LA MONTE YOUNG
Tulane Drama Review Vol. 10, no. 2, Winter 1965 pp 73-83
Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered to a class in contemporary music at the Ann Halprin Dancer's Workshop, Summer Session 1960, Kentfield, California. The lecture is written in sections, which are separated below. Each section originally was one page or a group of pages stapled together. Any number of them may be read in any order. The order and selection are determined by chance, thereby bringing about new relationships between parts and consequently new meanings. Three sections of the lecture were originally published in KULCHUR 10, Summer, 1963.
My "Composition 1960 #9" consists of a straight line drawn on a piece of paper. It is to be performed and comes with no instructions. The night I met Jackson Mac Low we went down to my apartment and he read some of his poems for us. Later, when he was going to go home, he said he'd write out directions to get to his place so we could come and visit him sometime. He happened to pick up "Composition 1960 #9" and said, "Can I write it here?" I said, "No, wait, that's a piece. Don't write on that." He said, "Whadaya mean a piece? That's just a line."
While Dennis Johnson was preparing Avalanche #1 in Los Angeles he sent me a letter describing parts of the concert. The last piece on the program was to be his composition, "Din." In "Din" the performers (he hoped for at least forty) are placed in the audience ahead of time. The composition is performed in the dark. The performers have various noises to articulate. There are solo noises, noises produced by small groups and noises produced by the entire ensemble. Some of the noises are shouting, clapping, screaming, talking about anything, whispering about anything, stamping of feet, shuffling of feet, and various combinations of these. Most of the solo sounds are unique and not easily described. Some of the sound textures in the piece are two and three minutes long, and there are often long silences between them. The spectators, of course, were not to be told that the performers were among them. As I mentioned, this piece was to end the program. Dennis wrote, "After clap piece (he had not then named it "Din") is over (and concert over also) the people will remain in the dark and silence forever or at least until they decide to leave as we will not prompt them with any more lights or any kind of please leave signal." When we performed Avalanche #1 it was an intense and very new situation. "Din" was glorious. After it was over we sneaked out of the auditorium to watch and see if and when the audience would ever come out. One of the few readable sentences on the programs we had distributed at the doors read, "Concert is three hours long Concert is three hours long Concert is thr" written all the way across the page. There was at least half an hour left. We waited. What little of the audience still remained finally came out a few at a time. At last two enraged critics from the UCLA paper came over to us and asked if we had any statement to make about the concert before they crucified us in Monday's edition. I looked around and found a paper in my pocket. It was the performing instructions for "Din." I said, "Yres, I would like to say something." I read, "Shuffle feet for 260." They said, "Is that all?" I said, "Yes." They went away. Then somebody asked, "Are you a part of Zen'?" Dennis said, "No, but Zen is a part of us."
* * *
One night Diane' (the poet Diane Wakoski) said, "Maybe the butterfly piece should begin when a butterfly happens to fly into the auditorium."
Often I hear somebody say that the most important thing about a work of art is not that it be new but that it be good. But if we define good as what we like, which is the only definition of good I find useful when discussing art, and then say that we are interested in what is good, it seems to me that we will always be interested in the same things (that is, the same things that we already like).
I am not interested in good; I am interested in new - even if this includes the possibility of its being evil.
Diane suggested that perhaps the reason the director of the noon concerts at the University would not allow me to perform "Composition 1960 #5" on the third concert of contemporary music that we gave was that he thought it wasn't music. "Composition 1960 #5" is the piece in which the butterfly or any number of butterflies is turned loose in the performance area. I asked her if she thought the butterfly piece was music to any less degree than "Composition 1960 #2" which consists of simply building a fire in front of the audience. She said, "Yes, because in the fire piece at least there are some sounds." I said that I felt certain the butterfly made sounds, not only with the motion of its wings but also with the functioning of its body and that unless one was going to dictate how loud or soft the sounds had to be before they could be allowed into the realms of music that the butterfly piece was music as much as the fire piece. She said she thought that at least one ought to be able to hear the sounds. I said that this was the usual attitude of human beings that everything in the world should exist for them and that I disagreed. I said it didn't seem to me at all necessary that anyone or anything should have to hear sounds and that it is enough that they exist for themselves. When I wrote this story out for this lecture I added, "If you think this attitude is too extreme, do you think sounds should be able to hear people?"
