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A Rather Extraordinary Piano Recital
November 15, 2013 9:40 AM   Subscribe

La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano [2 3 4 5] is unlike anything you've heard before or will ever hear again. The notes are different from what you're used to, but what Young uses them for is... well. (If you don't have five hours to spend on a piano recital, may I suggest giving the first 4-5 minutes of disc three a go? It starts off briskly, builds to a scintillating pattern after a minute, and then, just before the three minute mark, the piano begins to roar.)
posted by Rory Marinich (32 comments total) 96 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thought nr. 1: this is just stuff played on an out of tune piano.

5 minutes later, thought nr. 2: From now on, all pianos should be out of tune in this exact manner.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


In fact, it's really our "in tune" pianos that are out of tune, in some sense -- see also just intonation
posted by en forme de poire at 9:57 AM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hundreds of yards of tempered spring steel, staked out and stretched across a cast iron frame under tens of thousands of pounds of tension — and politely disguised in a wooden box with little carved scrolls on the legs.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:58 AM on November 15, 2013 [24 favorites]


I dig this, and had not heard of it.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 9:58 AM on November 15, 2013


Quick Wikipedia context: he's a minimalist composer born in 1935 with both jazz and classical background. More Wikipedia on the Well-Tuned Piano. It's an improvisational piece with some 20 years of varied performance (and tuning).

I'm having a hard time with the tuning. But I'm immediately reminded of John Cage's prepared piano works, which my music prof explained as "someone trying to make a piano sound like a gamelan" (in a good way). Although apparently there's no real connection; Cage modifies the timbre of the instrument, Young modifies the note frequencies.
posted by Nelson at 10:01 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


After hearing this for the first time in Rene Hell's mnml ssg mix, this has quickly become one of my favorite pieces of music.
posted by azarbayejani at 10:07 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


La Monte Young is considered by some to be the first minimalist composer. This piece of his is considerably more lively than, say, The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China, 1984, which unfolds slowly enough that you'd be forgiven for thinking that nothing is happening.

But don't let the intense theoretical stuff hide you from the fact that he is AWESOME.

For one thing, there's Dorian Blues in G, which I originally meant to include as a counterpoint in the FPP. I takes a fairly long time to develop (drums only kick in about 4 minutes in, and it's about 15-20 minutes before the piece really gets going), but then becomes basically a thoroughly satisfying crunchy blues jam with some utterly choice guitar work that lasts for two solid hours. The time it takes to build stops any of those from feeling noodle-y or wank-y — the players know exactly what the shape of their piece is, and if they take a long time to get there it's just because they're having such a damn good time at each step of the way. If you're at all a fan of live rock music, please do give this is a listen, because it is fucking phenomenal.

For another thing, he looks and sounds like this. Which, yes.

He's an odd contrast of a guy. A lot of his stuff is way less accessible than, say, what Philip Glass and Steve Reich and Terry Riley wrote in his wake, but you hear Dorian Blues in G and it's like, yes, I can see John Cale forming the Velvet Underground after spending time with this guy. So many of his works are so very high-concept, but the guy himself is really damn down-to-earth, in a wacky and awesome way. He's made two or three of my favorite compositions in all of history and I love him a whole heck of a lot.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:19 AM on November 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


I love this piece and La Monte in general. Rory has filled this out nicely, so thanks for that.
posted by mykescipark at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2013


For the hard-core, build your own stringing scale designs with Scale Ripper design software created for piano technician and tinkerer extraordinaire Darrell Fandrich.
posted by bz at 10:31 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


i skipped down to your "he looks and sounds like this" link, and that convinced me to click on Dorian Blues in G, and now i can't complete the work i'm supposed to do because it involves watching video lectures and im not about to pause this to listen to some nerd speak
posted by a birds at 10:55 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty fantastic. I first learned about La Monte Young after snatching a copy of Metal Machine Music out of a used LP bin in Longmont. Lou Reed cites him in the (rather extraordinary) liner notes but can't be bothered to spell his name correctly, which confused my research efforts for a few moments. It turns out his stuff was a key influence on some other big names in early drone and ambient music, including John Cale, the Velvet Underground, and Eno.
posted by Mothlight at 11:39 AM on November 15, 2013


In fact, it's really our "in tune" pianos that are out of tune, in some sense -- see also just intonation

So this is true — but it's a little misleading as background to this particular piece, because what La Monte Young is doing here really isn't about being "in tune," at least not in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, he's doing something much more radical and weird.

