Sandy McCroskey: Mormonomania: Grimshaw’s Fairy Tales

Jeremy Grimshaw
Mormonomania: Grimshaw’s Fairy Tales

March 12, 2012

What a fiasco. I know that La Monte Young had high hopes for this book, the first full-length monograph on his life and work. At one point he asked his old friend Terry Riley to write an introduction. On October 29 of last year, he wrote me that “it will be quite a scholarly document”—although ominously noting that the “ms is riddled with tiny errors and after I started correcting them I ran out of time and money.” Author Jeremy Grimshaw was given unprecedented access to Young’s archives (he even slept in the same room with them for a while) and had much interaction with the composer and his wife, Marian Zazeela, during the “long gestation” (as he puts it) of this slim volume. But Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young comes to the public as the farthest thing from an authorized work. Grimshaw was ultimately denied permission to quote directly from Young’s letters or to reproduce score extracts or certain photographs. Young and Zazeela eventually found themselves writing to Oxford University Press to attempt to postpone publication, and since the book’s release they have issued a condemnatory statement online (, with Young declaring that “I cannot direct any serious scholar to this book.” He gives three reasons for this: “Grimshaw’s failure to understand the profound significance of Marian and I having become disciples of Pandit Pran Nath in early 1970”; a plethora of factual errors, many of which remained uncorrected after repeated efforts to set the record straight; and, in general, “the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of who I am and what I have done in music.” When Riley saw the book, he wrote his own letter of protest to the publisher. He and others who have been closest to Young are on record declaring that Grimshaw—a practicing Mormon—has wildly exaggerated Young’s debt to his Mormon roots and, in Young’s words, “portrayed me as a character who was practically unrecognizable to them.”

There are many indications that, as Young charges, the book was thrown together and rushed into print without due diligence. Typos are rare, but numerous lapses of diction (e.g., “flaunt” for “flout”) and some spots of jargon-clotted, nearly incomprehensible prose indicate that Grimshaw was essentially left alone editorially. Versions of two of the chapters had found their way into print in academic journals before Grimshaw got the contract with Oxford about two years ago. When the earliest of these articles, which provides the book’s penultimate chapter and the culmination of Grimshaw’s argument, “The Sonic Search for Kolob: Mormon Cosmology and the Music of La Monte Young,” appeared in spring 2001 in Repercussions, the publication of the music department at UC Berkeley, it referred to the composer James Tenney as a “former Bell Laboratories composer” (rather than “researcher”). This remains uncorrected in the present text (though it was fixed for another version of the article in 2005).

Young says that in the published book many of the passages containing errors he flagged have simply been excised; this seems to have considerably reduced the page count. Yet many others made it into print uncorrected. For example, the period when Young lived on bread and mustard sandwiches (“I bought the bread and stole the mustard”) was during his first year in graduate school in Berkeley, not, as Grimshaw has it, right after he transferred to UCLA from City College. According to Grimshaw, Young’s friend Terry Jennings (a fellow pioneer in what is now called “minimalism”) attended UCLA at the same time as Young, but in reality Jennings was never enrolled there. Young and Zazeela wrote recently, in an e-mail to your humble correspondent: “Jeremy is so unwilling to look up the facts. He just starts writing and tries to tell a good story. He thinks no one will ever check up on him. The story about Terry Jennings is told in detail in La Monte’s program notes for Annod, the same place that Jeremy found a lot of the other information that he writes about as if he knows all about it…. This is not a one time thing with Jeremy. He always has somebody in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name.”

In the course of a description of one of Young’s concerts with his raga ensemble, Grimshaw writes: “In June 2002, Young was pronounced Khan Sahib by Ustad Hafizullah Khan Khan Sahib, the only living child of Pandit Pran Nath’s teacher, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan Sahib, and the Khalifa of the Kirana gharana [i.e., the head of the Kirana school of raga]. This apparent honorific is mentioned in all program notes for Young’s subsquent raga concerts.” “Apparent honorific”? I would hope that when he wrote those words in his notes, Grimshaw intended to learn more about the meaning of the title “Khan Sahib” and to fill it in later. (Young says he is probably the first Western vocalist to be granted this title.) As Young sees it, the most grievous flaw in Grimshaw’s presentation is his cursory treatment of the most intensive spiritual and musical commitment in the composer’s life. Even after Young told Grimshaw that there was not nearly enough in the manuscript about his and Zazeela’s twenty-six years as disciples of the raga master Pandit Pran Nath, the author did not bother to interview them about it, and the paragraphs in his book devoted to the duo’s life with their guru, from the day they found him till his death, take up slightly less than four pages (the entire section on Young’s involvement with Indian music covers only ten). In a later aside, Grimshaw does credit Pran Nath for influencing the development of the improvisational style of The Well-Tuned Piano; but this doesn’t for a second shake his confidence in his interpretation of Young’smagnum opus as practically a secret Mormon hymn.

* * *

Grimshaw writes that in his earliest interviews with Young, the composer “seemed to embrace [the] seeming incongruity” of discussing Mormonism as an influence on avant-garde art—“another testament, perhaps, to the breadth of his eclectic spirituality.” It’s true that, until quite recently, Grimshaw’s 2001 article was available for sale on Young and Zazeela’s Mela Foundation website. Young tells me now that he never actually read “The Sonic Search…”; what may be easier to believe is that he found its imaginative speculations fairly innocuous in the context of an academic paper in a specialized journal—especially since any objective reader would conclude that the article does not come close to proving very much—but that the position that this material, virtually unchanged from its earliest incarnation, has in the book gives it an undue significance, forcing upon it a weight it cannot carry.

