I’m not quite sure what to expect as I walk up the narrow staircase to the third floor at 275 Church Street. A man is at the top standing beside a small white shelf with CDs featuring raga drummers, a La Monte Young vinyl compilation fraying at the edges, and a copy of a book about Warhol’s screen tests, all for sale. The heady smell of incense is everywhere. The man instructs me to take off my shoes and informs me about the voluntary donation of $5. Then, in Willy Wonka-esque fashion, he opens the white door leading to the rooms on the floor. As soon as he does, a blaring, high-pitched sound escapes and I can make out glimpses of purple light. I feel like I’m walking into a portal.
I’m in the hallway and look up to see THE DREAM HOUSE illuminated in neon lights in an undulating font on the ceiling. I walk forward and the high tone gets louder. The room I walk into is minimal and to my surprise the tone I hear is not coming from one source, but four. That is four speakers to be exact at each corner of the room, each emitting one sine wave, one tone. It’s incredible what four different tones can do. As I walk around the room, the tones fall in and out of sync with each other, producing different pitches. I cup my ear with one hand and find I can manipulate the sound. I sit down and I hear a low oscillating rumbling, I stand and I hear a high pitched squeal.
The tones harmonize at certain points and grow dissonant at others. I hear something different in every part of the room and my perception of space, of time, and of place are distorted, I almost feel high. Adding to the atmosphere is a lighting installation, purple lights shining on “C” shaped elements hanging from the ceiling making shadows on the wall done by Marian Zazeela, Young’s companion. In another room is another equally elegant and minimal work, a rectangular element projects from the wall while red and blue lights shine on either side creating a contrast that reinforces the rectangular shape. The entire environment is trippy, inspiring, evocative, zen-like, and ultimately stirring.
It’s the brain child of La Monte Young, a composer known for avant-garde pieces involving tone play, performance, and Eastern influences such as raga music. One of the fathers of American musical Minimalism, this installation realizes his interest in tones, space, and time and how the three can interact to produce a reflective environment. He was in the best sense a sound artist and his work was embraced by his contemporaries. For instance, part of his Compositions 1960 which involve actions such as releasing a butterfly into the room or building a fire, “draw a straight line and follow it” was famously interpreted by artist Naim June Paik who dipped his head into a bucket of Sumi ink and dragged it along a scroll of paper in a line. Yes, the 60’s were a crazy time, but Young’s Dream House which has been up since the 1970’s captures some of that mysticism and uses it to bring us back to the body in space, time, and reflection. In city like New York, that’s a valuable thing.