So I'm gonna see if I can say this without getting too pedantic.

For ages and ages now, there have been two competing philosophies when it comes to musical tuning:
Common practice with just intonation: "Consonant, smooth-sounding harmonies, built out of low integer ratios, are the Platonic ideal of musical beauty. In a major chord, the pitches are in a 1 - 5/4 - 3/2 ratio. Those are all low integer ratios, so major chords perfectly fulfill the ideal and they sound as beautiful and good and right as anything could possibly sound."

Common practice with tempered tuning: "Consonant, smooth-sounding harmonies, built out of low integer ratios, are the Platonic ideal of musical beauty. But we're modern pragmatists and we're willing to compromise. On my keyboard, in a major chord, the pitches are technically in a 1 - (3√2) - (12√128) ratio. Still, I'm okay with that, because it's very very very close to 1 - 5/4 - 3/2 — in fact, it's so close that most of us can't tell the difference. Major chords are still pretty damn close to the ideal, and still sound pretty good, and it's all still more or less copacetic."
The second one has been dominant for the past few hundred years. When people say "modern pianos are all out of tune," what they mean is "modern pianos are usually tuned according to that second philosophy rather than being tuned according to the first one — so technically you're not hearing mathematically pure ratios, you're just hearing a very close approximation." But it's honestly a pretty finicky hair-splitting distinction. Very few people are consciously aware of the difference between the two types of tuning unless they've really spent a lot of time training their ears to catch it. For most of us, the effect is basically identical.

To make a rough analogy: a major chord in just intonation is like looking straight at the Parthenon on a clear day, with no smudges on your glasses, no distortion at all standing between you and aesthetic perfection. In equal temperment it's like looking at a lossy digital image: your brain fills in the gaps and smooths over the pixilation and you get basically the same aesthetic impression, but there's still a sense in which it's Not Quite The Same. Some people care a lot about the difference, most people don't.

(Also, it turns out that there are clever things you can do with the digital image that you can't do with the actual Parthenon. Collage! Video editing! Glitchy weirdness! A lot of "modern" music — from Debussy through early Stravinsky and on to the dreaded serialists — is a little like that: they're still using tempered tuning, they're just exploiting some of the unique idiosyncratic things that it lets you do. But maybe that's stretching the analogy a bit far....)

Anyway, La Monte Young isn't actually working with either of those philosophies of tuning. His goes more like this:
Just intonation à la La Monte Young: "I'm tired of consonant, smooth sounding harmonies, but I'm just as tired of playing party tricks with tempered tuning. You know what's beautiful? Rich, strange, unfamiliar harmonies built out of complex high-integer ratios. You can take your major chord and shove it. In this chord, the pitch ratios are 1 - 36/35 - 35/32 - 32/24, and we're gonna eat this eighth of mushrooms and sit here and listen to it until our teeth start vibrating from the sheer heart-rending alien transcendence of it all."
To keep going with the analogy, we're not looking at the Parthenon, we're not looking at a digital image of the Parthenon, and we're not even looking at a creatively photoshopped version of a digital image of the Parthenon. We're staring into a heat mirage that's swimming on the surface of the highway in the middle of the Mojave desert until the brightness hurts our eyes and our vision starts to fail. So is that a "clearer" or a "less clear" image than when we were looking at a jpeg of the Parthenon? Is it more "distorted" or less? "Natural" or "unnatural"? "In tune" or "out of tune"? What does the question even mean in this context? That mirage is exactly what it is, it has its own particular aesthetic effect, and if you sit with it long enough you start experiencing something beautiful.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:42 AM on November 15, 2013 [25 favorites]


For those in NYC who want to sit in an all-immersive droney meditative environment, you should head to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela'a Dream House in Tribeca.
posted by suedehead at 12:10 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh my god. I moved to the NYC area in August and totally forgot that that is where La Monte Young is from. I can visit the Dream House now.

