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Radical Utopias

La Monte Young and the New York Hypnotic School

For the third installment in our “Radical Utopias” series, we explore the sonic legacy of the New York Hypnotic School, the late 1960s movement that presaged and pioneered the kind of spatial sound experiences we will be presenting in the Reethaus when it opens this September. Melding avant-garde minimalism with musical influences from non-western spiritual traditions, four pioneers from the downtown scene – La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass – reset the direction and possibilities for art music in the 20th century.

La Monte Young, 1968. Photo © Estate of Walter De Maria
  • Text Gurmeet Singh
  • Artwork Taja Vaetoru

For the third installment in our “Radical Utopias” series, we explore the sonic legacy of the New York Hypnotic School, the late 1960s movement that presaged and pioneered the kind of spatial sound experiences we will be presenting in the Reethaus when it opens this September. Melding avant-garde minimalism with musical influences from non-western spiritual traditions, four pioneers from the downtown scene – La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass – reset the direction and possibilities for art music in the 20th century.

  • Text Gurmeet Singh
  • Artwork Taja Vaetoru

Build a fire.

Turn a butterfly loose.

Draw a line and follow it.

What to make of these statements? Are they instructions for a happy life? Creative prompts? Zen-pastiche? However we might interpret them, we wouldn’t in all likelihood describe them as “music”. And yet, these brief sentences are compositions belonging to one of the most discussed musical works of the post-war period: Compositions 1960 by La Monte Young.

Young was one of a handful of composers in 1960s New York who radically stripped his work of traditional orchestration, ornament and narrative progression, reducing music to its most basic elements. Along with Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, he was a leading representative of the “New York Hypnotic School,” a loose group of artists that emphasized sustained notes, repetition, non-traditional tunings, and new technologies, contributing to a pared-down musical style which had an “hypnotic” effect on listeners: minimalism.

The roots of Young’s minimalism stretch back to the earliest days of his life. As a child, he was captivated by two things: the radiance of ordinary sounds and the mystery of place. In his rural Idaho home, electricity hummed through the wires over the fields, crickets chirped, and even when everything fell quiet, the wind whistled through the cracks in his family’s log cabin – an invisible force carrying sound everywhere.

Top Left: La Monte Young with Nam June Paik performing Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) for Henry Flynt, 1963, courtesy of MoMA. Bottom Left: La Monte Young by George Maciunas, 1961. Right: La Monte Young's Compositions 1960 #7, courtesy of MoMA.
Play Listen to La Monte Young's Compositions 1960 #7

His fixation on the elemental powers of sound and space led Young to study music in Los Angeles. An unlikely destination for a person born in a small town in the 1930s perhaps, but given the abundance of church music in his Mormon community, and the music he discovered playing saxophone in his school’s band, LA seemed a natural fit for Young: not only could he gain technical proficiency at university, he would also be able to join the city’s lively jazz scene.

However, after discovering the works of early 20th-century Austrian composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern (with their emphasis on atonality), Classical Indian music (with its grounding in just intonation), as well as electronic music (with its potential to create new and surreal kinds of sound), Young began seriously experimenting with minimalism. His Trio for Strings, written for cello, violin, and viola, was an early indication of where his ideas would lead: slow, sustained notes, rich and resonant tones, completely stripped of embellishment.

The piece’s drone effect didn’t just create a brooding atmosphere, it was also radically new for Western audiences. Accustomed to narrative development in music, audiences were now confronted with an overwhelming wave of sound, as though 30 seconds of a medieval Gregorian chant had been slowed down and spread out over seven minutes. It was a challenge and an invitation to focus on the sound itself.

Relocating to New York in the 1960s proved even more fruitful for his ideas: rent was cheap, new art abounded, and the counterculture created an air of openness and receptivity. Young, joining the international Fluxus art collective, created innovative, sometimes bizarre compositions that were performed in parties in Yoko Ono’s apartment loft (part of a series of events called “Yoko Ono’s Loft Concerts”). The text-based piece Compositions 1960, with its often-unperformable instructions (“push a piano through a wall”) premiered at one of these concerts.

La Monte Young on a Korg synsesizer.
La Monte Young

“One of the aspects of form that I have been very interested in is stasis – the concept of form which is not so directional in time, not so much climactic form, but rather form which allows time, to stand still.”

However, the aim of his work wasn’t to baffle audiences with purposeless experimentalism: it was to situate the listener in the here and now, so they could confront the sound as it was. Young’s non-text based musical performances made use of sustained tones, slow harmonic changes, and repetitive sounds, with performances sometimes lasting for hours. His Four Dreams of China exemplified his music of this time: using electronic instruments to build sound gradually, with no seeming narrative development, until the sustained phrase simply faded into silence.

This was no accident: he aimed to counteract the traditions and tendencies of Western music. Its focus on narrative – whether building towards a dramatic climax, or simply telling a story (as much of pop music does) – as well as the division of natural frequencies into 12 notes on an octave not only seemed artificial, but their potentials also exhausted: how many times could you dance to the same song, after all?

Feeling that traditional music separated the listener from what they were hearing, Young aimed to bring sound and place back into play so the listener could be confronted with their own experience of the music. This was a revolutionary idea: audiences could react to the music as they wished. They didn’t need to respond in a mechanical and regimented way, applauding when the music was over, or sitting politely through something they didn’t enjoy. They could hum along, dance, or even fall asleep if they felt like it.