Grimshaw suggests that Young may now want to distance himself more from the Mormonism of his childhood because “several high-profile figures and issues have not only placed a spotlight on Mormonism but also bound it tightly, at least in the public eye, to a type of American social conservatism that stands at odds with Young’s personal politics.” I can’t imagine why Grimshaw hedges the attribution of social conservatism to contemporary Mormons with such a qualifier as “at least in the public eye,” but certainly the Mormons that Young grew up among were, if anything, no more socially progressive than the fellow currently running for president. Grimshaw writes that in 1955 (oops, it was actually the summer of 1956) Young had “a falling out with his grandmother and step-grandfather Wilde” and left their house to live on his own. He does not report that Young’s precipitate departure was a reaction to his step-grandfather’s telling Billy Higgins and friends, who had come to pick up Young for a gig, “You coons go home!” For the first week after that, Young tells me—as Grimshaw does not—he slept at Billy Higgins’s place. Mormon patriarch Brigham Young (no relation) instituted the tradition in his faith of excluding most African-Americans from participation in temple ceremonies and eligibility for the priesthood, a ban lifted only on September 30, 1978, supposedly thanks to a “revelation” received by the church’s elders. Our man Young had started fraternizing with black folks while still in high school and playing Dixieland, jazz and blues (La Monte was crazy for the blues) and he recalls that by this time he was a long way from Mormonism.

Young was still living with his grandmother when he first heard the call of the East and of the raga tradition that would, melding musical and spiritual discipline, transform his life in so many ways. In 1956 or ’57 “the first full-length raga ever released in the West” (as he told Frank J. Oteri in 2003) came to him over the radio waves and he rushed out to buy the record. “Raga Sindh Bhairavi…. it had such an influence on me…. I went into my room and I listened to it for days and days.” At least as much as Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod, it was the sound of the accompanying tambura (played by Dr. Shirish Gor) that entranced him. “A drone with nothing else around it, just a drone. Only for an instant, you know, it seemed like so much then but when I go back to the recording and listen it’s only a few seconds.” Grandma Wilde showed her disapproval by writing “opium music” on the LP.

We all bear traces of our pasts, whether we like it or not. Young was raised in a very devout family and had a perfect attendance record at church services, and it is amusing when Grimshaw finds him echoing, possibly unconsciously, the precise wording of a Mormon tract the composer used to hand out as a youthful “home missionary”: “Where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?” When Young states that he feels like he is doing what he was put on earth to do, Grimshaw hears a clear echo of the Mormon notion of “foreordination,” the pre-existence of each soul before birth and its assignment to a particular task. Young himself has often stated that he was influenced by the specifically Mormon inflection of the Christian concept of eternal life. Mormonism imagines existence after death in somewhat concrete detail, with much of the church’s ritual revolving around the afterlife: Mormons baptize the dead so they will be allowed into Heaven, and perform “celestial marriage” ceremonies to assure wedded bliss beyond the pearly gates. Young calls the Mormon heaven “a very Pollyanna-ish place” and says that he knew early on that there were “more sophisticated ways of thinking.” Yet he has also said more than once, as here to Ian Nagoski in 1995, that “one of the really important concepts that I think came from the Mormon church and directly into my music was the concept of eternity…. It’s very related to the Hindu concept that the soul is immortal. I think there’s no doubt that my interest in Eternal Music, the idea that a piece could go on forever, in fact, was influenced by these kinds of concepts of eternity. Later, after I became interested in Eastern musics, poetries, and philosophies, they, too, reinforced this concept. In fact, they may have been what really brought this concept to the fore in my work. But I think the germ for it was already there in the background from Mormonism.”

Young never formally requested that his name be removed from the Mormon membership rolls, but he dates his departure from the church from sometime during his teens. Questioned by a panel of elders to determine if he was ready to advance to the next certified stage in spiritual development (“from the Aaronic…to the Melchizedek priesthood”), Young told his interviewers that he no longer believed Mormonism was the only true religion. “I didn’t leave because I didn’t think it was true. I left because I thought all spiritual paths were true,” Young told Nagoski, in words reminiscent of William Blake’s maxim that “Every thing Capable of being Believed is an Image of the Truth.” “The Divinity is like a brilliant jewel with many facets, and each prophet was able to catch a glimpse of one facet. And the light was so brilliant, and the truth was so profound, that the prophet felt that he had found the Way…. Pandit Pran Nath even likes to point out that religions are really the cause of wars, and that spirituality, true spirituality, is beyond the confines of any particular religion.”

When Nagoski alluded to an often-quoted statement of Young’s about the goal he sets for himself as an artist, Young replied: “I said that if people didn’t feel swept away to Heaven, I was failing. I really feel that is an absolutely essential element. The concept of Heaven can probably be thought of in a pretty broad way…. Pandit Pran Nath used to point out when he was teaching us about intonation…that when you become perfectly in tune in your singing, this is meeting to [sic] God…. through that frequency you tune directly into a higher state of universal consciousness.” A bit later in the conversation, answering Nagoski’s question about where his mind would go when, as a child, he indulged in daydreaming (for which he was notorious), Young says, “Dreamy thoughts… I liked clouds…. I think that there could have been an effort to try to get a sense of what it was like to be in Heaven, because these ideas were in the air in church.” Here Zazeela interjects, “I never thought you actually meant Heaven by that statement. I always thought you meant more of a sense of being transported to maybe an out-of-body experience or an ecstatic state, but not Heaven in the conventional, religious…” Grimshaw sees Zazeela here as “express[ing] surprise at the literalness with which [Young] speaks of the idea of heaven,” while Young insists that this exchange reveals no “conceptual disjunction” between him and his wife. It seems Zazeela wanted to forestall a potential confusion on the part of the interviewer and eventual readers between Young’s visualization of Heaven when he was a church-going child with his use of the trope (“heaven”) today. Young certainly doesn’t disagree with her, but says, “I think it’s all interrelated, though. That if you can get into a transported, out-of-body, ecstatic state that that is a part of it. That is a step towards it. In fact, the degree to which you can do it, that may actually be it.” Young does see his music as a way to connect with God—literally. And with truth: “It relates to the concept of trance…of meditation…of prayer…to the concept of being in tune…. what I am interested in in music is becoming the receptor of a higher state of information that can flow through me and then become manifest physically as music, which can then be experienced by people who listen to it…. And then they, too, can have that experience of the truths that the physical manifestation presents to them.”