(Meetup, anyone?)
posted by Rory Marinich at 12:28 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now there are two ... - But it's honestly a pretty finicky hair-splitting distinction.

This is not actually true. Most people can tell the difference. And more importantly, the choice of just intonation vs equal temperament leads to greatly different kinds of music. No Indian classical musician would play a raga in equal temperament - it just wouldn't sound right. And trying to play anything from around Bach onwards (actually a bit before) in the Western tradition, in just intonation, would sound similarly bad. And that's even to untrained ears.

It's even more complicated, since Indian musicians don't always use the obvious pure intervals of simple JI - and Bach didn't use ET either. Your digital photography analogy is an over-simplification and misses the enormous techtonic shifts in the histories of music in different cultures, wrought by changing approaches to notes and their relationships.
posted by iotic at 1:05 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


My favorite LaMonte Young trivia factoid: He once played saxophone in a jazz band next to Eric Dolphy.
posted by charlesminus at 1:29 PM on November 15, 2013


Yeah, that was an off-the-cuff explanation of something that really deserves at least 500 pages, and so I oversimplified a hell of a lot.

Thinking about it more, here's the real point I was trying to put across: "JI" can refer to a whole lot of tuning practices, many of which are subjectively very different. If you're a barbershop quartet or an early music choir, "JI" means "heavy emphasis on pure low-number ratios, using basically familiar modal or tonal harmony." (Though of course the barbershop quartet and the early music choir won't agree on precisely which intervals should be treated as consonances, or on what exactly counts as legitimate modal or tonal practice.) If you're La Monte Young, though, it means something totally different: "heavy emphasis on pure high-number ratios, leading to a radically unfamiliar approach to harmony that doesn't really qualify as modal or tonal."

Of course, there's dozens of other things that fall under the JI umbrella too. And a gabillion non-JI tuning practices. And probably to really understand what's going on in this piece, it would be helpful to have a handle on some of those other things too. (I'm sure someone who knows more about Indian classical music than I do will experience this piece in a very different way than I experience it, for instance.)

But I think the most basic point is still "This is not the kind of JI that your choir director might have talked about. It is something different."

As for who can hear the difference between what, put it this way: if you're used to 12TET, renaissance-style JI might sound perceptibly different. But for non-musicians, or even for musicians who haven't put a lot of thought into tuning, the first reaction is likely to be "Wow, there's really nice ringing acoustics in this room" or "Wow, those singers have really smooth well-blended voices" rather than "Wow, this is tuned really differently." With Young's stuff, on the other hand, even for a non-musician there's really only one possible conclusion: "Oh fuck, that piano is not tuned like the pianos on my other CDs."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:09 PM on November 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


This music is really growing on me. I made a playlist. I've got no idea about the licensing details, but youtube-dl -x can be used to download an audio file for loading up on your iPod or whatever.
posted by Nelson at 2:35 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Those sevenths (+/-) in the beginning are gorgeous... and when I started hearing those overtones I basically became that Shibe dog meme. Such resonate, so layers, wow.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:00 PM on November 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Very few people are consciously aware of the difference between the two types of tuning unless they've really spent a lot of time training their ears to catch it. For most of us, the effect is basically identical.

