January 30, 2009

La Monte Young, Mormon Composer

The contemporary art world's three most [only?] prominent Mormon artists are Wayne Thiebaud, Paul McCarthy, and La Monte Young. Of the three, I'd have to say Young is at once the least well known, the most highly influential, and, surprisingly, the most intrinsically Mormon in his work and outlook. I suspect that most people who know Young's work--and Young himself, for that matter--would agree only with the middle statement.

Young is best known for his minimalist musical compositions, which use extended harmonic tones to explore concepts like time and duration. His work sits alongside other major music figures like John Cage and influenced younger minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Technically, because he composes music, and because his greatest prominence comes from the minimalist classical music world he helped pioneer, you could argue Young's not really an artist artist. He certainly doesn't sell art in galleries for six and seven figure prices like Thiebaud and McCarthy. But Young does make and show work. For decades he has collaborated with Marian Zazeela to create light and sound installations that would be recognized as art in any contemporary art world sense of the word.

But that's not all. By Young's account, he was instrumental to the founding of Fluxus and conceptual art and Happenings as well. Young and Zazeela operate the Mela Foundation in Tribeca, which hosts performances and sound pieces in Dream House, an immersive, meditative light installation created by Zazeela. Like other permanent downtown art esoterica--i.e., Walter de Maria's Earth Room and Broken Kilometer--Dream House has been supported by and/or affiliated with the Dia Center.

Young is also very clear about the Mormon environment in which he--and his work--developed. Most interviews with him include the story that the first sound he remembers was the drone of the icy wind whistling through the cracks in the wall of his Mormon farmer family's log cabin in Idaho. From this mixture of elementalism and nostalgia, Young created music that aspires to the eternal, using just-tones and intervals that are some greater, universal, divine truth.

Almost every reference to spirituality in Young's work is not to Mormonism, however, but to Indian music. Since the 1960's Young and Zazeela have been both disciple and guru for the propagation of Indian sitar music, with its accompanying drones, tones, and ragas.

But a doctoral candidate and musicologist named Jeremy Grimshaw, who is also LDS, has made a highly persuasive study of La Monte Young's concepts of the divine, time, and the nature of heaven, which grounds them in esoteric but orthodox Mormon doctrine. Grimshaw quotes Young on the just-intonation system he employs:

"The sensations of ineffable truths that we sometimes experience when we hear progressions of chords and intervals tuned in just intonation, may indeed be our underlying subliminal recognition of the broader, more universal implications of these fundamental principles." In short, Young believes that intervals based on the harmonic series resonate with the macrocosm in a way that irrational intervals cannot. "When I hear intervals in equal temperament, it's like they remind me of the truth," says Young, "whereas when I hear intervals in just intonation, it's as though I'm hearing the truth."
In 2001, Grimshaw published a paper called "The Sonic Search for Kolob: Mormon Cosmology and the Music of La Monte Young" in the musicology journal repercussions. It's available via the Internet Archive.] Heady stuff.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: January 30, 2009.

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