by Joseph Nechvatal
Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young
(Oxford University Press, 2012)
Draw a Straight Line and Follow It purports to be a definitive biography of the famous but elusive avant-garde American composer La Monte Young (born 1935) and thus of particular interest to those involved in transcendental black metal, experimental electronica, psychoacoustic drone, and difficult noise music. Or any art practice that treasures indeterminancy, post-pop complexity, stimulating ritual, conceptual audacity, technological sophistication, Gesamtkunstwerk romanticism, or ideals of timelessness and spirituality tied to the fight against the aesthetics of authority. Unfortunately, it can best be construed as a dismal dive into an unbridgeable communicative chasm between factual monograph and speculative-biased agenda. (Full disclosure: I worked closely with Young and his partner/collaborator Marian Zazeela on archiving Young’s extensive Fluxus-era collection, scores and tapes in their Tribeca loft in the late ’70s and early ’80s. My first person observations refute Grimshaw’s fantastic assertion that Young’s Mormon upbringing (that he early on rejected) forms the basis of Young’s oeuvre.)
Grimshaw’s theory of the pull of Mormon esoterica on Young is interesting as wild assumption, (well, no more wild than Mormon exegesis), but abysmal as scholarship. His supplanting of Young’s rigorous theoretical basis for his art with hogwash—he compares the low E flat in the “Deep Pool” section of Young’s “Well-Tuned Piano” with Kolob: a star (or planet) throne (or residence) of God described in Mormon scripture—verges on intellectual vandalism.
Grimshaw, an assistant music professor at Brigham Young University, begins satisfactorily by hooking the reader into the absorbing biography of Young that will appeal to the culturally interested non-specialist. Subsequently he verges off into the nerdy weeds at times concerning the technical aspects of Young’s harmonics, but there are many fascinating facts about the artist’s life to be found here. Grimshaw first recounts Young’s love of natural sustained sounds, like the intriguing wind in the cabin where his Mormon family lived in Bern, Idaho and the continuous buzz of electric transformers at a Conoco gas station that his grandfather managed. But as of age 15, Young eschewed Mormon belief structure as he delved into avant-garde alto saxophone jazz for six years. During his university years, Young was impressed by the music of Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Pérotin, Léonin, Claude Debussy, Indian classical music, and the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. In 1959 Young studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen at Darmstadt.
Young’s “Trio for Strings” (1958) was the breakthrough composition in terms of sustained tones. While Young was still in graduate school his work “Poem for Tables, Chairs, Benches, etc.” (1960) was championed by the experimental composer John Cage who performed it widely. “Poem for Tables, Chairs, Benches, etc. (Parts 1 and 2)” is an early noisescape of howling screeches produced by continuously sliding furniture over the floor. I highly recommend it, as there are so many immersive levels of infinity on which you can enjoy it. Shortly after arriving in New York in 1960, Young curated a concert series in Yoko Ono’s Canal Street loft. This, and Cage’s acceptance, led Young to prominence in the downtown art scene (specifically Fluxus, then Minimalism).
Arty, academic, esoteric, or noisy music may not be for everyone, but we have to admit that captivating art continues to arise from certain obscure alliances. Buying into such contextual schemes is not necessary in order to be deeply affected by art experiences, or to be elucidated by the way in which they seem to bypass cognitive faculties en route to the realm of sensation. Young’s time and harmonic influence on the methodology and terminology of Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground (via John Cale), Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Charlotte Moorman, Cornelius Cardew, Henry Flynt, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Rhys Chatham, and Brian Eno, among others, proves the point.
Artworks inspired by sensory translation have come a long way in terms of the merger of beauty with morality and the pragmatic reorganization of life. If the rigor of the work is read as mystical, that is, a free interpretive act. But the conclusive chapter dedicated to explaining Young’s rejected conservative Mormon religion in exaggerated relationship to his compelling experimental art is harebrained and spoils the book. This pointless chapter could have delved into the vital Theatre of Eternal Music years or Young’s sustained interest in the work of Pandit Pran Nath or Hermann von Helmholtz. Or it could have drawn parallels to other art-related neo-Dada post-Cage noise music continuums so active today through historical contrasts and comparisons; say between Yves Klein’s “Monotone Symphony” (1949, formally “The Monotone-Silence Symphony”) that consisted of a single 20-minute sustained chord followed by a 20-minute silence (performed in 1960).
We expect a degree of enriching leakage in any cultural study, yet Young’s mental world—his conscious aesthetic, esoteric, and scientific research—should not have been hijacked and flipped back into his supposed unconscious childhood circumstances so cavalierly, just because the author is a Mormon. That is not following a straight line. That is a disgrace to scholarship and to the challenge of Young’s epic theory of art as a continuous forward action.
Joseph Nechvatal teaches at the School of Visual Arts. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press.