The Hum of the City: La Monte Young and the Birth of NYC Drone

May 1, 2013

For the last 20 years, passersby on Church Street, just south of the triangle now occupied by the Tribeca Grand Hotel, may have noticed a magenta glow coming from a third-floor loft window. Ring the buzzer, ascend the stairs, and you will find yourself at The Dream House, an electronic sound and light installation.

Even Brian Eno, only 15 years Young’s junior, once said, “La Monte Young is the daddy of us all.”

Maintained by composer La Monte Young and artist Marian Zazeela, it realizes an idea Young conceived 50 years ago of a building in which single tones would be sustained around the clock. Young – a teenage jazz saxophone prodigy who turned to the avant-garde and became virtually synonymous with drone music – is elusive; he hardly ever gives concerts and his music is rarely performed by anyone other than himself or ensembles of his own making. He has only a handful of officially released recordings to his name, all of which are out of print and command large sums on the collectors’ market (and his own website).

In fact, The Dream House, which is open three days a week, albeit seasonally, is Young’s one point of access to the public. Like his predecessor John Cage, Young exemplifies the contemporary composer whose music is seldom heard but whose influence is pervasive. Even Brian Eno, only 15 years Young’s junior, once said, “La Monte Young is the daddy of us all.”

Start digging around in latter 20th-century music history and Young quickly emerges as a pioneering figure. He was the first post-Cage composer of note to decisively embrace tonality, the first to make a practice of utilizing drones and/or as little as two pitches. He encountered Terry Riley as a fellow aspiring composer when both were graduate students in the late ’50s and greatly affected Riley’s own break with serialism, the atonal, often dissonant form that had dominated modern music from the turn of the century onwards (as exemplified by composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky).

The Velvet Underground is unthinkable without La Monte Young.

Riley began working with modal, highly repetitive instrumental and tape music, subsequently meeting and influencing another like-minded young composer, Steve Reich, who in turn met and influenced a then equally unknown Philip Glass – the three (and often Young as well) were later corralled by critics and historians as the prime movers of an entire musical movement: minimalism. Young was affiliated with the Fluxus artists when he arrived in New York in the early ’60s and organized what is said to be the first series of downtown loft concerts in New York (at Yoko Ono’s home on Chambers Street), paving the way for later Lower Manhattan avant-garde venues like The Kitchen, Knitting Factory, Experimental Intermedia, Roulette, Tonic, and Issue Project Room.

The Velvet Underground’s John Cale played amplified viola with Young from 1963 to ’65, leaving when the Velvets began to pick up steam. There’s a saying about the Velvet Underground’s first album, often attributed to Eno, that not many people bought it when it was first released, but everyone who did went out and formed a band. Maybe now, a half-century later, the people who have heard The Velvet Underground outnumber the bands that were inspired by them. But one thing’s for sure: The Velvet Underground is unthinkable without La Monte Young.

The Velvet Underground - Venus in Furs - Live

The story goes like this: John Cale first joined forces with Lou Reed in a rather ramshackle outfit called The Primitives, organized to play a few shows to promote the gimmicky singles Reed was writing and recording (under various fake names) as a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records. The other two members of The Primitives were also Young associates: violinist/filmmaker Tony Conrad and land artist/ drummer Walter De Maria. The Velvet Underground grew out of this social milieu – in fact, it was Conrad who found the book from which the band took its name, and the Velvets’ original drummer, the poet Angus MacLise, had also played with Young. Musically, Cale brought the viola drones he was playing for hours at a time with Young to Reed’s “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs”; Cale’s hypnotic piano part in “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is also derivative of Young’s keyboard style. And Reed’s Metal Machine Music double album, created by leaving several guitars tuned to the same single note to feed back while leaning against amps, namechecks Young on its back cover.

The drone aspect of the Velvet Underground reverberated over the next four decades, proving substantiative to the trance-inducing ’70s progressive/psychedelic Krautrock bands Can, Neu!, Ash Ra Tempel and Faust. Later underground groups such as Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, and Spacemen 3 also bear traces of the band in their music. Away from a specific post-Velvets sensibility, Earth’s Dylan Carlson began listening to Young and responded with Earth 2 (1992), which melds the drone aesthetic to heavy metal guitar riffs; it culminates in an open E chord left to hang in perpetual stasis for 30 minutes. Sunn O))), a group partially formed in tribute to Earth, picked up where Carlson left off, making drone metal a certifiable micro-genre in the early 2000s. The rock lineage continues through the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ drummer Brian Chase, who worked at The Dream House as a sound monitor and has recently released an album called Drums and Drones that documents his own work with overtone-based music.

Rhys Chatham - Guitar Trio

Two further examples of New York’s most innovative music can be traced back to Young’s circles. In the early ’70s Young employed Rhys Chatham, then barely out of his teens, to tune his piano. Chatham was a minimalist at the time, creating an hour-long piece for two gongs (performed by himself and Yoshi Wada, another Young student and a Fluxus artist) and playing in trio configurations with fellow composers Tony Conrad, Charlemagne Palestine and Laurie Spiegel. Later in the decade, after seeing The Ramones, he developed a drone piece for rock-band instrumentation, “Guitar Trio.”

One might think of drones as meditative, and New York is not a particularly meditative place.