When I sent "Compositions 1960, Nos. 2-5" to some of my friends, I received different comments from all of them concerning which ones they liked or disliked with one exception. Almost all of them wrote back to me saying they liked "Number 5" which consists, quite simply, of turning a butterfly or any number of butterflies loose in the auditorium. Diane agreed that it was a very lovely piece and said it would seem almost impossible for anyone not to like it. At any rate, I had hoped to perform either "Composition 1960 #2," which consists of building a fire in front of the audience, or "Composition 1960 #5," the butterfly piece, on whatever program came up next. Thus, when the time arrived to do another noon concert of contemporary music at the University in Berkeley, I told a friend who was communicating with the director of the noon concerts that I would like to do either "Composition 1960 #2" or "#5." The next day he phoned and said he had asked the director. The director had said that both pieces were absolutely out of the question. I was shocked. I could easily understand anyone's concern for a fire in the auditorium, but what could be wrong with a butterfly? Well, "Compositions 1960 Numbers 2 and 5" were banned from the auditorium and we performed "Composition 1960 #4" instead.
Sometime afterward Diane received a letter from Susan, who was visiting in New York. At the end of the letter she wrote, "I saw a boy in the park today running, quite terrified, from a small yellow butterfly."
When Dennis Johnson and I were staying at Richard Maxfield's apartment in New York, we discussed the amount of choice that a composer retained in a composition that used chance or indeterminacy. We generally agreed that the composer was always left with some choices of one sort or another. At the very least, he had to decide what chances he would take or what he would leave to indeterminacy in his composition. Some time after Dennis and I had both left New York he visited me from Los Angeles. He brought me a copy of his then new composition, 'The Second Machine," which we were going to do on a program of contemporary music at the University in Berkeley along with Cage's "Imaginary Landscapes #4 For Twelve Radios" (which Dennis was conducting), Richard Maxfield's "Cough Music," and "Vision," a piece of my own. A short time after he had arrived at my apartment in Berkeley Dennis mentioned that he had been thinking of what we had discussed in New York and that he had discovered a piece which was entirely indeterminacy and left the composer out of it. I asked, "What is it'?" He tore off a piece of paper and wrote something on it. Then he handed it to me. It said, "LISTEN."
á * *
recently completed "Compositions 1960, Numbers 2 Through 5".
"Composition 1960, #2" reads:
Build a fire in front of the audience. Preferably, use wood although other combustibles may be used as necessary for starting the fire or controlling the smoke. The fire may be of any size, but it should not be the kind which is associated with another object, such as a candle or a cigarette lighter. The lights may be turned out.
After the fire is burning, the builder(s) may sit by and watch it for the duration of the composition; however, he (they) should not sit between the fire and the audience in order that its members will be able to see and enjoy the fire.
The composition may be of any duration.
In the event that the performance is broadcast, the microphone may be brought up close to the fire.
"Composition 1960, #5" reads:
Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area.
When the composition is over, be sure to allow the butterfly to fly away outside.
The composition may be any length, but if an unlimited amount of time is available, the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.
Some time after the pieces were finished I sent copies around to some of my friends. After a few weeks, Tony Conrad wrote back from Denmark that he enjoyed the fire music very much, that he thought the sounds of a fire were very lovely and that he had even, himself, once considered using the sounds of fire in a composition although he had not at that time been prepared to write anything like "Composition 1960 #2." He said, however, that he didn't understand "Composition 1960, #5." In my answering letter I wrote, "Isn't it wonderful if someone listens to something he is ordinarily supposed to look at'?"
