I run a blog called Articulate Silences with which I hope to provide an accessible introduction to 20th and 21st century classical music. My latest post is on La Monte Young’s epic work for solo piano, The Well-Tuned Piano. Read the main body of the post below or click here to see the full post (which includes a recording and a listening guide) and here to view the blog homepage.
The Well-Tuned Piano unfurls in graceful slow motion. A largely improvised piece for solo piano first performed in 1964 and typically lasting over five hours, La Monte Young’s magnum opus presents an imposing challenge to our perceptions of musical duration and development. Yet, at the same time it permits indulgence in the sensuous, tactile beauty of sound itself. Vast swathes of the piece hang in a frozen stasis as disparate tones coalesce to form pixelated clouds of sound, their droning harmonies static yet tremulous, surging with vibrant internal energy. During its densest passages the depth of the musical texture extends far beyond anything that would usually be expected from a solo instrument: the soundscapes of The Well-Tuned Piano are multi-dimensional and in perpetual, kaleidoscopic flux.
So how are such beguiling timbres evoked from a single instrument? The answer lies, at least in part, in the alternative tuning system employed by Young, a system that the American composer kept secret for over 27 years. This unconventional approach was born out of the composer’s disillusionment with standard Western tuning (or, “equal temperament”) which is actually, for certain practical reasons, slightly out of tune. (For a fascinating in-depth explanation of equal temperament and Young’s tuning system, see Kyle Gann’s two informative articles.) And, whilst our ears have largely become accustomed to the imperfections in equal temperament, the sparkling lucidity of The Well-Tuned Piano demonstrates the potential of correcting the centuries-old errors of the standard tuning system. Free from the slight buzzing and muddiness inherent to Western music, the tones emanating from Young’s piano resonate together, combining to form deep, sonorous blocks of sound.
The timbres of Young’s piano could well be described as crystalline: as glistening and radiant as they are hardened, captivating both in their expansive beauty and their intense physicality. The perpetual tension between these two states – the immaterial and the material – imbues The Well-Tuned Piano with a sense of uncertainty that undercuts the sweeping majesty of its broad washes of sound. Certainly, the earthen density of The Well-Tuned Piano keeps the piece from straying too far into the New Age-isms common to much drone-based composition. Its meditative clusters of sound may well evoke the infinite – the transcendent, the Utopian, even – but, in the end, The Well-Tuned Piano seems to suggest that such lofty ideals will continue to lie tantalisingly out of reach.
Artwork: Shi-Shi, Ding Yi