Jung Hee Choi: Thoughts About Your Book

Jung Hee Choi
Thoughts About Your Book

February 13, 2010

Dear Jeremy,

I have attached my essay, SOUND: A Basis for Universal Structure in Ancient and Modern Cosmology, which was first published in the program notes for my performance of RICE as part of The Third Mind Live series at the Guggenheim in March 2009. It discusses the historical outline of inaudible sound vibrations that appear in ancient writings, including Mesopotamian, Greek, Vedic, Asian and Islamic texts, and the relationship of these ancient concepts to contemporary scientific discoveries. I am sure that you are well-informed about this line of thought. However, I wanted to point out that sound has been set forth as a key to the understanding of universal principles and this underlying concept has existed throughout history both in the West and the East, in the past and the present, which is also a point where Young’s “Western god of number” and “the ethereal author of the Eastern OM” and his “double identity” (JG – P. 208) converge. It is also noteworthy that the first use of numbers is accredited to the Mesopotamians, 3400 BC and the Egyptians, 3100 BC, and that one of the first uses of numerical ratios in music was by the Chinese court musician Ling Lun (attributed to the 27th century B.C., under Emperor Huang-Ti) who cut bamboo pipes in whole number ratios to produce a pentatonic scale. What is Western about Young’s “god of number”?

I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation and gratitude for your most invaluable contribution on contextualizing La Monte’s and Marian’s work and life. I am extremely impressed with your vast knowledge of the subject and intelligent analysis of sophisticated concepts.

We are well aware of the importance of this book for the history of music and art and that this book will be widely quoted and referenced by countless scholars in the future. La Monte, Marian and I read this book loyally and thoroughly everyday and discuss it everyday. I believe this book undoubtedly has taken a further step in the investigation and assessment of their work, especially in terms of the spiritual aspect. I have not yet finished the book. For now, however, I would like to call immediate attention to our need to reassess some of the important concepts in their work that might have been pushed too far and in so doing might have compromised the facts by their being either overstated or misstated.

1. Assumption

It is fascinating to follow the development of your thesis. However, it appears that you make the assumption throughout the book that La Monte made himself and claimed himself to be a prophet, while scholars, critics and musicologists are in constant doubt and disdain of this claim. Perhaps that even includes you. I believe the term prophet has been used loosely here where it could be interchangeable with mystic, visionary, yogi or even creative thinker. Possibly we should consider whether the tone was set up for readers to think that La Monte is marching through the dismissive derision of this concept wearing the Emperor’s Clothes. In addition, your use of the word prophet, strikes us with an excess of religious baggage that is highly reflective of power and politics. A few examples from Chapter 3 and 4 are:

“Young saw himself as initiating—by musical fiat, as it were—a new but complete tradition, springing fully formed from his own head like Minerva from Zeus’s.  (184)

“Having responded to what he considered his own divine mandate, and having founded what he considered a new but nonetheless ageless musical tradition, Young spoke in the words of both a shishya and a mystic.” (209)

“Because those aspects come cloaked with layers of quasi-religious rhetoric and ritual, some listeners’ skepticism towards the composer and their suspicion of his claims of divine inspiration might cause concomitant resistance to the music and recalcitrance to commit to the piece in a manner requisite to its appreciation.” (216)

“…about a work of art presented in such a manner that simply experiencing it requires—in both the extremity of its parameters and the audacity of its claims—an unusual and almost ascetic kind of investment, something akin to an act of faith?”  (216)

“…how to give circumspect consideration to a work that aspires to the literal status of the music of the spheres, written by a composer who claims to have his hand on the Spindle of Necessity?” (216)

“when he says “prophet” or “heaven,” we don’t get the impression that he’s trying to make a point, we perceive that he’s making an assertion.”  (218)

“For Young, who occasionally invokes Messianic comparisons in describing his role as composer-yogi, this lack of recognition by his immediate neighbors brought to mind,… Jesus’s words following his cold reception in Nazareth”  (225-226)

The quotes above tend to proactively conclude that ‘prophet’ is La Monte’s self-image rather than the status in music he achieved through his musical innovations.

In supporting his ‘lofty’ claim, sometimes, you overstated the ambiance around La Monte. I fear that our musical tradition becomes misrepresented to be a secret and exclusive religious sect that practices clandestine restrictions, like the ancient Pythagorianism.