In another letter Terry Jennings wrote, "the cat is in the middle of time. his tail sometimes hits the sky (just the low parts below the branches.) he lies down a lot"
I have finally begun to hear from Dennis Johnson again. Terry Riley wrote me from San Francisco: "guess what? - - - dennis is here - - - he came in new years eve - - - we went out to ann hal prins yesterday and dennis did some real good things like take a shower in her shower while her little girls looked on and went down the road and borrowed an onion from a neighbor and stuff like that ... "
Every word I say contributes to the lie of art.
Once when Richard Maxfield, Dennis Johnson, and I were talking about Christian Wolff at Richard's apartment in New York Dennis said, "He's only a wolf in a gilded cage." More recently, Richard and I were discussing how original Christian Wolff had been and how many of his ideas had been ahead of everybody. Richard said, "Perhaps what Dennis should have said was that John is only a cage around a gilded wolf." When I told these stories to Diane she said, "They both seem to be wrong. Dennis should have said, 'He's only a gilded wolf in a cage,' and Maxfield should have said, 'John is only a gilded cage around a wolf.''' After Diane and I had decided what everybody meant and should have said, I concluded it didn't really matter anyway since the whole series of stories simply amounted to a study in tarnish.
It is often necessary that one be able to ask, "Who is John Cage?"
Before we gave the first noon concert of contemporary music which I conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, I asked Dennis Johnson if he would write something about his composition, "The Second Machine," which we were doing on the program because I planned to comment on each piece. Dennis wrote:
Spin the needle three times. If it ever falls off, don't bother. Cheating is all right, as much as comfortable, I don't know how many possibilities and see if I care. The scores are fire and water proof. Play on either side or the edge, if you get tired, and don't call me for information while I'm burning old scores. May be played under water.
At the end he signed his name, Dennis Johnson.
Last year on one of the occasions I was in Los Angeles, several of us were at my grandmother's house listening to electronic music by Richard Maxfield which he had just sent me from New York. As we were listening my grandmother, who has never been particularly good at keeping things straight, asked Dennis Johnson, "Did you write this'?" referring to Maxfield's composition, "Sine Music." Dennis replied "Oh, many times."
When Karlheinz Stockhausen gave a lecture at the University in Berkeley he talked of some work he had been doing with television. He said he tried to let the new medium, the television machine, inspire the form of the composition. At this point someone in the audience said to his neighbor, "But I thought music was supposed to be for people."
One of my favorite poets is Po Chu-i. He lived from 772-846. This poem is translated by Ching Ti.
I lay my harp on the curved table,
Sitting there idly, filled only with emotions.
Why should I trouble to play?
A breeze will come and sweep the strings.
I wish I could remember what Terry Jennings told us about that spider that is found in Antarctica. It was when Terry visited New York. We were having dinner and I started asking him about what kinds of animals and plants lived in Antarctica. He said that the scientists had discovered a spider that stays frozen most of the year around. It seems like he said, "about eleven months of the year." Then, when the warmer weather comes, the spider thaws out and comes to life-for about a month. He also said that maybe the spider lives to be many years old. I think he said, "Maybe a hundred or a hundred and sixty years old."
When I asked Diane to write down Dennis' statement about his having written Maxfield's "Sine Music" many times, Dennis said, "What for? Are you going to give another concert?"
