The Well-Tuned Piano, La Monte Young

by tacet

Ding Yi Shi-Shi

The Well-Tuned Piano unfurls in graceful slow motion. A largely improvised piece for solo piano first performed in 1964 and typically lasting over five hours, La Monte Young’s magnum opus presents an imposing challenge to our perceptions of musical duration and development. Yet, at the same time it permits indulgence in the sensuous, tactile beauty of sound itself. Vast swathes of the piece hang in a frozen stasis as disparate tones coalesce to form pixelated clouds of sound, their droning harmonies static yet tremulous, surging with vibrant internal energy. During its densest passages the depth of the musical texture extends far beyond anything that would usually be expected from a solo instrument: the soundscapes of The Well-Tuned Piano are multi-dimensional and in perpetual, kaleidoscopic flux.

So how are such beguiling timbres evoked from a single instrument? The answer lies, at least in part, in the alternative tuning system employed by Young, a system that the American composer kept secret for over 27 years. This unconventional approach was born out of the composer’s disillusionment with standard Western tuning (or, “equal temperament”) which is actually, for certain practical reasons, slightly out of tune. (For a fascinating in-depth explanation of equal temperament and Young’s tuning system, see Kyle Gann’s two informative articles.) And, whilst our ears have largely become accustomed to the imperfections in equal temperament, the sparkling lucidity of The Well-Tuned Piano demonstrates the potential of correcting the centuries-old errors of the standard tuning system. Free from the slight buzzing and muddiness inherent to Western music, the tones emanating from Young’s piano resonate together, combining to form deep, sonorous blocks of sound.

The timbres of Young’s piano could well be described as crystalline: as glistening and radiant as they are hardened, captivating both in their expansive beauty and their intense physicality. The perpetual tension between these two states – the immaterial and the material – imbues The Well-Tuned Piano with a sense of uncertainty that undercuts the sweeping majesty of its broad washes of sound. Certainly, the earthen density of The Well-Tuned Piano keeps the piece from straying too far into the New Age-isms common to much drone-based composition. Its meditative clusters of sound may well evoke the infinite – the transcendent, the Utopian, even – but, in the end, The Well-Tuned Piano seems to suggest that such lofty ideals will continue to lie tantalisingly out of reach.

Below is a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano followed by a brief listening guide

To accompany a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano with any sort of systematic listening guide would perhaps be somewhat antithetical to the music’s sense of stasis and lack of narrative development. It doesn’t seem necessary to listen to the piece in one sitting (a herculean task) and its steadily shifting textures do not demand – although they generously reward – attentive listening. The piece oscillates, albeit slowly, between sparse inactivity and frenetic activity, with Young conjuring expansive tone-clouds from the piano (the first beginning at around 5:50 in the first video above).

The recording above is performed by La Monte Young in 1981, released on the Gramavision label. Sadly, this edition is now out of print and no recording of the piece is currently available.

La Monte Young is often labelled as a minimalist composer, along with numerous other American composers of his generation. For more conventional examples of minimalism’s repetitive, yet steadily unfolding, musical structures, try Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) or Terry Riley’s In C (1964).

Artwork: Shi-Shi, Ding Yi

by Thomas May

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