Play Listen to La Monte Young's "The Four Dreams of China"
La Monte Young performing “The Well-Tuned Piano" in 1981 as part of the ongoing immersive sound and light experience known as "The Dream House". Photo by John Cliett.
Maya Beiser, musician

“Minimalism was very important because it came at a time when contemporary music had become so complex, so experimental and detached that people turned away from it. Minimalism broke that trend and brought music back to the people.”

At the same time in New York, several other artists were also experimenting with technology and sound. Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley each became engrossed with the capacities for technology to produce and reproduce sounds, as well as the ability to orchestrate repetition via analogue means. Like Debussy before them, they were enthralled by the haunting bell-repetitions of the gamelan; they found D.T. Suzuki’s popularization of Zen Buddhism and its emphasis on present awareness striking; and like Young, they felt traditional Western music had run out of steam.

Reich began experimenting with tape loops to create repeating patterns of sound. Early works such as “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” demonstrated how speech could be repeated and layered over and over, until this repetition gave it structure and coherence, and the sounds of the words simply became musical and not verbal.Also influenced by African musical traditions, and the music of South Asia, Reich found that repeating rhythms could generate transcendent atmospheres, and a feeling of timelessness: as though the listener was not being prepared for a climactic musical finale, but rather suspended in an ocean of music.

Play Listen to Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain"
Left: Steve Reich. Right: Terry Riley in Bonn, 1976, by Uwe Möntmann

Likewise, Terry Riley looked to non-Western traditions to innovate through repetition and drone. Indian classical music – which makes extensive use of drone instruments, as well as repeated phrases – featured prominently in his output. His 1964 piece, “In C,” deploys a simple melody which acquires continuity by being repeated by different instruments, in different rhythms – all the while generating a subtle background drone effect.

Play Listen to Terry Riley's "In C"
Philip Glass in 1977, photo by Betty Freeman

Philip Glass’s works during this time were also characterized by the repetition of simple melodies through which he was able to create rippling parallaxes of sound. By focussing on concision and austerity in the musical phrase, and by repeating these phrases over and over on a piano or using Sine waves, Glass created musical paradoxes: intricate pieces which seem to lose detail through repetition and length. This effect is even visually evident on his scores, with the individual notes repeating to create an almost architectural effect: a series of identical columns holding up the stave.

Not only did all the composers make use of emerging musical technologies, they were each deliberately drawing attention to the timbre of the music itself. They submerged and enveloped audiences in sound, and in doing so, confronted the audiences with their own expectations, and their own experiences of the music, and as such, created a space for the audience to experience the free play of their imaginations. The trance-like state induced in many listeners was what one journalist in the Village Voice referred to when calling these composers, the “Hypnotic School”. Just like the traditional image of hypnotism, states of relaxation could be induced by simple repetitions: follow the pocket watch, tick-tock.

Play Listen to "Music in Twelve Parts" by Philip Glass
Bottom Left: Philip Glass performs a solo loft concert at 10 Elizabeth Street, New York, in the early 1970s. Photo © Randall LaBry

Eventually, minimalism as a movement outgrew its New York loft apartment beginnings. Glass, Reich and Riley went on to become internationally renowned composers, their work featuring heavily in movies and adverts. However, they each also outgrew the self-imposed constraints of minimalism. While paring music down to create trance-like states was interesting, forcing the audience to stay awake could also be enjoyable – as Steve Reich did with his drumming pieces.

Minimalism also influenced succeeding generations of artists: not only minimalist and ambient performers such as Nils Frahm and Brian Eno, but also the wider musical landscape. For example, Eno took minimalism even more mainstream, introducing elements of it to pop music as a producer for U2 and Coldplay, among others.

As for Young, his work took on ever more ambitious proportions, just as he himself became more reclusive. Aiming to unite sound and place permanently, he became more interested in conceptual art. His “Dream House” is an installation piece jointly created by him and his partner, artist Marian Zazeela. The installation features a series of light and sound environments aiming to create a sense of immersion and transcendence for the viewer. However, though Young is credited with being the “daddy” of minimalism (by Brian Eno), he has rarely performed in public since the 80s.

Left: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Top Right: Initiation room N°2, Turin 1971, with Tania Mouraud, Terry Riley, Ann Riley, Pandit Pran Nath, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela

The influence of La Monte Young and the New York Hypnotic School can be felt especially in the flourishing field of spatial sound, an immersive and interactive sound experience that uses advanced technology to create a sense of sound movement and interaction in four-dimensional space.

In many ways, the spatial sound movement has taken Young’s conception of immersive, oceanic sound experiences and brought it into new realms of precision and intensity. Newer technologies can track the listener’s movements to adjust the sound experience in real-time. Multiple speakers are placed in different locations to give the illusion of sound coming from a specific location. Techniques such as wave field synthesis and ambisonics use many speakers or advanced microphone techniques and software to create a realistic sense of sound coming from any location in space. Particularly in the context of healing, Young and the Hypnotic School have had a profound influence on the development of spatial sound as loft concert-like listening sessions and sound baths become commonplace, with the audience lying down and resting to music for extended periods.

Along with our Reethaus at Flussbad in Berlin, the Spatial Sound Institute in Hungary and The Works in Amsterdam are just some of the institutions exploring the healing potential of spatial sound. By submerging people in baths of repeating sounds, these environments can help reduce stress and create room for meditation and recuperation. As scientific research catches up with sonic experimentation, there’s even increasing evidence that sound healing can help reduce anxiety, pain and symptoms connected with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

An emergent, beautiful form of therapy. A wash of sonic waves communicating that it’s safe to let our guards down and relax. Or to put it more simply in the words of Young himself: “If listeners aren’t carried away to Heaven, I’m failing.”

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