Right up until I start hearing pipe organ plus brass instruments playing together, and then it becomes painfully clear that a brass fifth (perfect) is not the same as an organ fifth (tempered), and it makes my brain go haywire with dissonance.
posted by hippybear at 3:38 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


For the hard-core, build your own stringing scale designs with Scale Ripper

WHAT

bz I think you just gave me a reason to keep my old found piano after all
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:57 PM on November 15, 2013


Lovers of 5-hour minimalist magna opera can also check out Dennis Johnson's November, which Young has cited as the inspiration for The Well-Tuned Piano. November was written in 1959, but the first full-length recording was released earlier this year. Here's a short but interesting interview with Johnson.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 6:16 PM on November 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


This music is having a profound effect on me in a very good way. After a *very* stressful evening of (music) work, listening to this is like being tickled all over the inside of my head with a feel-better stick. Constantly.

Disclaimer: I am only ~20 minutes into part one. But so far - so good. YMMV.

Thank you for posting this awesome post.
posted by motty at 6:17 PM on November 15, 2013


One of the best days of my musicological study was the day I learned about La Monte Young's "Piano Piece #1 for David Tudor."
Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to.

posted by Madamina at 9:06 PM on November 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


Man, compression reeeaaaaaalllllllyyyyyy annihilates the power of this kind of music. Like holy crap it's just different music entirely.

And not to take away from his (undeniable!) accomplishments, but it's worth remembering that one of the biggest reason so much amazing early minimalism is mythical is that Young is a tyrant, holding and secreting away tons of it, including tons of stuff for which he was a co-composer (or -improvisor), effectively memory-holing much the careers of many of his "friends."
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:00 AM on November 16, 2013


I'm also going to second DaDaDaDave's recommendation of the Dennis Johnson piece. It's amazing.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:02 AM on November 16, 2013


I fiddled with the first few minutes of the first part in a spectrum analyzer to try to figure out what was going on. The first chord has fundamentals at 148.737 and 260.442, a ratio of just slightly over 1.75, or 7 : 4. Wikipedia tells me that's a harmonic seventh. The second chord is rooted at a perfect fifth up (1.5 or 3 : 2) from the tonic of the first one (223.169) and then another perfect fifth up from there (334.956). It alternates between those two, but occasionally the higher note of the second chord is replaced by the octave of the root of the first chord (297.365). And that's about it -- the first five minutes or so is just various combinations of those five notes. I guess that would make this a 7-limit tuning. (Oh, and now that I read that page carefully, I see that this piece is already listed as an example... ) I don't know where in the world 148.737 came from -- the analyzer tells me it's something like D3 +22 cents.

I wrote a stupid little simulation in JavaScript of the first two chords that uses HTML5 Web Audio via one of those bytebeat sites. (Some browsers do better than others with this, so ymmv.)
posted by Rhomboid at 6:38 AM on November 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


One of the best days of my musicological study was the day I learned about La Monte Young's "Piano Piece #1 for David Tudor."

That same David Tudor was the pianist in the first public performance of Cage's 4" 33, I believe. Presumably he was much sought after for his ability to impart the technique that these ground-breaking pieces required.
posted by iotic at 10:28 AM on November 16, 2013


Man, compression reeeaaaaaalllllllyyyyyy annihilates the power of this kind of music. Like holy crap it's just different music entirely.

You think that's bad, you should try it digitally slowed by 80% (that roaring bottom octave at minute 3 of Disk 3 kicks in at around minute 13 here). Different music entirely once again, but still amazing to listen to.
posted by chortly at 9:44 PM on November 16, 2013


I've been listening to the music from the post and the comments most of the day—thanks for this.
posted by safetyfork at 8:39 PM on November 17, 2013


You think that's bad, you should try it digitally slowed by 80% (that roaring bottom octave at minute 3 of Disk 3 kicks in at around minute 13 here). Different music entirely once again, but still amazing to listen to.

Love it.
posted by azarbayejani at 2:24 PM on November 18, 2013


I've listened to this recording about 3 times through now and it's really rewarding. It definitely feels a bit like a neverending jam band track, but the scintillating texture, improvisational variety, and odd harmonies keep it interesting and more importantly to me, pleasant. It works well as furniture music.

I don't think this Guardian blog post was linked here, it's a good read with some followup links for more depth on the Well Tuned Piano.
posted by Nelson at 2:57 PM on November 22, 2013


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