I finally got around to visiting La Monte Young's and Marian Zazeela's Dream House today (beware: the web design hasn't been updated since 1998). It's a little sound/light installation tucked away in an apartment in Tribeca, on the floor above Young's and Zazeela's residence. I was really hoping to bump into the crazy minimalist on the stairs, but no such luck. A volunteer let me in (the installation is staffed entirely by MELA Foundation volunteers): two rooms, each bathed in violet light, with pillows on the floor.
I spent most of my time in the larger room, which had a shrine with a number of pictures on it---the light made it difficult to identify the individuals. What is amazing about the Dream House is that the music changes dramatically with the movement of your body. You shift your head slightly to the right, and a high pitch suddenly glissandos downwards. Electronic growls dissapate when you change your position; walking around the room becomes an adventure in different effects. There's a whole acoustic phenomenon to this which I know nothing about; it's present in Phil Niblock's massive soundscapes as well. It makes the listening experience confusing and liberating. It's difficult for me to not seek out narrative in music, something I find present in vast minimalist works like Music for Eighteen Musicians, but the Dream House essentially refutes this. You can create your own listening space within Young's musical space, by sitting in one position and focusing on what you hear and how it changes, or walking around and letting the changes happen to you.
I've never seen Young's music live--the closest thing to the Dream House for me would probably be last summer's Phil Niblock concert at Issue Project Room, or maybe Charlemagne Palestine's epic Schlingen-Blangen, the 2-hour organ meditation played by the composer at the minimalist conference in September. The immensity of sound in the Dream House was a visceral experience, perhaps made more so because I was alone in the room. I haven't read enough about Zazeela's lighting to write intelligently about it, but it set a calming mood against the relentlessly loud (but somehow, amazingly still) music. There was a beautiful moment when I looked out the window onto the cars drifting down rainy Church Street, tinted purple from the lighting, and felt like I was watching a scene from Koyannisqatsi.
La Monte Young is in a funny position for an O.G. minimalist (one of the four, with Reich, Glass, and Riley, named by Keith Potter in his seminal survey Four Musical Minimalists). Because his music is the least frequently performed and recordings are so difficult to obtain, his name is really not known outside a small circle. None of my friends in music school recognize his name or have heard his music; if asked to name four musical minimalists, they would probably say Adams, Reich, Glass, Riley (Riley only because In C is so omnipresent, and Adams is probably the most famous minimalist-who's-not-a-minimalist). Where Young may have exerted the most influence on his contemporaries in the '60s and '70s, he has essentially faded from the scene. The composers most like him played in his ensembles thirty years ago---the most recent postminimalists, like the Bang on a Canners, Nico Muhly, and the New Amsterdam crowd, don't seem to have a tenable relationship to his music. Young is partially to blame for his reduced presence; he is apparently incredibly difficult about allowing others to perform his music, and the few scholars (Kyle Gann included) who have attempted to analyze his works face his severe restrictions and requirements.
It would be unfortunate to see Young's music drift away from the importance it held in the Downtown scene thirty or forty years ago. The Well-Tuned Piano is stunningly beautiful and out of print. If the Dream House website is indicative of Young's internet presence, it's unlikely we'll see MP3s of any of his music in his lifetime. Not one of his works is on iTunes, and his ensemble plays only a handful of concerts each year. So actually, if you live in New York, your best bet for hearing his music is to go to the Dream House--it's worth it.