Sound is God: La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and The Just Alap Raga Ensemble perform with Charles Curtis at The Dream House in New York's Guggenheim Museum ~ The Third Mind - American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 - 1989 Eric Nielsen 5.19.9
Stenciled words at the entrance read, "Please be advised that the levels of sound and light in this environment may alter your psychological state."
Godfather of Modern Minimalism, La Monte Young, held the premiere of "Raga Sundara, vilampit khayal set in Raga Yaman Kalyan" performed by The Just Alap Raga Ensemble in a setting of Marian Zazeela's light installations at New York's Guggenheim. This Indian classical Raga was taught to La Monte and Marian by Pandit Pran Nath and, infused with original compositions and multiple drones in harmonies written by La Monte, debuted at these two performances. The Raga Ensemble is seven performers including cellist, instructor, and Ocean Beach resident Charles Curtis, who has collaborated with Young since 1986.
Charles, a world class cellist as well as a professor of contemporary music at UCSD, not only collaborates with some of the most famous composers in the world, La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier most recently, he also has an extensive list of local San Diego artists he has worked with, including Pall Jenkins, Ilya Monosov, Joshua Blatchley, dancers Justin Morrison and Leslie Seiters, Dan Bryant and Mia Ferm, Michael and Liz Kaufmann, Jeff Thayer and Brian Chen of the San Diego Symphony, pianist Aleck Karis, and his colleague and neighbor Anthony Burr, clarinetist and composer, with whom he works very closely.
A long time resident of Ocean Beach, Charles notes, "I have come to appreciate the complex sonic experience of the airplanes taking off over us." Charles performed a few years back on solo cello at the Voltaire space in Ocean Beach; he was a part of a collective of artists where the space now houses the green, constant mayoral candidate Jim Bell. "There was more contact with San Diego musicians when the Voltaire Street Space was happening. There were great events there including, very shortly before his death, the Jacob Faust Band. But the vice squad shut us down and nothing quite like it has taken its place," Charles explains. Many SD musicians and music lovers mourn the loss of the Voltaire Space.
With similar interests, Curtis was introduced to La Monte Young in '86 by a mutual colleague and their artistic relationship has flourished through the years. Charles has participated in more performances and premieres of Young's string works than any other interpreter, and has been a member of The Just Alap Raga Ensemble since 2003. Young is firmly established as an American treasure, a pioneer in compositions using non-western tuning. In the early ‘60s, Young and Zazeela’s band, The Theatre of Eternal Music, included the likes of Terry Jennings, Terry Riley, Angus MacLise, Tony Conrad, and John Cale. Young's compositions are a departure from European classical thought with an emphasis on developing a new tonal palette based on microtones or "just intonation", notes outside the standard western 12-tone scale, and with a focus on drones and layers based on mathematical formulas. Charles explains, "...playing in just intonation is the highest challenge that I know of, so this work is a tremendously rigorous discipline, and as such it has a positive influence on all of my playing." At the moment, he has a group of grad students at UCSD who are very serious about learning this method. "As far as teaching goes, it's a big commitment to try to learn to play in this way, and I wait for students to decide they really want to learn this, I don't push it on them." Perhaps it is no surprise that Pandit Pran Nath gave master classes at UCSD in the early ‘70s and later in the ‘90s, at Young’s suggestion, Charles took a master class with the legendary Indian vocalist during a fortuitous European tour.
La Monte has complete trust and faith in Charles as an interpreter of his compositions, especially as he has written one major work exclusively for Curtis to perform. Charles explains, "I see my calling first of all as an interpreter of composed works by composers other than myself. But the interpretation of music can also take the form of original work that interprets musical and artistic ideas, rather than specific compositions that already exist." From 2002-03 Young and Zazeela composed “Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic Chord in a setting of Abstract #1 from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals,”, premiered all over the world, which consists of solo cellist Curtis with prerecorded drones and light design, leaving some freedom for improvisation. When microtones like these are layered, it sounds like multiple instruments playing at the same time with frequencies never heard to western ears, and produces a bodily reaction that can actually alter your psychological state.
The Raga Ensemble included the Just Dreams recording of The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath, in addition to the seven performers. The four vocalists include La Monte, Marian, their senior Raga disciple Jung Hee Choi, and Da'ud Constant; the three instrumentalists were Naren Budhkar on tabla, Charles Curtis on his specially tuned cello, and Jon Catler on fretless sustainer guitar, built specifically to play microtones.
The walls and ceiling of the Dream House were bathed in color. Purposefully placed lights high above projected onto slowly swirling hanging sculptures casting recurring shadows in hues of red, blue and purple on the surrounding walls. A tall rectangular wooden sculpture shed dueling color shades, ultimately melting into purple where they met. Below one set of the suspended curves of shapes and light, was the 'stage' for the performers. Pillows were placed on freshly carpeted floors for 75 attendees, limited due to fire marshal restrictions.
In the first part of the Raga, the Alap, there are no tablas and most of the sounds are of the voices and the tamburas. It became very apparent that those in attendance were in for a once in a lifetime experience. La Monte led the group with hand gestures, eye contact, nods and subtle directions that demonstrated an intense level of communication from the seven years they have spent together as members of the ensemble. Charles said that it's the duty of the band to never take your eyes off of the master as he is directing the unfolding of the piece and the intense call and response between La Monte and the Ensemble members was ecstatic.
Subtle microtones in the voices slowly emerged, sounds that have been described as subtle shades of note particles above or below the precise pitch line. Of course the tuning of the voices and instruments to the tambura drones are of the utmost importance in Young's compositions. Catler's special guitar was unique: one could rarely hear the down stroke of the pick on the string as he would turn the volume up after the stroke and play the left hand on the neck as he moved between the notes in a sustained tone. Particularly mystical was the interplay between Charles and La Monte as the Raga built into the climax. The rapture began gaining momentum between the players and it spilled into the audience as the qualities of sounds and light began to alter the listeners’ psychological state and as the final quote noted in the lengthy program, "According to the Vedas, sound and music are embodied within the creation."
Pandit Pran Nath taught "sound is God." And the sound did become God for many in the audience as afterward I witnessed many devotees approach La Monte and affirm their belief that the fountain of godhead flowed through him into them. It was Young's masterful collage of formal microtonal classicism, mixed with archetypal elements of American rock and roll (like La Monte's cane and black robe, the magical ‘60s lighting, and the audience's predisposition ) fused into this Indian Raga that transported us to another realm.
At the end of the show, everyone in attendance was entranced. We came from all over the world to be a part of the Just Alap Raga Ensemble performance in the Dream House as it was comparably one of the best shows I've ever experienced. It shook the foundations of my spirit, inspired me, and blew out any preconceived notions of space, time and prejudices regarding other music. Fantasy turned into reality.
Charles noted about the shows, "I thought La Monte was incredibly strong and going for it, and the group is so focused on him that the performances basically rely on his energy, so it all comes out of his power." The length of the concert was nearly 3 hours and the audience was enraptured and sat and lay spellbound in this mystical ceremony. This was an impossibly difficult ticket to obtain and many were left turned away as the show had been sold out quickly after the tickets were offered. Some of the other performers represented in the Guggenheim's Third Mind show were Gary Snyder, Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono.
More information about La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's work can be found at http://melafoundation.org.