If Young’s “heaven” is not so much a future destination as a here-and-now experience, this experience is also a stage on an endless spiritual path, a notion that resonates with the distinctively Mormon concept of the sanctified soul’s “eternal progression” to Godhood and beyond. “We are at a very evolved point in evolution as humans, and I believe that some of us can actually change ourselves in our own lifetime,” Young (clearly not referring to Darwinian theory) told Oteri. “What are we doing when we’re learning these special intervallic ratios? Well, nobody ever listened to them before. Until I had a Rayna synthesizer I couldn’t listen to these intervals. So, I’m affecting my own evolution by learning what these intervals are, by listening to them, by presenting them to people to listen to, we’re changing.” What makes Young’s approach to God particularly “Mormon,” according to Grimshaw, is that it is by way of knowledge, technique, science, which Grimshaw sees as following from the monism that is a distinction of the faith. Mormonism, as Terryl Givens writes (in By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion), “collapse[s] the spiritual and earthly realms, confirm[s] the corporeality of God, insist[s] that ‘all matter is spirit.’” Grimshaw (citing Erich Robert Paul, author of Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology), writes that “because Mormons think of spirit as just a more rarefied kind of matter and of heaven as just a more distant place, any scientific pursuit is also, on some level, a spiritual one—and vice versa.” Grimshaw points to studies indicating that there are a disproportionate number of Mormons in the sciences, and even writing science fiction, as well as to two striking examples of Mormons who broke ground in the study of sound in ways quite germane to Young’s work: Harvey Fletcher, first president of the American Acoustical Society (1929), determined that the presence of the harmonics of a fundamental frequency will make that tone perceptible even though it is not actually present; and Stanley Smith Stevens established Harvard’s psychoacoustic laboratory. We also learn that three other significant contemporary just intonation composers, the late James Tenney, David Doty (cofounder of the Just Intonation Network) and Ervin Wilson, were Mormons for at least part of their childhoods (though that may not be statistically significant). Grimshaw thinks a Mormon upbringing could have had something to do with these composers’ receptivity to the theory behind just intonation, which he nevertheless seems to regard as a sort of error and typifies throughout his book as “acoustic positivism.” “One might speculate that by approaching musical composition at the level of raw acoustical materials and attributing to those materials literal rather than merely evocative power, these composers share an underlying assumption that those material actions are not merely mediated through symbolic interpretation, but rather actually function in a literal or causal way to initiate some kind of spiritual enhancement.” This distinction between “literal” and “evocative” power, in reference to the effect of a work of art, is extremely abstract and metaphysical, and I don’t know how believing such a thing would make a difference in the way anyone writes music. The justification for ascribing, however tentatively, this specific view to all these composers seems tenuous at best. Tenney, for one, said that composing for him was “mainly motivated by curiosity,” and his harmonic theory was straight Helmholtzian psychoacoustics, with no metaphysical chaser. But as we shall see, this is the theory Grimshaw discerns behind Young’s adherence to just intonation.

You might think that a supposed substratum of Mormon monism in Young’s aesthetic would make Grimshaw more receptive to its premises. Yet he regards Young’s statement that “if people are not carried away to heaven, I’m failing” as the type of “grand notion” that would make some look askance at the composer and as exemplifying the “cosmological baggage” that may put off some prospective listeners. (It strikes me as rather a modest avowal, as Young does not express an absolute certainty of success. I must add that his music has never failed to carry me away to heaven… and I’m an atheist.) Grimshaw’s over-ingenious interpretation of this remark is that it is an allusion to the old Mormon cosmology—soft-pedaled by the modern, mainstream church but, Grimshaw speculates, instilled in Young in the rural temples of his youth. In the Mormon universe, heaven, the abode of God, is the central celestial body (variously described as a planet and a star) named Kolob. One day on Kolob is said to be equal to a thousand earth years, with the “reckoning of time” on the other heavenly bodies being progressively shorter as their orbits are further from God. “One hardly has to resort to metaphor to map harmonic-series-based tuning onto this hierarchical system,” writes Grimshaw. “The periodicity of the heavenly star Kolob as it rotates on its axis serves as a kind of fundamental tone, with all the other heavenly bodies moving in ordered, hierarchical harmony, like Kolob’s overtones.” If this isn’t metaphor, what is it? The Mormon text says nothing at all about the ratios between the respective temporal scales on the spheres governed by Kolob. I have to admit that Grimshaw’s analogy is poetic and evocative. He merely fails to establish that this fanciful correlation was ever in any way decisive, important or even recognized by Young—who tells me that he remembers singing the hymn about Kolob in church but not ever reading the relevant scripture.

That Grimshaw makes so much of this may indicate that our intrepid author will not allow himself to be carried away by Young’s music unless he can convince himself that (“on some level”) it is taking him to a Mormon heaven. Well, good luck with that. When he falls back on another writer’s description of the harmonic “clouds” that are the crowning glory of The Well-Tuned Piano—”[Kyle] Gann, for example, reports hearing ‘foghorns, voices, bells, even machinery’ in these passages”—I find myself wondering, What did Grimshaw hear? Didn’t grab him? He does refer to Young’s manipulation of psychoacoustic phenomena as “alchemy,” which may show a bit of enthusiasm leaking out, but at the same time he regales us with a caricature of the composer’s supposedly hyperbolic claims that he is bringing some light to benighted humanity: “In this performance that claims the power of prophecy, this musical work that aspires to the status of scripture…” Very strangely picking on a passage in Young’s notes for the Gramavision release that alerts the listener to the extreme range of dynamic variation in the recording and suggests how the volume control should be set, Grimshaw sarcastically cracks, “One wonders what other canonical works, in Young’s estimation, might share the volume dial with The Well-Tuned Piano.” There might be a good number of those (Webern, Debussy…). “Classical” or “serious” music typically has a wider dynamic range than rock or other popular genres with which many in Young’s eclectic potential audience may be more familiar. Grimshaw marvels that Young “presents the work as nothing short of musical revelation, sonic scriptures to be studied through close and repeated listening.” Surely both repeated listening and close study of this monumental work, as of any great music, are to be fervently recommended, and Young’s masterpiece is a revelation. It picks you up and carries you across the threshold of a new world of harmonies and infinite resonances. When Terry Riley wrote that “this is a Holy Work,” he was not repeating the dogmatic assertion of some sect but attempting to express his sincere reverence and awe.

