Richness in stasis: La Monte Young finally releases 'Trio'

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Richness in stasis: La Monte Young finally releases 'Trio'
In this photo provided by Jung Hee Choi, from left: Christopher Otto, Reynard Rott, Charles Curtis and Erik Carlson performing La Monte Young’s “Trio for Strings” in New York in 2015. Young, the breakthrough Minimalist composer, not known for making albums, has at last put out an authorized recording of the 64-year-old song. Jung Hee Choi via The New York Times.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- La Monte Young, now 86, has released a lot of music in the past few years.

In 2018, this composer and multi-instrumentalist, famed as a progenitor of minimalism, reissued a six-hour, 24-minute take on his mammoth work “The Well-Tuned Piano.” Last year, a significant portion of his slender back catalog, some of it long out of print on CD, reached the digital platform Bandcamp.

Most recently, Young has at last released a recording of his breakthrough composition, “Trio for Strings,” which he originally wrote in 1958, as he was beginning a period of study at the University of California, Berkeley.

All this activity is a bit of a surprise, because the student composer who shocked colleagues with “Trio” — a nearly hourlong piece that almost exclusively used long, sustained tones — has been famous for not putting out albums. For decades, you had to hunt down a bootleg of the piece to experience it.

Its streak of official unavailability finally ended late last year, when the Dia Art Foundation released a four-LP boxed set of a 182-minute live performance of “Trio” that was recorded during a concert series in 2015.

Over the decades, Young wasn’t merely sitting on the material; he was continually working on it, even designing a new tuning in just intonation, to better express some of its harmonic content. Speaking to William Robin for The New York Times before the live performance captured on the new release, Young said of the newly tuned and lengthened version, “It’s the way it really should have been, and can be, and will be.”

By then, “Trio” was devised for an augmented string quartet including two cellists, to prevent the need to hold double-stops in tune for impractically long stretches. The new boxed set lists the dates of composition as “1958-1984-1998-2001-2005-2015,” a 57-year gestation.

The new release is undeniably pricey, at $196. Aside from the four LPs, the box also includes a download code for a single-track, CD-quality file of the three-hour work, via Bandcamp. (Young’s other digital albums on Bandcamp range between $14 and $49 — the most expensive being the price for an audio version of that six-hour-plus performance of “The Well-Tuned Piano.”)

Is this “Trio” worth it? I got my copy for free — but as someone who paid secondhand prices for Young bootlegs and out-of-print discs in my pre-critic days, I can’t imagine not saving up to buy it if I had to.

The trip begins with a 33-minute exposition section, in which Young’s organizing 12-tone row is enumerated, very gradually. Compared with the recapitulation of these notes around the two-hour, nine-minute mark, the entry of certain notes during the exposition hits more harshly.

But the players — Charles Curtis and Reynard Rott on cellos, with Erik Carlson and Christopher Otto both doubling on viola and violin — have such a precise feel for intonation that the material maintains its blissfully harmonious profile. That’s true even during the exposition’s most hot-to-the-touch passage, a high-flown tetrachord of B, F sharp, F and E that emerges in the 16th minute. (The lack of any discordant acoustic beating is thanks to the just intonation tuning and to these players’ precision.)

Approximately two hours later — after the serial-style transformations of the exposition have run their course — this same chord comes back during the recapitulation. But it’s now beautiful in a different way, thanks to changes in voicing.

Otto, the violinist, wrote in an email that this is his favorite passage in the performance, citing “how the whole sonority fuses and resonates” and adding, “We also stagger the bow changes in a particular way that becomes a beautifully meditative ritual.”

This recording of “Trio” is essential in helping us understand not just Young’s growth but also that of minimalism. Otto, a composer himself, has taken insights gleaned from Young and used them in his own writing practice, as on the recent release on the Greyfade label “rag′sma” and in his vertiginously beating drone composition “Violin Octet.”

“I had been interested in just intonation and making connections with mathematical structures, influenced especially by Babbitt and Xenakis,” Otto said, “and Young’s music really made me aware of the richness within apparent stasis.”

Let that be a word of warning to anyone impatient. If you try to skip ahead to a supposedly dramatic climax, it won’t pay off. In Young’s work, you can’t feel the peaks of intensity without taking in the whole.

And besides, you’ll miss much else that transports. During the long development section of “Trio,” I adore a few briefer groupings of notes that reflect Young’s early enthusiasm for the Second Viennese School — particularly Webern’s epigrammatic style. That you can also hear bluesy Americana in some harmonies speaks to the world’s broad stylistic synthesis.

An essay by Young in the accompanying booklet, though, lays out his thoughts on the limitations of serialism. “Composers such as Webern, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote little points distributed in time,” he writes. “The tonal aspects of the system were underplayed and the democratic aspects of the system were emphasized, probably because, within the system of equal temperament, it was so inharmonious to sustain the tones for a long time.”

That’s a sharply observed insight about 20th-century music. But while processing this extended new recording of “Trio,” I also found myself thinking about recent long duration works in the world of film. After watching Paul Schrader’s latest movie, “The Card Counter” — a hypnotic slow burner starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish — I picked up Schrader’s book “Transcendental Style in Film.”

This early 1970s text gives Schrader’s thoughts on directors who move slowly and decisively, yet unpredictably. Even more intriguing is a new preface that he wrote for the book’s latest edition, in 2018. Here Schrader distinguishes the “transcendental” style of Ozu and others from what came afterward, namely, the “slow cinema” movement — think of directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hou Hsiao-hsien — that is by now familiar to film festival attendees.

“They push the viewer away from the ‘experience,’ that is, from immediate emotional involvement,” Schrader writes of slow cinema, adding, “This is different from modernistic distancing devices in the other arts to the same degree that cinema is different from earlier art forms.”

I underlined my copy and made a note: “Paul Schrader needs to hear ‘Trio for Strings.’”

With this latest just intonation version of “Trio,” Young has perfected his response to the serial tradition. And in doing so, the composer has taken an inverted route from the one Schrader has witnessed in the world of film: Young started out with works that confronted audiences with slow, conceptual provocations, and has since steadily turned his insights toward even more expressive, transcendental ends — whether in his final performance of “The Well-Tuned Piano,” in his droning blues-rock album “Just Stompin’” or in this new “Trio.”

Or at least that’s my take. The composer might hold a different analysis. But now that more of Young’s music is in wider circulation, a broader community of listeners can begin comparing our own notes. Now, as I experience the final dyad of G and C in the cellos, I hear an even broader sense of emotional distance traveled over the course of the work. (This conclusion could even work as an alternate soundtrack for the final shot of “The Card Counter.”)

To my ear, Young has revisited his student exercise — the original minimalist big bang when it comes to sustained tones — and made space for greater feeling, and more emotional release. That he’s done this while stretching its length to a newly demanding scope makes his achievement all the more noteworthy.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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