Harmonic Convergenceby Nick Stillman
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House: Seven+Eight Years of Sound and Light.
Sometime between 2 p.m. and midnight on a Thursday or Saturday, push buzzer #3 at 275 Church Street in Tribeca and wait. You’ll be admitted, and the door will swing shut behind you. You are entering the Dream House, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s sound and light environment at the MELA Foundation. Dream House: Seven+Eight Years of Sound and Light will officially shut down for the summer on June 21, and reopen in the fall for its 11th season. Practically speaking, this is easily the least expensive means of hearing Young’s music. Few of his recordings are in print, and they’re all super rare, making MELA’s $4 suggested donation feel like a bargain.
Young’s early reputation was made as a performance artist. In the early 1960s, as a newcomer to New York, he fell in with Fluxus, the radical visual and performance art collective. His pieces from those years were Cageian affairs, like Composition 1965 Dollars 50, a “performance” in which he met Fluxus ringleader George Maciunas in the center of a stage to receive an envelope from him containing $50, his pay for the concert. Musically, his breakthrough was in 1962: The Four Dreams of China and The Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer are major points of separation between Young and the American minimalism that followed in his wake. While minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich rely on repetition and phase patterns, Young’s work since 1962 uses sustained, droning notes played on either acoustic instruments or frequency generators. His music is technical and precise, combining Greek mathematical theory and the teachings of the Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, whose vocal work is based on precision tuning and intonation. While Western tuning systems use an eight-note octave, Young’s system (derived from Nath’s teaching) explores the harmonies that exist in every note, potentially revealing hidden, magical frequencies.
Maybe it’s these magical frequencies that explain the suspiciously quaking ground a whole flight below the Dream House’s entrance. An eerie industrial hum is the next clue of its presence, and if you slide your hand along the wall on the way up the steps, you’ll feel it wobbling ever so slightly. Once up the stairs, lose the shoes and be welcomed to dreamland.
The moment of entrance is a dramatic one. “Dream House Variation I,” Zazeela’s psychedelic neon sculpture mounted on the ceiling, vies for your attention with Young’s tonal assault. Hang a left and you’re in the centerpiece, a Dionysian ballroom exploding with the moodiness of Zazeela’s enigmatic light installation and Young’s blasting music. Not that the actual space is quite so dramatic; it’s actually pretty modest. This is the larger of two rooms connected by a short hallway— each is lushly carpeted and almost totally empty, save a couple comfy pillows, a few refrigerators, and a shrine to Nath. The design concept seems to embrace an anti-design aesthetic. Unnecessary decoration would divert attention from this incredibly affecting music and art, both of which require a good deal of concentration to really enjoy. Initially, the sounds cranking from the speakers seem like full-on monotone drone, like some sort of psychological torture. Not surprisingly, then, it can make you feel anxious and edgy, strange for an installation called the Dream House. But this initial confrontation is the challenge Young presents. To dismiss it as pure monotone is to fundamentally misunderstand it. Not only does this music take time to really hear, it also requires a little motion on your part.
This piece, “The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time,” (the full title is much, much longer) is essentially an environment of waveforms constructed by digitally generated sine waves on a Rayna synthesizer. All audible frequencies are tuned to the harmonic series between the numbers 288 and 224, but only use integers divisible by nine or the prime numbers or octave transpositions of smaller primes that fall in this range. This results in 32 different frequencies— 17 in the upper range, 14 in the lower, one in the middle. Young has arranged the frequencies symmetrically around the center harmonic, 254. So there’s a whole lot more happening here than monotone drone. The more time you spend in the environment, the more the individual frequencies become distinct from each other. Every turn of the head, bend of the knees, and scrunch of the nose results in a new grouping of sounds. Generally speaking, slow head motion reveals higher pitches, holding still brings out the lower pitches, and fast motions sound the cry of an apocalyptic alarm clock. After 20 minutes or so, the Dream House begins to dominate you if you let it. The gently rumbling floor massages you while the high pitches become chirping crickets and the pulsating lower frequencies energize your resting body. Which raises the point that the Dream House isn’t especially geared toward the self-conscious. Sure, you can have an “interesting” experience walking around and moving your head back and forth to let all those frequencies do their magic. But to make it a transcendent occasion, it’s necessary to incorporate yourself into the Dream House, breathe in the incense, and let it take you over. What this means for most people is to sprawl out on the carpet and chill out for a while. Part of the reward of close listening is the amazing malleability of Young’s composition. You hear what you want to hear, and some savvy head moving can even result in your own “song” of sorts.
Zazeela’s pieces, especially the elegant “Dream House Variation I,” serve as an appropriate visual analogue to Young’s intensely sculptural composition. In the same way that the music reveals its hidden existence through persistent attention, Zazeela’s curlicued sculptures dangle from the ceiling like clouds overhead, spinning so slightly you almost can’t detect the movement unless you look away and come back to it seconds later. Drenched in the soft florescent lighting, calligraphic shadows appear and disappear on the wall, more shadows than shapes, more shapes than shadows.
In some ways, the apotheosis, the Dionysian climax of the Dream House, is Zazeela’s unassuming “Magenta Day, Magenta Night.” She has placed a filmy, magenta curtain over each of the two windows overlooking the intersection of Church Street and Sixth Avenue. Whereas one window is already covered by a dark curtain, negating the magenta, the other offers a view to the street, seen through the radiant filter. With Young’s soundtrack swirling throughout the room and bouncing off the walls, the cabs whizzing through intersections and the yuppies teetering out of the bars feel like a senseless otherworld. The Dream House can inspire sincere self-reflection— of how people physically move, of how little time there is for stillness, of how we’ve become trained to seek and to reward movement and action. To embrace the Dream House is to become entranced and lost in time. And with no permanent closing date established for Young and Zazeela’s collaborative installation, this could be the dream that never ends.