In his introduction, Grimshaw writes, “I enjoyed a degree of personal engagement with the composer that leaves me open, perhaps, to the criticism that in assessing Young’s music I have mistaken advocacy for analysis.” He needn’t worry about that. Should we blame it on overcompensation taken to an absurd level, or does he really have such a jaundiced view of his subject? Grimshaw grandly promises that he “will seek to illuminate the principles, ideas, impulses, and values on which Young bases his aesthetic and to consider his work in those terms, rather than to pass judgment on Young’s overall aims and lofty claims” (emphasis added); the phrase “lofty claims” itself passes judgment. He avers that he has “tried in this book to explain, rather than defend, Young’s self-perception,” which implies that there is something questionable about said “self-perception.” “In considering Young’s cosmic aspirations I recall Harold Bloom’s fascination with Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. The historicity or veracity of Smith’s revelations were of little concern to Bloom: ‘I assume that magical trance-states were involved,’ he speculated, ‘so that we can dismiss the literalism both of [Smith’s prophecies] and of conscious charlatanry.’” How nice of Grimshaw to absolve Young of the charge of “conscious charlatanry” (elsewhere we find him hazarding a comparison of Young with the Wizard of Oz, and his introduction is framed by a joke hinging on the tale of the emperor’s new clothes). He is far more guilty of “literalism” than Young has ever been.

“In some of my writings,” Young says in his online statement, “I have quoted a famous Sufi story where the soul comes to earth for the purpose of studying music. Instead of acknowledging this parable as a Sufi story, Jeremy erroneously reports this information as: ‘He [Young] claims that God created the body so that the soul could come to Earth to study music so that it could have a better understanding of universal structure. In short, Young sees himself as a divinely appointed, predestined restorer and refiner of ancient knowledge with special access to certain fundamental truths of existence, which he articulates through music.’” You can tell that Young thinks this is all a bit much. When Young refers to his earliest memories of sustained tones as having been an influence on his later work, this becomes for Grimshaw a claim that the composer’s “musical destiny had been prophesied in the hums and drones of his earliest memories”—as if the universe sang for the birth of Orpheus. Yes, Young is of a mystical bent, he’s quite a spiritual cat, everybody knows that, but I’ve never known him to refer to himself as a “prophet” (aside from a joke, duly reported by Grimshaw). Even so, I think it’s somewhat unfair of Grimshaw, who can write without any disclaimer or qualifier that “in 1820…Joseph Smith, Jr., then fourteen years old, received the first of several divine visitations” and that the Mormons’ Book of Abraham was “received” by Joseph Smith “through some type of oracular transmission,” to become suddenly a skeptic when he declares that “Young, in an act of grand misprision, sees himself just as he had been taught as a child to see Joseph Smith: as a prophet chosen by God to restore hidden truths that had been hidden during a long period of apostasy—truths with all the potential to transform the mortal into the divine” (emphasis added). I know whom I have believed (1 Timothy 1:12). I have heard the music of La Monte Young with my own ears. Young’s records, rare as they are, have an actual physical existence. No one can prove this was ever true about Joseph Smith’s golden plates.

* * *

At the crossroads of science, music and mysticism, Grimshaw introduces the reader to French musicologist Albert Roustit, who considered himself an atheist until, in the late 1960s, he became convinced of the existence of a divine designer behind Creation through his reading of Hermann von Helmholtz’s great nineteenth-century writings on acoustics (his On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music is a Bible to many just intonationists). Roustit devised a system ostensibly connecting stages in the evolution and supposed modern degeneration of musical harmony with pivotal points in history and the Christian account of the spiritual development of humanity, from the Fall through Christ’s resurrection to the coming apocalypse. Numerological calculations told him that there should have been a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the years between 1798 and 1844, and when he learned that this period covered the time during which Joseph Smith is said to have had his revelations, he was compelled to become a Mormon. The name of the church, particularly as it is rendered in French, also seems to have had a great deal to do with his decision: L’Eglise de Jésus Christ des Saints des derniers jours—not merely “latter” but “the last” days. The end of Time was Roustit’s idée fixe, and one he happened to share with his former teacher Olivier Messiaen, who essentially for that reason, though disagreeing with much else in Roustit’s highly eccentric work, Le Prophétie musicale dans l’histoire de l’humanité, agreed to write a preface for the book. “I confess that I was shaken…by the extraordinary coincidences that burst forth from every page,” Messiaen says (, launching into a litany of other “signs of the times”: proclamations by seers and saints, visitations by the Virgin Mary, the return of the Jews to Palestine… “It is prudent to be prepared.”

The story of Roustit’s mad adventure was simply too good not to retell here, but back to serious matters. Hearing from Messiaen should remind us that it is far from unusual for composers to hold to some far-out mystical ideas, and that we don’t usually let that affect our evaluation of their music. Grimshaw maintains that Young “takes as his goal the utter conflation of compositional method and cosmological aspiration,” and that therefore “any claims regarding the ‘success’ of [his] efforts fall, in a certain sense, closer to the purview of the mystic than that of the musicologist.” But the compositions stand on their own, quite aside from any “cosmological” justification, and no detail of them has been determined by supposed “cosmological” correlations. For example, there is no religio-cosmological reason for the avoidance in most of Young’s compositions of intervals derived from the fifth harmonic; this is a purely aesthetic decision arising from Young’s own sensibility, an element in his creation of a personal idiom. Young has at times tied his use of long sustained tones to the idea of the continuous music of the spheres, saying that “through long sustained tones I was able to make a model manifest that was especially representative.” He has also put it like this: “These sustained tones are a model for the music of the spheres” (emphasis added). He in fact stressed recently in conversation with your reporter that his inspiration for the Trio for Strings did not arise from any such notion. It’s clear that there is no pre-existing template of the “music of the spheres” outside the tones themselves, nothing imposed on the musical form from a cosmological scheme. The ratios Kepler found between the maximum and minimum angular speeds of the planets in our solar system are uncannily analogous to familiar musical intervals, but Young doesn’t model his compositions on any specific celestial model—no more than he limits himself to familiar intervals. Zazeela says that Grimshaw doesn’t seem to realize that “music is itself a spiritual Path, with a capital ‘P.’ ” Young has said that music—all music, high and low—is “the language of God.” It even seems that to Young “God” and “music” are virtually interchangeable terms—or “God” and “sound,” as in the Nada yoga tradition embodied by Pandit Pran Nath. His revelations are received musically and musically retransmitted. If the notion of the music of the spheres inspired Young to begin writing long sustained tones, it was only through the playing of long sustained tones that he discovered the power of just intonation—through praxis (“I find it very workable for me”). For someone with Young’s sensitive ear, protracted involvement with sustained tones might have made the turn to just intonation virtually inevitable.