“The performers muttered quiet prayers and brushed the pictures with their fingertips, which they then touched to their own lips, then foreheads, finally chests, before settling into their places on a mat against the adjacent wall.” (161)

Whereas La Monte and Marian do sometimes touch the pictures and utter silent prayers before touching their fingertips to their foreheads, lips and heart, it has become our more usual practice as performers to stand respectfully clasping our hands in a gesture of namaskar in front of the pictures on the shrine for a moment of darsan and behold the images to see and be seen by the gurus for their blessing before starting the performance.

“One woman, a former student of Young’s, knelt, kissed his feet, and presented him a mango as an offering…”  (209)

In fact, it was Lee Torchia, La Monte’s student and Pandit Pran Nath’s disciple, touching (not kissing) La Monte’s feet as all Indians do in respect of elders, including grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, as well as teachers and gurus.

2. Universal Structure

“when they describe the underlying paradigm for their work as “universal structure,” they speak of a way of perceiving the universe as elaborate recursions and fractals of some divine principle that, as it becomes more discernible through rigorous artistic methodologies and extended exposure, renders moot both the aesthetic categorization that separates sculpture from music and the ontological boundary that divides the physical and the metaphysical.” (214)

La Monte’s concept of “universal structure” is based on the harmonic principles and notion of ‘inaudible music” such as the Music of the Spheres and Anahata Nada, the correlation of music and cosmology from antiquity, which we recognize as acoustics and psychoacoustics today. The early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Greece and China all recognized sound as a basis that could provide a philosophical synthesis. Throughout history, the evocation of the creation through sound has been passed down among many cultures both in the East and the West, including many indigenous African cultures. Unfortunately, there was a radical split between science and philosophy in the West during the 17th century. Science took an Aristotelian approach to the universe and, through reduction and classification, attempted to particularize the universal and became concerned more with individual parts as opposed to the whole. We can observe some negative consequences of disrupting the logos of relationships such as ecological imbalances, materialism and the disintegration of the harmonically related tuning system.

It has become only a myth to the modern Western intellectual that in the near past, music, cosmology, mythology, mathematics and religion were all infused to create a physical model for the cosmos and that this provided the account of the metaphysical correspondence of inaudible sound vibration.

La Monte has reverberated the concept of “the universal truths of harmonic structure” and we can recognize the concept of “universal structure” as the underlying paradigm for their work. However, the description of “universal structure” quoted above rather mystifies the concept by bringing in “some divine principle” and misleads the reader to a wrong impression by mystifying the modern myth. Please consider re-reading the notes on The Well-Tuned Piano again to revisit La Monte’s rational explanation of “universal structure”.

3. Concept of god, heaven and prophet

As an artist, I often write about art making as my way of reaching the liminal state. Attempting to enter into transcendent experience beyond empirical perception is, of course, not something unique to my personal experience.  Many artists, both Western and Eastern, knowingly and unknowingly use techniques and devices to achieve pure states of transcendental consciousness. Indeed, inspiration is, by nature, divine. Not only artists but the most influential scientists like Newton and Einstein talked about divine inspiration and intervention in their work. Beyond religion, order and sect, there is a universal belief that there is a deeper and more fundamental state of existence.

As you noted, La Monte was exposed early on to Eastern thought, psychedelia and 60s counterculture.  In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, La Monte had read Chuang Tzu, and Alain Danielou from whom we all learned the philosophical concept of Anahata Nada. Moreover, since he undertook the serious study of Indian music with Pandit Pran Nath, La Monte’s understanding of god had evolved and expanded far beyond the confines of  a monotheistic concept of god. (I am not trying to offend your religious belief. I have a similar spiritual path to La Monte’s, and my spiritual journey started at a Presbyterian church.) Even though I acknowledge the influence of Mormonism and his upbringing in a religious Christian family as an important factor, La Monte left the Mormon Church at the age of 17 and in 1970, La Monte and Marian became true devotees of Pandit Pran Nath and his teachings. Pandit Pran Nath reiterated the concept of Anahata Nada. In fact, raga singers use permutations of combinations of the syllables of the Vedic mantra, Om Anahata Hari Narayana as one technique of vocalizing the alapHari and Narayana are both names of the Hindu god Vishnu; Om is the universal sound syllable; Anahata can be translated to mean unsounded or inaudible. One possible translation of the entire mantra is:

God is the unstruck, primordial sound.

We sing permutations of these syllables over and over almost every time we perform an alap.  Pandit Pran Nath’s influence on the minds of La Monte and Marian is profound and immense.

