Walk along Church Street, just south of New York’s Tribeca Grand Hotel, and you’ll notice an iridescent pink glow emanating from the third floor of number 275, an apartment known to those who care to ask as The Dream House. With its pink walls and tin-foil floors, this trip-inducing sound and light installation was created by one of the most pioneering artists of the 1960s, La Monte Young, a man who sat in the centre of the avant-garde scene that flourished in the city during those years, and who’s incredible work in sound and visual art influenced everyone from Biran Eno and Yoko Ono to Lou Reed and John Cale.
Young was always sensitive to the world of sound. From an early age, he was struck by the droning sound of the wind sweeping along the vast Idaho plains, a natural force that, although invisible, seemed to have as much presence as any human being. It’s no wonder then that his first instrument was one that utilised the power of breath, the saxophone. A prodigious talent from a young age, Young eventually abandoned jazz for the enigmatic world of the avant-garde in 1960, going on to establish himself as one of the leading figures of the new york avant-garde, at which time he began curating experimental art performances with his friend Yoko Ono. These loft-bound concerts served as a meeting place for some of New York’s most experimental young musicians and artists, including Terry Riley, one of the founding fathers of classical minimalism alongside Phillip Glass and Steve Reich.
Young first met Riley when the two were graduate students in the 1950s, at which time Riley’s work was heavily influenced by the atonalism and serialism of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Messiaen. Young, however, was far more interested in the work of fringe composers like John Cage, whose conceptual and proto-minimalist compositions inspired his idea to blend multiple drones together to create an ambient wash of sound. Young’s pioneering explorations of drones eventually led him to form the Theatre of Eternal Music in 1962, a group which consisted of La Monte Young (voice and saxophone) Tony Conrad (violin), Marian Zazeela (voice, lighting,) and John Cale (viola). Their musical aesthetic centred on a set of improvisational and mathematical rules laid down by Young himself and which were designed to guide the musicians as they tuned their instruments to non-western tunings and went about creating a mesmeric series of sustained microtones. These early compositions were greatly inspired by Hindustani classical music and, like that ancient musical style, were intended to induce a state of trance.
When the young violist John Cale met a budding songwriter called Lou Reed, he bought his experimental musical leanings with him, combining them with Reed’s rough-shod pop songwriting to create an early incarnation of The Velvet Underground called The Primitives. Cale’s amplified viola drones quickly defined the group’s primordial, deeply textural sound, the startling nature of which sent their early audiences fumbling for the exit. But Cale and Reed were unphased, they knew they were on to something great. As The Primitives picked up steam, the pair began rehearsing for hours at a time, Cale’s voila drones ebbing through the walls and seeping into the fabric of the group’s sound all the while. These all-night sessions spawned many of the songs that would go on to form The Velvet Underground’s first album, the sound of which would simply not have existed without La Monte Young.
‘Heroin’, ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘All Tomorrow’s parties’, these songs contain the same faintly warped, trance-inducing textures that scale had been creating with Young in The Theatre of Eternal Music — but the influence of Young goes beyond The Velvet Underground. The material on Reed’s solo venture, Metal Machine Music was created by leaving several guitars tuned around the same note to feedback while leaning against hot valve amps, clearly revealing an absorption of the techniques Young created in the early ’60s. Indeed, over the next four decades, Young’s pioneering work went on to inspire everyone from Krautrock adventurers Neu! to shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine. Clearly, La Monte Young’s influence cannot be understated. As Brian Eno once put it, Young really was “the daddy of us all”.