Glenn Branca was originally playing “Guitar Trio” with Chatham, but soon developed his own ideas about injecting rock-derived multiple electric guitars into avant-classicism and formed his own ensemble (which at various times included members of Sonic Youth, Swans and Helmet, as well as Ned Sublette, another former Young student). Branca, informed by Young’s intoned works, also went through a phase of composing using just intonation, an alternate tuning system considered more precise than the equal temperament system that has become uniform in Western instrumentation.

Trumpeter Jon Hassell met Young through Terry Riley (he plays on the original 1968 recording of Riley’s In C, a seminal minimalist composition) and performed with Young in the early ’70s, as documented on La Monte Young/Marian Zazeela Dream House 78’ 17”, a legendary LP released by the French Shandar label. Taking the world-music fusions of Miles Davis’ On the Corner album as a starting point – but also impacted by working with Young and studying with Indian raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath (of whom Young was a committed disciple) – Hassell developed his Fourth World concept, finding connections and then dissolving boundaries between ethnic, electronic, jazz and avant-classical musics. Hassell’s Vernal Equinox became a favorite of Brian Eno’s around the time Eno was heading into ambient music, and the two made a collaborative album, 1980’s Possible Musics. (Eno also worked with Cale, and even performed one of Young’s scores while an art student in the late ’60s.)

The confluence of sonic vocabularies in Hassell’s approach, along with the denser, darker pockets of Eno’s ambient work, laid the groundwork for the so-called “illbient” scene in New York in the ’90s. Illbient was ambient music that took into account the flux of city living; it favored harder urban sonorities that differentiated it from ambient’s often-pastoral evocations. Sure enough, one of the leading proponents of illbient was yet another former student of Young’s: trumpeter Ben Neill, who appears on Young’s 1991 recording The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. “The concept of the drone is such a great vehicle for the integration of all sorts of different musical elements,” Neill told The Wire in 1996. “Whereas if you look at the ’80s approach to integration of these exploded vocabularies of music that we’re working with now, it was really about juxtaposition, not really about integration. That’s where my kinship with the whole ambient/ illbient scene comes from.”

When you step inside The Dream House, you’re enveloped by a voluminous, dizzying chord emanating from four speakers.

Crossing over from the avant-classical scene (he was also music director at The Kitchen at this time), Neill’s participation is in itself indicative of illbient’s porous nature, but his emphasis on holistic integration as a kind of drone is a key to locating the idea of drone in the psyche of New York City itself. One might think of drones as meditative, and New York is not a particularly meditative place. But “the city that never sleeps” is decidedly a natural environment for the kind of drone that emanates from continual human and mechanical activity, what Eno once termed “the general hum of the city.” The constant energy of New York is what’s reflected in its drone music.

When you step inside The Dream House, you’re enveloped by a voluminous, dizzying chord emanating from four speakers – it fills the room with buzzing overtones that seem to appear and disappear with even the slightest movement of your head. It’s exhilarating and almost hallucinatory; often billed by Young as a kind of respite from the frenzy of NYC living, in many ways it actually reflects the panoramic onslaught of stimuli just outside the Church Street door.

La Monte Young - The Second Dream of the High Tension Line Step

In early ’60s rehearsals at Young’s loft, Young, Cale and Conrad tuned their instruments to what Young called “the underlying drone of the city,” i.e. the 60-cycle hum of the city’s electrical system, as heard from your refrigerator or by tapping a guitar cable. Young recalled listening as a child to the droning sound of a power plant next to the gas station his uncle ran. In the ’60s the late percussionist and sound artist Max Neuhaus had a similar fascination, leading listening trips around the city, including one to the Con Edison power plant on 14th Street. In the ’90s, Beth Coleman, one of the organizers of the itinerant illbient party Soundlab, told a journalist, “Since I’ve been DJing, I don’t hear the city the way I used to. I have a friend who lives on the eastside near a big power plant. One morning she was walking home from one of our shows, and she heard the hum of the plant and it sounded like music to her.”

Like their creator, Young’s drones are reclusive and must be sought out.

It is not insignificant to note that Neuhaus took complete strangers to listen to the power plant and Coleman organized floating club nights, while Young’s communions with the electrical system took place with chosen co-conspirators behind closed doors. Like their creator, Young’s drones are reclusive and must be sought out. But if you go to the traffic triangle between 45th and 46th Streets in Times Square and there’s not too much extraneous noise, you will hear a drone coming up from the street grates. It’s a sound installation by Neuhaus called “Times Square,” first set up in 1977, dismantled in 1992, and reinstated in 2002.

Unlike The Dream House, the point is not to get lost in the drone itself or to initiate a “spiritual retreat” from one’s surroundings. “Times Square” situates a drone as a steadystate aural marker amidst the hubbub of one of the world’s busiest intersections, matching an unchanging electronic chord to the hive-like drone of the city’s hustle and bustle. Rather than compete with the volume of its environment, “Times Square” functions as a barometer of Midtown noise levels. Its audibility changes with the amount of sound generated in its immediate vicinity; during the day it’s often drowned out, revealing itself more in the evening hours when the traffic lessens.

The Dream House is ultimately a private concert of sorts, complete with “stage lighting” (“The Magenta Lights,” created by Young’s wife and collaborator Zazeela) and thrice-weekly scheduled “performances” (Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 2pm to midnight). “Times Square” is a public artwork par excellence, open at all times to anyone who chances upon it and probably subliminally affecting those who pass through it every day without ever knowing it’s there. Unmarked and unadvertised, “Times Square” calls no attention to itself, yet – in its unassuming way – it’s the ultimate monument to the intangible energy that forever characterizes New York City.

A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.

Header image © RBMA

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