The trouble with most of the music of the past is that man has tried to make the sounds do what he wants them to do. If we are really interested in learning about sounds, it seems to me that we should allow the sounds to be sounds instead of trying to force them to do things that are mainly pertinent to human existence. If we try to enslave some of the sounds and force them to obey our will, they become useless. We can learn nothing or little from them because they will simply reflect our own ideas. If, however, we go to the sounds as they exist and try to experience them for what they are-that is, a different kind of existence-then we may be able to learn something new. A while back, when Terry Riley and I first met Ann Halprin, we worked with her many times doing improvisations. It was very enjoyable. I remember one night when it took one of the dancers, who was hanging from the wall, at least half an hour to work his way around the room. These evenings were especially conducive to the discovery of new sounds. We found many we had never heard before. Along with the new sounds, of course, we found new ways of producing them, and we also reconsidered sounds we had never previously listened to so closely. Sometimes we produced sounds that lasted over an hour. If it was a loud sound my ears would often not regain their normal hearing for several hours, and when my hearing slowly did come back it was almost as much a new experience as when I had first begun to hear the sound. These experiences were very rewarding and perhaps help to explain what I mean when I say, as I often do, that I like to get inside of a sound. When the sounds are very long, as many of those we made at Ann Halprin's were, it can be easier to get inside of them. Sometimes when I was making a long sound, I began to notice that I was looking at the dancers and the room from the sound instead of hearing the sound from some position in the room. I began to feel the parts and motions of the sound more, and I began to see how each sound was its own world and that this world was only similar to our world in that we experienced it through our own bodies, that is, in our own terms. I could see that sounds and all other things in the world were just as important as human beings and that if we could to some degree give ourselves up to them, the sounds and other things that is, we enjoyed the possibility of learning something new. By giving ourselves up to them, I mean getting inside of them to some extent so that we can experience another world. This is not so easily explained but more easily experienced. Of course if one is not willing to give a part of himself to the sound, that is to reach out to the sound, but insists on approaching it in human terms, then he will probably experience little new but instead find only what he already knows defined within the terms with which he approached the experience. But if one can give up a part of himself to the sound, and approach the sound as a sound, and enter the world of the sound, then the experience need not stop there but may be continued much further, and the only limits are the limits each individual sets for himself. When we go into the world of a sound, it is new. When we prepare to leave the world of the sound, we expect to return to the world we previously left. We find, however, that when the sound stops, or we leave the area in which the sound is being made, or we just plain leave the world of the sound to some degree, that the world into which we enter is not the old world we left but another new one. This is partly because we experienced what was the old world with the added ingredient of the world of the sound. Perhaps it is safe for me to mention now that once you enter a new world, of a sound, or any other world, you will never really leave it. Still, the fact that one carries some parts of previous worlds with him does not in the least prevent one from entering new ones. In fact, if one considers a new combination of old ingredients to be something new, these carried parts of previous worlds may enhance new ones although they (the new combinations) need by no means be the main substance of a new world.
When I told Richard Brautigan that I liked to get inside of sounds, he said that he didn't really understand what I meant because he didn't visualize a shape when he heard a sound, and he imagined that one must conceive of a shape if he is to speak of getting inside of something. Then he asked, "Is it like being alone'?" I said, "Yes."
I used to talk about the new eating. One time Terry Riley said, "Yeah, even the cooks'll get rebellious. We'll walk into a hamburger stand and order something to eat. In a few minutes the cook'll give us some salt. Just salt. Then one of us will say, 'What? Is this all'?' And the cook'll answer, 'Whatsamatter, don't cha like static eating?'"
In his lecture, "Indeterminacy," John Cage mentions going to a concert and finding that one of the composers had written in the program notes that he felt there was too much suffering in the world. After the concert John Cage said to this composer that he had enjoyed the music but he didn't agree with his statement about too much suffering in the world. The composer said, "What? Don't you think there is enough?" to which Cage replied that he thought there was just the right amount. Later, in a letter, Dennis Johnson wrote to me, "Do you think there is too much Evil in the world? John Cage thinks there is just the right amount. I think there is too much world in the Evil." Some time after Dennis' letter I remembered that Richard Huelsenbeck had contributed another permutation to that sentence. At one of those Dada lectures he gave in Berlin, he had made the statement that the war had not been bloody enough.
The summer I lived in San Francisco Terry Jennings wrote me in one of his letters, "Have you ever seen any pictures of Antarctica? I saw a book of color pictures of the sea and ice and mountains and cliffs. Colors I hadn't seen before for water and ice. Down there the explorers (in certain places above hidden crevasses) could hear ice breaking and falling underneath their tents all the time and the sounds would get louder during the day and softer at night."
Once I tried lots of mustard on a raw turnip. I liked it better than any Beethoven I had ever heard.