Just intonation is before anything else an aesthetic technique, and one that, like perspective in painting, rests upon certain indisputable physical facts. “Psychoacoustician John Molino,” Grimshaw writes, “compares Young’s use of psychoacoustic principles to the approach early Impressionist painters took to combining patches of paint in such a way that certain colors would appear even though they were nowhere on the canvas.” Grimshaw also cites, besides the Mormon Fletcher’s discovery that harmonically related pitches evoke an unplayed fundamental pitch, recent psychoacoustical research showing that the implied, virtual fundamental and an actually played fundamental pitch are perceived by two different, and independently functioning, parts of the brain. In his own experience of Young and Zazeela’s Dream House, Grimshaw found the harmonic centering of the incredibly complex waveform saturating the room to be a palpably real phenomenon. Yet Grimshaw says of the drone composition installed in the Dream House: “A musical work that strives for synthesis not only with visual elements”——(hold it just a second there! Young’s music doesn’t “strive” for any such thing, and he strove for no such thing when he wrote it; “Whereas analogies and comparisons can be drawn…they came about after the fact,” say Young and Zazeela themselves, quoted by Grimshaw twenty-three pages away. Now, where were we?)——“A musical work that strives for synthesis…with cosmological contexts leaves little room for extricating governing compositional principles.” What is that supposed to mean? There’s no sense in which Young had to struggle to reconcile his composition with a pre-existing “cosmological” scheme. The reasons Young gives for his selection of tones have nothing extra-musical about them, as Grimshaw himself testifies: “Young favors prime-numbered harmonics precisely for their aurally discernible qualities.” As Grimshaw well knows and himself describes, Young has been very explicit about how the piece is composed—the title itself explains a great deal. The tones are arrayed entirely according to Young’s musical predilections, starting with his attraction to the space between the harmonic seventh and the ninth and his interest in certain, mathematically defined pairs of prime-numbered harmonics. If Grimshaw means that it is hard to grasp the form of the composition by ear, his account of his own epiphany while immersed in it would seem to belie that assertion. Yet Grimshaw maintains that “such a work problematizes attempts to discern its methods because it does what it does psychophysiologically.” I’m tempted to say, Doesn’t all music, all art? But we know he means something very specific by that. “The quantifiable acoustic relationships that comprise the piece purport to convey meaning because those same relationships remain intact at each step of the journey, from the sine waves…to the resultant neurochemical pulses in the brain…. Supposedly, since those relationships derive from the concrete physics of the harmonic series, no shared, external ‘language’ or frame of reference is required to perceive them; Young’s music claims to speak in the universal, irreducible language of pure vibration.” (Who could ask for anything more?)

That’s a fair paraphrase of Young’s views. He does indeed say that the utilization of the harmonic series gives direct apprehension of “universal laws of structure.” Grimshaw clearly finds this grandiose; it certainly is cosmic, and reminiscent of the Vedic tradition that the universe is a manifestation of primordial vibration, symbolized by the mystic syllable OM. But it would be foolish to deny that the laws of vibrational motion and wave mechanics pervade the universe; after all, harmonic analysis is not only the name of a musical activity. We don’t even have to bring in string theory, which no one has yet figured out how to prove; we already know that all material things are ultimately energy in vibration. To say that of all the arts music gives the most direct experience of vibration as such is also noncontroversial. Sound, as distinct from the vibrations that cause it, is of course only a phenomenon, a way things appear to us; but a perceptual quality of a sound (pitch, for example) can be experienced in direct relation to vibrational change (in this case, in frequency); while we never sense a change in color as a change in the frequency of light. (We cannot perceive even one entire “octave” of light frequencies—that is, we cannot see light of the frequency double the lowest visible frequency. We will never know what an “octave” of red looks like, and we cannot even imagine it.) Young has written that “periodic sound waveforms may be singularly perceptible models of the fundamental principles of vibrational structure. The sensations of ineffable truths that we sometimes experience when we hear progressions of chords and intervals tuned in just intonation may indeed be our underlying, subliminal recognition of the broader, more universal implications of these fundamental principles.” I mentioned to Young that Grimshaw frames part of this as an unqualified assertion, despite the conditional phrasing—“may indeed be”—and he said, “Everything I’ve ever written is full of qualifications.” However, in interviews he has at times stated the same thing in more absolute terms. Note that what he does assert unqualifiedly, in this writing, is that just intonation induces profound feelings in hearers. This is an empirical finding; only the rest is theory, and not terribly far-fetched at that. “In short,” Grimshaw continues, “Young believes that intervals based on the harmonic series resonate with the macrocosm in a way that irrational intervals do not.” But the undeniable thing about intervals based on the harmonic series is that they resonate with one another, the degree to which they resonate with the “macrocosm” being rather a moot point (Young does tune his environments so as not to clash with the ambient, and artificial, electrical hum, but this of course relates to some universal primordial tone only in the most metaphoric way). These intervals resonate in the ear and mind of the listener because their rational periodicities are immediately graspable by human cognition. In the cacophonous world at large, the pure ratios of the harmonic series are more often than not distorted by the refractions imposed by physical matter.

“‘When I hear intervals in equal temperament, it’s like they remind me of the truth,’ says Young, ‘whereas when I hear intervals in just intonation, it’s as though I’m hearing the truth.’” That the irrational intervals in the equal-tempered scale are approximations of rational intervals derived from the harmonic series (the primes 2, 3 and 5) is no longer debatable, and there’s no question that just intonation provides, to use a visual analogy, a higher resolution of the harmonic “image,” making the relations between tones clearer and “sharper,” so to speak. The intensified sense of tonality created by the sustenance of the tones and the precision of their tuning allows access, more on an intuitive than an analytic level, to the perception of more distant overtones as “meaningful” musical entities (i.e., as consonances). Rameau regarded the seventh harmonic and all above it as irredeemably dissonant, but in The Well-Tuned Piano Young created a sound world largely built around the seventh. Just intonation is typically taken to refer to the utilization of small whole-number ratios, but Young’s exploration of the harmonic series has reached into progressively higher numbers and stranger ratios, producing intervals unlike anything ever before heard by humans and never even achievable before the electronic age. The decisive question here, as with all music, is what (if anything) it makes you feel.