The Hindu concept of god is both pantheistic and panentheistic (some say that everything, the cosmos et al, is a concept in the mind of Vishnu). It is said that there are more than 3 million gods in India and Indians are inventing new gods everyday. From ancient times Indian culture has welcomed foreigners and foreign ways and transformed them with astonishing speed and thoroughness. Hinduism is such a broad concept it has been able to embrace other religions. La Monte and Marian have three shrines on their floor; they light them and pray before them everyday. The shrines are adorned with pictures of gods, saints and gurus. Two shrines include Jesus. (Hindus recognize Jesus and Buddha as avatars [reincarnations] of Vishnu.)  In order to comprehend the nature of god in Hinduism it is important to accept and understand that there are various ways to explain universal laws and the nature of principles. The names of the deities and the forms of the symbols used to represent universal principles have changed whenever it could help to make these principles more easily grasped. Obviously, when they say, “sound is god”, they recognize vibrational structure as one of the universal principles, however, it doesn’t mean at all that sound is the only god.

It appears that your approach and usage of terminology of god to elucidate La Monte’s work often seems to revolve around and re-emphasize Christian tradition. I have a few examples below.

“These interpenetrations play a crucial role in facilitating the cosmological aspirations with which Young and Zazeela infuse their art: when they say they want to “carry us away to heaven,” they speak of taking us to a place or state connected in some way to the material, physiological sphere in which we experience sound and light” (214)

“This again brings us to Young’s broadest claim: “If listeners aren’t carried away to heaven, I’m failing.”[1]   Such grand notions undoubtedly affect Young’s reputation as a composer, and one cannot help but wonder how many more critics, scholars, and listeners would appreciate more deeply Young’s purely musical innovations if they did not come inextricably laden with cosmological baggage (a possibility which, of course, opens up its own chicken-and-egg conundrum)” (218)

“During the early 1980s, devoted concertgoers would enter this concert hall cum temple on a Sunday afternoon (in the manner of churchgoing as much as concertgoing), seat themselves cross-legged on the former trading floor, gaze at Zazeela’s mobiles and lighting designs hanging from the ceiling, and listen intently as Young carefully and slowly explored the successive chordal areas of the Well-Tuned Piano.” (221)

When La Monte and Marian brought up the word “heaven”, it refers to the subliminal state that may be reached through aesthetic introspection, the state all serious and creative artists try to attain or evoke through their work. The pure states of consciousness have many names across many languages: Oneness, Samadhi, Direct Experience and in psychology are recognized as Peak Experience. Heaven does not refer to a place, physiological state or the literal meaning of the term in Christianity. Their musical and artistic innovations are truly ahead of their time. However, the audience has evolved over time and their work is better understood and more appreciated by the younger generations without cosmological baggage.

“when he says “prophet” or “heaven,” we don’t get the impression that he’s trying to make a point, we perceive that he’s making an assertion. As it stands, Young’s works and his words elicit a broad spectrum of response, from almost cultish praise to dismissive derision.” (218)

“For Young, who occasionally invokes Messianic comparisons in describing his role as composer-yogi, this lack of recognition by his immediate neighbors brought to mind, albeit with tongue somewhat in cheek, Jesus’s words following his cold reception in Nazareth: “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.” (225-226)

Has La Monte claimed himself a prophet or invoked Messianic comparisons? This kind of comparison with a certain religious ideology would load on more unnecessary baggage and may negatively affect the understanding of La Monte’s work.

For the lack of recognition or cold reception, I should say it is more of a characteristic of New York. I have been living in the same building for 17 years and only made a few acquaintances. When I first visited the Stone last year, John Zorn’s Lower Eastside performance space established at least 4-5 years ago, I had to spend 10- 20 minutes finding the site, although I was standing right in front of the building, because no one, neither neighbor nor passerby, knew that the ground floor storefront was a music scene. New Yorkers infamously lack a ‘sense of community’ and are not concerned with the interests of their neighbors.

“The whiteness of the interior, too, has certain religious overtones that may relate to a number of Young’s formative Mormon practices and traditions.” (227)

The whiteness of the interior is a common characteristic of all art gallery spaces. More importantly, whiteness is absolutely necessary for the reflection of the color from the transmitted light from fixtures creating the environment. In presentation, there is no white wall in the Dream House since the space is filled with magenta light, just as there is no silence. You experienced the white walls and the absence of sound only before the environment was turned on.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts about your book.  I very much look forward to hearing your comments.


Jung Hee


Copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2010 PDF version