in control and precision, and for me you have to walk before you can run and you do everything in a methodical way, and therefore I work with some limited set of tones that I can really understand and hear and do something with. I feel that it is possible to create extremely strong, clear, profound states in this way and that naturally longer works over longer periods of time... like in The Well-Tuned Piano, it's over six hours, but still there are only twelve tones there. And there are 17 identities in The Romantic Symmetries in Prime Time from 112 to 144 with 119. I think over time I will be able to develop those tones in more elaborate ways, the way I do in The Well-Tuned Piano but it can't happen overnight. It takes the possibility of spending long periods of time with the tones.