La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela – The Well-Tuned Piano in The Magenta Lights (2000 / 2018)
There is a latent, often unspoken logic running below a great deal of contemporary music journalism, held by writers and their readers alike – that the offerings of a critics are there to operate as positions of taste and proximity, validation, or as indications of an object’s existence, rather than as gestures of analysis or critical evaluation. This interpretation of criticism’s operation is nothing new, but these sentiments have clearly swelled in recent years – so much so that it’s easy to wonder if a hard fought piece of analysis, stretching over multiple pages, has any more effect than picture of record cover in a well curated Instagram feed.
It’s not without reason. The internet has empowered the listener in incredible ways, allowing them to hear, interpret, and make up their own minds with a search and a click – and, faced with with an ever thinning number of reputable number of music publications, it’s become far easier to find new music than it is to encounter the spaces which point toward them. It hasn’t helped that what little music writing which remains, has rarely adapted to the new demands placed upon it, or feels invested in. To truly attempted to understand something – ultimately rendering a well considered and objective analysis and criticism, takes a great deal of work and skill, none which pays its worth in salt these days. It’s hard to blame critics for mindlessly churning it and moving on, but, faced with a stream of conclusions which might be reached by anyone with ears, it’s equally hard to fault readers for their loss of understanding in importance and power of what great criticism can bring into our lives.
This phenomena – the contemporary loss in understanding of the importance of criticism, was one of the key aggregators of my founding The Hum. I felt like the music deserved more, and that the reader should demand more. I wanted to help form an understanding of context, not curate a series of associations or nodes of taste. I wanted to analyze and understand, not simply indicate or point. But, inevitably, there are cases where the gravity of my own taste is front and center. Equally there are those within which little needs to be said – where pointing and indicating is the most needed act. This is one such case. It is a reissue, entering the world silently with almost no fanfare or press, of a work which nearly all Hum readers will be readily aware – one which I need to say almost nothing about – the sprawling 6 hour and 24 minute DVD of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s The Well-Tuned Piano In The Magenta Lights, issued by Just Dreams. Presuming to offer some unique insight into this work would be fools errand. It is widely know, loved, and understood by nearly every fan of avant-garde and experimental music. What needs to be said has been said. All that is left to do is point.
The world of musical Minimalism – one of the great creative revolutions of the 20th century, is marked by a canon of iconic works – Johnson’s November, Riley’s In C, Conrad’s Four Violins, Reich’s Drumming, Palestine’s Four Manifestations On Six Elements, Wada’s Lament For The Rise And Fall Of The Elephantine Crocodile, the list goes on. Even in the face of these towering marvels, little comes close to wild ambition of La Monte Young’s great, evolving masterpiece, The Well Tuned Piano – among the most beloved works in the body of Minimalism’s output. Initially recorded in 1981, issued as a now impossibly rare X5 LP set in 1987 – 81 X 25 6:17:50 – 11:18:59 PM NYC, Young’s continuous 6 hour-24 minute performance of the work was recorded again in 1987 and released as a DVD in 2000, with the new subtitle, In The Magenta Lights, quickly going out of print and remaining so ever since. For the first time since its initial released, the composer’s own MELA Foundation and Just Dreams have issued a new deluxe DVD edition. It ain’t cheap, but it’s worth every penny.
Begun in 1964 and premiered ten years later, The Well-Tuned Piano, despite it’s consuming and immersive duration, is regarded by its composer as an unfinished work, slowly evolving in his hand, mind, and ears over the decades. Utilizing his own just-intonated tuning system, divided into seven structural / thematic intervals of varying length, the work, being largely improvised, is ever-changing with no specific form. Considered by many to be among the great achievements of 20th-century music, it is one those rare works which is known by almost every fan of avant-garde music, while having been heard and seen in its totality by comparatively very few – the Gramavision release being virtually unobtainable, the initial DVD having been only issued in an edition constrained to the low hundreds, and performances having been scarce at best.
This realization of The Well-Tuned Piano In Magenta Lights was recorded and filmed in concert May 10, 1987, at 155 Mercer Street, New York City, with the subtitled referring to its accompanying light-installation by Marian Zazeela, Young’s partner and collaborator since the early 1960’s. It’s a work of shimmering sonority and challenging relationships, deserving every ounce of its legendary status – an entire rethinking of the way the piano is seen, understood, and heard, singing down the decades since its early versions began to appear.
Issued by the Young in signed and unsigned editions, this new edition expands the original accompany booklet, including La Monte and Marian’s essays on their works, to 52 pages with a new essay by their disciple Jung Hee Choi, offering insight for the first time into the tuning underlying the work. I doubt this edition will sit around for long. You can check out a sample below, and pick it up from The Mela Foundation or SoundOhm.