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Washing the Emperor's New Clothes?,
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This review is from: Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of LaMonte Young (Hardcover)
There's no one quite like La Monte Young for dividing opinion. He composes with a pain-staking attention to detail, and yet most of his work can be described simply as 'chords - held for a very long time'. He subscribes to the cosmology and value systems of Hindu philosophy, and yet his music is immediately recognisable as something quintessentially American. His influence is undeniable, stretching through popular music, modern composition and jazz music - yet few people can claim to have actually attended a live recital of Young's work, because he exercises total control over performances and these generally take place in his Manhattan 'Dream House', and rarely anywhere else. Authorised recordings of his work are few and far between (and extremely pricey), though you don't have to look far on the web to find him, he's possibly the most bootlegged composer in musical history. Finally, his dress and numinous declarations give him all the appearance of a snake-oil salesman, and yet... and yet... if you're willing to drop most of your preconceptions about 'music', sit down and truly listen, Young's work is self-evidently genuine, fascinating and endlessly rewarding.
Although he is widely accepted as being the godfather of minimalism (if not the only originator), up until now, there have been few extended studies of his life and work available. The demands that Young places on all who would follow his path make him a difficult subject for biographers and musicologists alike. It's not so much that he is secretive, as much as the fact that he sees himself as a 'guru' - in the traditional sense of the word - to truly understand his work requires total devotion to every aspect of his life and thinking. He is not, shall we say, inviting a critical perspective on his work.
Grimshaw's book is the closest any one has come so far to a true 'inside' view, living and working with Young and his partner with free access to their private archives. But even he eventually fell from grace, and had to complete the book without the composer's blessing (or permission to reproduce any of his scores).
It's still an engaging read. Grimshaw does a convincing job in linking biography to the music, tracing clear lines of development through Young's turn from serialism through Fluxus to 'static' minimalism and beyond. He also approaches Young's work from some interesting angles, not least in his argument that Young's cosmology is as much informed by his Mormon upbringing as anything derived from the Indian classical tradition. In fact, it was precisely this argument that caused the rift with Young - Young acknowledges the influence of Mormonism on his early life, but is adamant that he had totally abandoned the belief-system at the time of his earliest compositions. Grimshaw himself comes from a Mormon background, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that he has a hidden agenda - though it's also doubtful that the Church of Latter Day Saints would want to be to be associated with such an obviously counter-cultural figure. You'll have to make your own mind up.
Grimshaw is clearly a fan, but 'Draw a straight line..' is not a wide-eyed hagiography - he is careful to offer a balanced appreciation of key issues - not least the schism between Young, Tony Conrad and John Cale over ownership of the Theatre of Eternal Music recordings. Young aspires to the status of a prophet; he comes out of this book a human being.
It is a scholarly work, and as such it operates on a technical level that can be a little demanding at times. Grimshaw's deconstructions of key works largely focus on mathematical ratios in tunings and pitch frequencies. To be fair to the author, the extent to which this illuminates the music largely depends on the theoretical knowledge of the reader, although it could equally be argued that Grimshaw lacks the facility to capture the essence of the music with any striking metaphors.
Readers expecting a popular overview of Young's life and works are likely to be disappointed. Still, for the moment, it's the best we've got.
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Initial post: 19 Aug 2012 23:32:08 BDT
Young's own comments on the book can be seen here: http://drawastraightlineandfollowit.com/
Make of them what you will
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