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Even Minimalists Get the Blues : Music: Influential composer La Monte Young has put together a roadhouse blues band to return to the stompin' style of his jazz-influenced youth.

September 04, 1993|JOHN HENKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We're hearing a lot from classically oriented composers these days about the influence of vernacular styles on their work. Often, though, that influence is practically inaudible in the actual music.

Not so for La Monte Young. His new ensemble is the Forever Bad Blues Band, his new album "Just Stompin'--Live at the Kitchen," and you should take to heart all the implications in those names.

"I'm really consumed by music. I only do music--or a kind of music--if I'm totally drawn or compelled by my muse. I'm really hoping (the new album) will give me the opportunity to perform more," the 57-year-old composer says. "I really feel I was created to perform as well as compose."

"Just Stompin' " was released this summer as a two-CD set from Gramavision Records. It consists of just one piece--"Young's Dorian Blues in G"--recorded live at the January premiere of the piece at the Kitchen in New York.

An album of instrumental, roadhouse blues may seem something of a departure for Young, a revered original, the seminal influence on both minimalism and the Fluxus movement and creator of a highly personal body of work. It makes, however, a clear, relatively compact and accessible expression of his obsessions with extended durations and just intonation, the acoustically pure tuning based on the natural harmonic series. It is also music with a long gestation period, going back to his student days in Los Angeles.

"I started out in jazz, back in the '50s out in L.A.," Young says by telephone from his home in New York. "My first real creative outlet was improvisation."

Young has played alto saxophone since he was 7, with his father as his first teacher. He went to John Marshall High School here, studied with William Green and then went on to Los Angeles City College, where everybody told him he should play in the dance band. The first-saxophone chair there was already tied up, but he auditioned and beat out Eric Dolphy for the second-chair position.

He and Dolphy became friends, and both played clarinet in the orchestra, where Dolphy was first chair. Other jazz musicians Young performed with in clubs and sessions at that time included Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and Don Friedman.

At the same time, he was studying with Schoenberg disciple Leonard Stein at Los Angeles City College and became extremely inspired by Webern. From the terse, pared-down creations of Webern to Young's own long-spanned music seems quite a reach, but he finds a credible evolution there, where his early music became "like Webern in augmentation."

Augmented indeed. He usually takes five to six hours to perform his solo piano piece "The Well-Tuned Piano," and he confined "Young's Blues" to two hours only because that was the length of the DAT tape available then.

"I think, in addition to my unique piano style, the just intonation and the Dorian mode, ("Young's Blues") is different because it is a very long, complex, evolved form--really very compositional in structure, not just song forms," the composer says. "I'm totally disinterested in short song forms. I'm interested in evolved structures in extended time formats."

In his earliest, Webern-influenced work, Five Small Pieces for String Quartet, from 1956--just recorded by the Arditti Quartet on its new collection of American music--each piece is about a minute long, but there is no question where Young's spirit is now.

"There is no doubt a short work can be profound and very strong," he says, "but a long work has the potential in the end to be much, much more."

Young learned the importance of silence from both Webern and the contrast between the clarity of the rural sonic environment he knew as a child in Idaho and the noise of the big city he discovered when his family moved to Los Angeles. It figures in his idea of "eternal music," but not so much anymore in actual performances.

"I have these enormous silences between performances," Young says ruefully, "so when I get a chance to play, I seem to want to fill it up with sound."

Young is willing to play pieces such as "The Well-Tuned Piano" only under very special and expensive circumstances. He insists on three months on location, one month exploring the acoustical environment and tuning, followed by two months giving weekly performances. With his Theater of Eternal Music Big Band, he had 23 rehearsals before the first concert.

"This is the way I really want to perform, but very few people can afford to present it," Young concedes. "The blues band is a way I can perform without compromising my principals and still fit into the one-night format.

"This blues setting, with these young musicians, is a way I can show off my compositional skills and improvising, in a way that's more affordable for more concert presenters." (The Forever Bad Blues Band consists of Jon Catler on fretless and just-intonation electric guitars, Brad Catler on similar basses and Jonathan Kane on drums, with Young himself playing a synthesizer in just intonation.)

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