La Monte Young, now 86, has released a lot of music in recent years.
In 2018, this composer and multi-instrumentalist, famous as the ancestor of minimalism, reissued a six-hour and 24-minute version of his gigantic work “The Well-Tuned Piano”. Last year, a significant portion of its slender catalog, including some long out of print on CD, hit the Bandcamp digital platform.
More recently, Young finally released a recording of his groundbreaking composition, “Trio for Strings”, which he originally wrote in 1958, while beginning a study period at the University of California, Berkeley.
All of this activity comes as a bit of a surprise, because the student composer who shocked his colleagues with “Trio” – a nearly hour-long piece that used almost exclusively long, sustained tones – is famous for do not release albums. For decades you had to hunt down a bootleg of the play to experience it.
His official downtime streak finally came to an end late last year, when the Dia Art Foundation released a four-LP box set of a 182-minute live performance of “Trio” which was recorded during a series of concerts in 2015.
Over the decades, Young didn’t just sit on the hardware; he worked on it continually, even devising a new chord in just intonation, to better express some of its harmonic content. Speaking to William Robin for The New York Times ahead of the live performance captured on the new version, Young said of the newly tuned and lengthened version: “It’s how it really should have been, and maybe, and will be.”
At that time, ‘Trio’ was designed for an augmented string quartet comprising two cellists, in order to avoid having to hold double strings in harmony for too long periods of time. The new box set lists the composition dates as “1958-1984-1998-2001-2005-2015”, a gestation of 57 years.
The new version is undeniably expensive, at $196. Along with the four LPs, the box also includes a download code for a CD-quality single-track file of the three-hour work, via Bandcamp. (Young’s other digital albums on Bandcamp range between $14 and $49 — the most expensive being the price of an audio version of this six-plus-hour performance of “The Well-Tuned Piano.”)
Is this “Trio” worth it? I got my copy for free – but as someone who paid bargain price for Young knockoffs and out of print records in the pre-critical era, I can’t imagine not saving up to buy it if I had to do it.
The journey begins with a 33-minute exposition section, in which Young’s 12-tone organizing row is listed, very gradually. Compared to the recapitulation of these notes around the two hour and nine minute mark, the entry of certain notes during the exposition hits harder.
But the players – Charles Curtis and Reynard Rott on cellos, with Erik Carlson and Christopher Otto both doubling on viola and violin – have such a precise sense of intonation that the material maintains its wonderfully harmonious profile. This is true even during the show’s hottest passage, a high tetrachord of B, F sharp, F and E that emerges at the 16th minute. (The absence of discordant acoustic beats is due to the just intonation tuning and accuracy of these players.)
About two hours later – after the show’s serial-style transformations have run their course – that same chord returns during the recap. But it’s now beautiful in a different way, thanks to voice changes.
Otto, the violinist, wrote in an email that this was his favorite part of the performance, quoting “how the whole sound merges and resonates” and adding: “We also stagger the bowing changes from a particular way that becomes a beautiful meditative ritual.”
This recording of “Trio” is essential in helping us understand not only the growth of Young, but also that of minimalism. Otto, a composer himself, took ideas gleaned from Young and used them in his own songwriting practice, such as in the recent Greyfade label release “rag′sma” and in his dizzying bumblebee composition” Violin Octet”.
“I had been interested in just intonation and connections to mathematical structures, influenced in particular by Babbitt and Xenakis,” Otto said, “and Young’s music really made me aware of the richness of the apparent stasis.”
Let this be a word of warning for anyone impatient. If you try to jump to a supposedly dramatic climax, it won’t pay off. In Young’s work, one cannot feel the peaks of intensity without grasping the whole.
And besides, you will miss many other things that transport. During the lengthy developmental section of “Trio”, I love a few briefer groupings of notes that reflect Young’s early enthusiasm for the second Viennese school – especially Webern’s epigrammatic style. That you can also hear bluesy Americana in some harmonies speaks to the vast stylistic synthesis of the world.
An essay by Young in the accompanying booklet, however, sets out his thoughts on the limits of serialism. “Composers like Webern, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote small dots spread over time,” he writes. “The tonal aspects of the system were understated and the democratic aspects of the system were emphasized, probably because in the equal temperament system it was so inharmonious to hold the tones for a long time.”
It is a well-observed overview of 20th century music. But when processing this extended new recording of “Trio”, I also found myself thinking about recent long-form works in the film world. After watching Paul Schrader’s latest film, “The Card Counter” – a hypnotic slow burner starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish – I picked up Schrader’s book “Transcendental Style in Film”.
This text from the early 1970s gives Schrader’s thoughts on directors moving slowly and decisively, but in unpredictable ways. Even more intriguing is a new preface he wrote for the latest edition of the book, in 2018. Here Schrader distinguishes the “transcendental” style of Ozu and others from what came after, namely the movement of “slow cinema” — think directors like Apichatpong. Weerasethakul and Hou Hsiao-hsien – which is now familiar to film festival-goers.
“They take the viewer away from ‘experience’, i.e. immediate emotional involvement,” Schrader writes of slow cinema, adding, “It’s different from modernist distancing devices in other arts to the same degree as cinema is different from earlier art forms.
I underlined my copy and noted: “Paul Schrader needs to hear “String Trio”.
With this latest, just intonation version of “Trio”, Young has perfected his response to serial lore. And in doing so, the composer took a reverse path to that which Schrader witnessed in the film world: Young began with works that confronted audiences with slow, conceptual provocations, and has since gradually turned his ideas towards even more expressive ideas, transcendent endings – whether in his latest performance of “The Well-Tuned Piano”, his buzzing blues-rock album “Just Stompin'” or this new “Trio”.
Or at least that’s my point of view. The composer could have a different analysis. But now that Young’s music is more widely released, a larger community of listeners can begin to compare our own notes. Now, as I experience the final dyad of G and C in the cellos, I hear an even larger sense of emotional distance traveled over the course of the work. (This ending might even work as an alternate soundtrack for the final shot of “The Card Counter.”)
In My Ear, Young has revisited his student exercise – the original minimalist big bang when it comes to sustained tones – and made room for greater feel and emotional release. The fact that he did this while extending his length to a demanding new scope makes his achievement all the more remarkable.