Grimshaw observes that “Young’s attribution of specific, quantifiable, acoustically causal psychophysiological power [to particular musical intervals] hearkened back to ancient forms of musical mysticism and cosmology.” I imagine that the early attribution of mystical significance and power to particular tonal intervals arose naturally from the intensity and variety of the sensations that the combined vibrations evoke. To accept the general premise that sounds can affect a hearer’s state of mind does not require submission to any esoteric credo. Yet Grimshaw suggests that “an act of faith” may be required to submit oneself to the sensations offered by intervals that have not been sanctioned by the prevailing culture. It may seem an odd stance for the leader of a gamelan orchestra, in which the instruments are not tuned according to Western norms or even to a standard common to all such orchestras. However, this musical form is a cultural heritage, sustained by long years of tradition. Gamelan scales, moreover, are rather unusual among the planet’s musical languages in that they seem to have nothing to do with the harmonic series, making this music the epitome of the kind of “culturally contingent and acoustically arbitrary syntax” that Grimshaw contrasts with what he sees as Young’s way of “treating sound as irreducible, unmediated, ontic.”

* * *

Grimshaw tells us up front, “I will…conflate Young’s methods and metaphors into an all-encompassing model.” Such hubris is riding for a fall, and like Roustit reading history, Grimshaw does quite innocently fall, time and again, victim to his own interpretive monomania. His desire to cram everything into one bag leads him to offer, in Chapter 2, a strained interpretation of the most conceptual works from the transitional Compositions 1960 as all secreting the theme of the entire Young corpus—which is supposed to be “directed motion, or Teleology,” if you’re wondering.1 This is a neat trick, talking about the composer who more than any other has stopped Time. It seems, though, that Grimshaw actually feels, as I do, that the one work from that period that most clearly heralds all of Young’s later career would have to be #7: “Whatever other ‘statement,’ aesthetic, political, or ideological, that might be embedded within or read into Young’s sustained B and F#, the primary statement is ontological: listen to what sound is. Such a statement could be taken to summarize the overall thrust of Young’s entire oeuvre.” But that wouldn’t have made a very good title for Grimshaw’s book, would it, so for that he appropriated the entirety of #10, and only then, I suspect, came up with a remotely plausible reason. He thereby shows that the “teleological eye” he attributes to Young is not nearly as “obsessive” (one of his favorite terms for the composer) as his own.

Grimshaw recalls his wariness and skepticism when attending a performance of Composition 1960 #7 in 2001: “having heard my share of perfect fifths…I certainly wasn’t there to find out what a B and an F# sounded like.” The score consists of just those two notes, “to be held a long time.” The setting of this concert is described by Grimshaw as “a small gallery space in a second-floor walk-up in lower Manhattan,” although it was in fact composer Michael Schumacher’s Diapason, which at that time was located on Sixth Avenue, between 38th and 39th streets (midtown). This venue was nothing like the institutional milieu within which, Young has said, the Compositions 1960 were originally intended to work as provocations, and in which this piece might have been presented in the most minimalist manner, with only one or two instruments. It was at this date performed rather as a celebration, with an ensemble consisting of electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, two cellos and two contrabasses. The timbral richness must have been breathtaking from the very beginning—to the initiated, at least. In this case the “long time” required by the score came out to eighty-five minutes, which left Grimshaw nearly an hour still to enjoy the piece when, “around the thirty-minute mark,” he started to appreciate it.

Grimshaw typifies Young’s concept of “vertical listening” as taking music into a spatial rather than a temporal dimension. Personally, if I were to apply the phrase “space exploration”—part of the titles of two chapters here—to Young’s work, I would have in mind the portals his music opens to hidden worlds of harmony, analogous to the higher spatial dimensions that superstring theory hypothesizes are curled up inside the ones we know. Young’s notion of getting “inside the sound” is a spatial trope that fits with that meaning as well as with Grimshaw’s, which refers to the way Young’s “static” drone compositions are effectively present all at once and all around you, sculpting the air with sonic information that varies with your position in the room. When Young remarks that his music sometimes gives him the sensation that Time has stopped, this is of course not inapt as a figure of speech. But Zazeela has said, “We determined at a certain point that our medium was time” (“hearing in the present tense”), and the Dream House, sound and light, is emphatically four-dimensional. The perception of pitch itself, as a subjective synthesis of received vibrational stimuli according to frequency, is obviously dependent on the passage of time. What Young calls a “drone state of mind” allows entrance to an altered temporal perception, the sensation of an endlessly expanding single moment. This may be the time to remark that, although Grimshaw mentions Young’s long experience with mind-expanding drugs, quotes him on their potential usefulness and dutifully includes a few pages on the composer’s relations with “the psychedelics” (Grimshaw’s term for people who experimented with and proselytized for them), he says nothing at all about the effect such substances have on the time sense (this should not be surprising when we remember that Grimshaw is a practicing Mormon). A person under the influence of psychedelics, even the milder hallucinogens like marijuana, commonly has the sense that time is slowing down to a crawl because the filter of normal consciousness has become porous, allowing normally subconscious microperceptions and trains of thought to flood in. The richer the moment, the longer it seems to take to pass, and if you were suddenly aware of everything that is happening in the world, a nanosecond would seem an eternity. This stretching of time is one reason musicians have so often been potheads.

