Esquire, April 1996

But can you dance to it? Edward Fox is sick of 'Pythagorean music.'

There has been a lot of talk these days about so-called 'Pythagorean music', and I'm beginning to get fed up with it. The other night a friend took me to a bar in Stoke Newington to hear a performance by a friend of hers who practises the style of Mongolian throat-singing called hoomi and had even travelled to Mongolia on an Arts Council grant to learn new tunes. The place was packed. In this style of singing, the performer makes a monotonous growling sound while at the same time -- by constricting the chest and vocal chords -- producing an ethereal whistling from somewhere in the throat. While my friend's friend simultaneously growled and whistled (wearing a silk Mongolian robe and a hat with a kind of steeple on the top), other performers played electric bass and piano and exotic percussion instruments. The music itself used an oriental-sounding scale based on Pythagorean principles.

Pythagorean music is meant to reflect the order of the universe, by using a scale based on the natural intervals between notes, as distinct from the more artificial scale used in most western music, and the New York composer La Monte Young is largely responsible for making it fashionable among avant-garde musicians. Young emerged as a member of Fluxus, the New York-based performance and conceptual art group to which Yoko Ono used to belong. Since then, a personality cult has grown around him, which Young himself has assiduously cultivated. He carefully controls his public image by making journalists sign a contract assigning the copyright to anything he says in an interview to him, and by resisting attempts to record his own music, although two recordings are available: the ridiculously expensive, five-hour Well-tuned Piano, and the shorter single CD The Melodic Version of the Second Dream of the High-tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China, in which eight muted trumpets play a single chord for nearly eighty groovy minutes. The ultimate downtown eccentric, he used to live according to a clock with 25 hours on it. His Sixties band, The Dream Syndicate, used to play a piece of Young's called 'The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys', in which the band tuned their instruments to the pitch of his pet turtle's aquarium motor.
 
To safeguard his role as the patriarch of Pythagorean music, Young has all but refused to let anyone hear the hours of tapes the Dream Syndicate recorded, to the fury of former band members Tony Conrad and John Cale. These tapes, Tony Conrad says, would show that it was he -- who studied mathematics at university - and not La Monte
Young, who first received the Pythagorean revelation. He even used to picket Young's concerts to make this point.
 
While Conrad went on to become a professor of media studies at a university in upstate New York, Young became the beneficiary of the fabulous patronage of the Dia Art Foundation, funded by the oil wealth of the Texan de Menil family. From 1979 to 1985, at a cost of about $500,000 a year, Dia gave La Monte Young the use of an enormous cast-iron building in SoHo that had housed the New York Mercantile Exchange, to put on performances of his work and the accompanying light show by his wife, Marian Zazeela. The idea was that the installation exist in perpetuity as a sanctum for Young's neo-Pythagorean music, with the backing drones against which his group improvised playing endlessly. When oil crashed and Dia ran out of money and pulled the plug on Young's scheme, he sued them for destroying a work of art that was supposed to exist for eternity.

Interestingly, Conrad has now recorded an anti-Pythagorean, anti-La Monte Young album called Slapping Pythagoras, which consists of about 70 minutes of droning, discordant, screeching violins: musically refuting the Pythagorean order of the cosmos by denying harmony.
 
I wonder if it will catch on in Mongolia.