Young’s gravitation toward static form (and “minimalism”) in his serialist phase is described convincingly in Grimshaw’s first chapter, a markedly more incisive take on the origins of Young’s aesthetic than chapter 5’s forced flight to Kolob. It is also almost the only part of the book—along with the appendix chronologically listing all of Young’s works, taken direct from the composer’s computer—that provided me with any new information about Young’s music (and I don’t know if this chapter is marred by errors in the transcription of scores). The subjection of pitch sequences to the permutations of the tone row and the leveling of all pitches to equality suspended harmonic motion and gave serialism a latent tendency toward stasis, which would encourage focus on other aspects of tones besides their functions in linear movement. Grimshaw notes that Young’s “earliest works, following in the serialist tradition, de-emphasize narrative or expressive concerns, articulating instead certain abstract, objective, and immanent principles of structure,” such as Webernesque palindromic mirroring, which reflects Young’s abiding fascination with symmetry. Most suggestively, Grimshaw’s analysis detects the seed of minimalism à la Young in the phenomenon of invariance, in which certain serial procedures leave elements of the row unchanged, so that these abstract, formal transformations result concretely in the identical repetition of sonorities. Young has often spoken of Webern’s influence; as he told Edward Strickland, “One of the things I liked about Webern, in addition to all the internal detail and complexity…was the very static sections…. In Webern’s Bagatelles, there were little static sections, like a chime, or a music box, or time ticking off. Then later in the slow movement of the Opus 21 Symphony, there’s a very beautiful section many people talk about, where each time A comes or B-flat or C or E-flat there’s a certain octave placement maintained throughout.” Grimshaw cites George Rochberg on Webern’s “intense preoccupation with what I shall call harmonic identity” and Rochberg’s finding that Webern’s repetition of chordal units via serial invariance worked to create a “tonal locus” that could facilitate “maximum comprehension” of serial structure “via aural perception not analytically, but synthetically—in the same way that the eye takes in a field of objects without necessarily making analytic judgments of their dimensions, relations in space, etc.” Schoenberg had claimed that the sole purpose of twelve-tone technique was “comprehensibility,” but as Richard Taruskin points out, for most serial compositions “the coherence of the serial structure could only be demonstrated conceptually—that is, on paper—to professionals. As increasing numbers of musicians are now willing to concede, there is no possibility of perceptual corroboration; and musical psychologists are beginning to suspect that the mind’s structure may actually preclude the cognitive processing—the ‘understanding’—of nonhierarchical pitch and rhythmic information.” Young has stated that in writing the Trio for Strings, his final twelve-tone work, he aimed to make “the serial technique synonymous with the audible structure.” He was then only on the verge of discovering the intensified “tonal locus” provided by just intonation. Kyle Gann remarks that in one of Young’s first works consciously utilizing the harmonic series, the (retroactively named) Pre-Tortoise Dream Music, “the melody…expresses a logic based in tuning, and the order of its pitches is conducive to feeling the tuning of each new note” (emphasis added).

Grimshaw sees the Trio, however, as the place in Young’s work where the heretofore “strong conceptual connection between structure (the idea) and sound (its realization)…. breaks down,” because the piece is so strung out that the structural connections between its tones can barely be perceived. Especially the B-flat sounding by itself at the work’s structural center is heard as a naked sound, stripped of all context except whatever memories and associations a listener might bring to it. To whatever degree this might be true for various listeners, it must be less true of the later version in just intonation; long immersion in a particular tonality would reinforce the “identity” of the solitary tone. The lone B-flat at the structural center of the Trio is not implausibly connected by Grimshaw to Young’s memory of the wind singing in the chinks of the log cabin when he was a child and more literally (though it would be a whole quarter-tone off) to the 60 cycle hum of the American electrical grid. Grimshaw wastes some paragraphs (though he seems to be enjoying himself) at the end of chapter 2 on the tortuously conceived false problem of the illusorily “paradoxical combination of acoustic positivism and inexorable subjectivity” represented by the presence of personal sonic memories at the heart of music that purports to deploy laws of universal structure. He gives no source for his statement that Young was drawn to serialism by a desire to shed “cultural and personal ‘baggage’” and that he regarded serialism as ‘the most abstract, least culturally contingent—perhaps, he might have thought, ‘truest’—kind of compositional practice,” but he is probably on solid ground when he postulates that Young’s “interest was not so much in serialism’s systematic way of articulating abstract relationships through sound…but in its capacity to strip sounds of their accrued baggage so that their ‘true’ sonic beauty could be appreciated with fresh ears” (though the repeated bracketing of “true” with quotemarks seems tendentious). Stating his goal of demonstrating that “over the course of his career, Young’s compositional methods become increasingly enmeshed with and indistinguishable from the philosophical and spiritual beliefs that inform them,” and seeking the point at which mysticism began to subsume musicology, Grimshaw draws a line in the sand between Young’s earlier music, in which “structure…remains within the bounds of traditional tuning, notation, and analysis,” and later works that “make clearer Young’s insistence that truly ‘objective’ music [this is not a phrase Young uses; maybe he has him mixed up with Gurdjieff?] considered as a literally physical ‘object,’ [why the quotemarks? These are not Young’s words] is the exclusive domain of the real world of sound, not a ‘deeper’ level of abstract relationships. This approach turns the tables of musical ontology, relegating everything except the physical phenomenon of sound—including the graphic syntax of notation, the aural syntax of presupposed tuning parameters (i.e., equal temperament [Do you think he means “e.g.” rather than “i.e.”? Afraid not…]) and compositional processes, and the abstract relationships comprehended within those parameters and processes by analysis—to the realm of the ‘extramusical.’” This seems to state (but that would be very odd) that either you’re working with “presupposed tuning parameters”—meaning equal temperament—and standard graphic notation etc., or you can explain whatever you think you’re doing only by way of the “philosophical and spiritual beliefs” that “inform” your compositional practices. Where has this man been for the past hundred years?

As Grimshaw sees it, the normal state of affairs, overturned by Young, is that “pure sound”—sound as “unmediated physical entity”—is regarded as the “extramusical,” with the “musical” existing in “the abstract realm of systems.” Grimshaw suggests that Young, in simply presenting sound in its “concrete ontological irreductibility,” embraces a kind of nature mysticism. Cage was long ago accused of the same thing by certain critics; as Yvonne Rainer put it, “To have no desire for ‘improvements on creation’ is necessarily coequal to having no quarrel with—God-given—manifestations of reality.” Young took deep draughts of the heady air of liberation at the dawn of the age of experimental music—and we might say, as he has in another context, that he “never exhaled.” Cage’s declaration that “one must give up the desire to control sound, clear one’s mind of music, and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments” is echoed in Young’s Lecture 1960: “The trouble with most of the music of the past is that man has tried to make the sounds do what he wants them to do. If we are really interested in learning about sounds, it seems to me that we should allow the sounds to be sounds rather than trying to force them to do things that are mainly pertinent to human existence.” But it is actually very rare for a tone to exist in a work by Young that is not related to an “abstract realm of systems” (the last time, actually, was 1960’s Two Sounds). The harmonic series itself is just such a system, and Young’s compositional procedures utilizing it constitute another. Young believes that in communicating particular harmonic relationships his music relays a “higher state of information,” but evidently any translation of its message into other terms besides the musical expression, the “vibrational structure” itself—what Young calls “the mathematical abstract”—can be nothing but a paraphrase, a metaphor. We’re not so far here from James Tenney’s explanation that “what I want to be understood is just the message itself, the signal itself. It’s not about something else.”

It is telling that in summing up his argument Grimshaw cites Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning, by Daniel K. L. Chua (who is also, for what it’s worth, the composer of numerous Christian hymns). The book is a polemic against the “extra-musical” notion of absolute music, in particular as it was conceived by the Romantics of the nineteenth century, who looked to antiquity for a balm to the fragmentations of modernity. “In recent times, especially, the art of music, by its wresting itself from all content that is independently lucid, has withdrawn into the depths of its own medium”—that’s not Grimshaw but that old fogy G.W.F. Hegel. The Romantics’ resurrection of absolute music was “a symptom, not a solution,” and ultimately ersatz; absolute music in modern times “dreams of Pythagoras in equal temperament.” A couple pages before the passage Grimshaw cites (“The very fact that tuning seems such a marginal if not an irrelevant explanation of music’s meaning today testifies to a disenchanted world…”), Chua lets the reader hear the laments of Max Weber and Theodor Adorno about the historical abandonment of just intonation. “Music, by bowing to the regulations of [the twelfth root of 2] demanded by the technology of fretted and keyboard instruments, forfeits its power to enchant. The modern semitonal system is therefore instrumental reason as instrumental music, for it is the mechanisation of sound that rationalises the scale with the kind of efficiency and pragmatic economy that Weber associates with modern societies. This is why he claims that modern tuning, as a rationalisation of harmonic production, has desensitised modern ears with a ‘dulling effect’ and has shackled music in ‘dragging chains’” (emphasis added). That is, despite Weber’s graphic characterizations of the sonic effect, or lack of such, in the equal-tempered system, Chua sees only ideological motives behind his disdain. Adorno saw “serialism as the product of equal temperament, complet[ing] the disenchantment of music and so signal[ing] the end of modernity—indeed, of history itself…. If the ordering of sound reduces ‘the magic essence of music to human logic,’ he writes, then ‘the total organization of serialism’ is the ultimate alienation of music under the domination of human control.” Chua is skeptical: “If Weber and Adorno are correct, then tuning turns out to be the apocalypse of modernity. The slightest adjustment between intervals, it seems, can cause catastrophe. But why should we believe this disaster of semitonal proportions announced by Adorno? Why should Weber’s ‘fatal comma’ be so fatal?” It seems that Chua has decided that the only sane approach is the attitude of Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo’s father, who resigned himself to the imperfections of temperament when he realized that acoustic instruments produced imperfect intervals and that just tuning makes enharmonic modulation impossible (such modulation is necessary only in a certain kind of music, but that being the music of our culture…). “For Galilei, empirical reality was simply out of tune with the ancient world”; “imperfect music requires the imperfect tuning of an imperfect reality.” Grimshaw, while acknowledging that Young’s approach is “too rigorously scientific” to be considered Romantic, asserts that the composer “more properly belongs to a modern version” of the ancient world, which also believed, just as Grimshaw sees Young as claiming, that “music does not share a metaphorical or manifestational relationship with the universal governing principles that inform it, but rather extends from them along a single, contiguous ontological thread.” Although Young has created an utterly new form of sonic exploration that was not even technically possible before the current era, Grimshaw writes that Chua “restor[es] ‘absolute music’ to the rightful ownership of the ancients,” implying that Young’s theory depends upon similar mythological justifications. But Grimshaw is simply wrong to believe that Young’s adherence to just intonation is based on extra-musical, ideological considerations. It’s really only about the music. Absolutely.

# # #

1. In his effort to tie the conceptual works of the early 1960s to the rest of Young’s oeuvre, Grimshaw looks for “conceptual” elements in his most fully realized sonic creations and compares Composition 1960 #5, the release of a butterfly in the concert space, in which Grimshaw discerns the implicit message “you can’t hear it, but there’s music going on here,” to “some of the intonational subtleties in The Well-Tuned Piano and the Dream House installations,” which involve “realizations of harmonics so high in the natural overtone series that they differ from less pure intervals by degrees much too small for human ears to discern.” There is some confusion here. First, the well-tuning of Young’s piano was always finalized by ear, though the process began with the help of an oscilloscope and measurements from the previous performance. In the context of Young’s scale, all the tones function as their harmonic identity would indicate. But as the natural harmonics of piano strings fall out of line with the whole-number ratios of the ideal overtone series, certain of the resonances must be sacrificed for others to be reinforced; each tuning is an artful compromise, a pragmatic maximization of the possibilities at hand. Second, no matter how high or low you go in your selection from the overtone series, there is always a less pure interval anindiscernible distance away—and so what? Last, and more importantly, any difference between tones, no matter how indiscernible when they are heard consecutively, will eventually become perceptible if the tones are sustained long enough. You can determine if two tones are exactly in tune only by playing them together for a rather long time; your tuning is only as perfect as the measurement is long (but your tuning need only be as exact as the duration of your tone requires). If sustained together, subjectively identical tones whose frequencies are an indiscernible fraction of a hertz apart will eventually begin to phase-cancel each other, whether that takes an hour, a day, a week… The music that is going on in the highest registers in the Dream House is intended to be audible, though it may take a while to hear it fully.