One week ago, I had barely heard of La Monte Young or his Composition 1960 #7, a composition which is more of a sonic exercise which takes a single note, sustained for as long a time as possible. Over time, the sound changes, as the environment encompassing the music changes. The sustained note is a foundation for the droning sounds contained in the music of Velvet underground, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, shoegaze music, not to mention the repetition used by artists like Yoko Ono and Sparks. As I was saying, I was completely unfamiliar, aside from a reference here and there by some of my friends at L.A. Record, a music magazine I write for, which has a lot of editors and writers who find these deep influences inspiring to themselves. Yet somehow, I found myself playing the composition on a street corner, outside a vegan café in Echo Park for over two hours continuously, as part of a spoken word show. Not only has it made me an expert on this particular piece of tonality, the experience has inspired me to write and perform a long-form story with compositional accompaniment, which I will break out in December or January. But what the hell does this have to do with long distance Greyhound rides?
I arrived at The Hedgehog around 3pm, for the show scheduled to start at 3:30. My friend Dan, the new music editor for LA Record and producer of this particular show, was setting up a large organ on the sidewalk at Mohawk & Sunset Blvd. He explained to me that he wanted to have members of the audience taking turns sustaining the note throughout the entire show. I found it amusing, but I was thinking, good luck with THAT. I volunteered to go first. But what the hell does this have to do with Loooong bus rides, Scott?
I’ll get to that in a minute. Lucky for me, a friend of one of that day’s performers smoked a joint with me, so I was suddenly in a sedentary mood, which would be necessary, because I’m hyperactive by nature. I asked Dan to kick off the piece with a “1-2-3-4,” and I pressed down on the key. On top of the keyboard was a note that had a picture of the composition, and a message that said, “To be held for a long time. ONLY PLAY THIS – AND DON’T LET GO UNTIL YOU HAVE A REPLACEMENT.”
The first 20 minutes was fun. At first, I made believe that the fate of the human race depended on me holding the two keys down. I figured someone would step outside for a cigarette within a few minutes, so I goofed around, making believe I was Ron Mael, the disaffected keyboardist from the band Sparks. I mugged for the audience inside the Café, while I mimed I was playing heavy music. That worked as a personal distraction for about 20 minutes. Nobody came out to smoke a cigarette, because spoken word audiences are good audiences, and because Southern Californians don’t smoke cigarettes. Finally, after 20 minutes, a woman named Courtney was walking down the street, and she started asking me about the composition and why I was playing it. That was when the first replacement asked if I needed a break. I was enjoying my conversation, so I told him I was good. She left, and I continued playing. But what the hell does this have to do with long bus rides?
I promise I’ll get there, soon enough. After a while, I was finding myself being hypnotizd by the long continuous drone. I began to hear high screeches that I didn’t hear before. I noticed that when I shifted my head, or moved my knees, which were in front of the amplifier, that the sounds would change (in my ear anyway.) I began creating drum beats in my head to keep me awake. After an hour or so, a hipster chick came outside, and asked me what I was doing, followed by a second question, “Would you like to smoke some pot?” I knew that if I held a note on a corner in Echo Park for a long wnough time, somebody would eventually smoke me out. Her name was Gayana, and she was an audio engineer, so we smoked a bunch of weed, and then we discussed the importance of the composition, within the big picture of music in general. It was really interesting, and I was glad she came out to distract me from my task. Throughout the conversation and the smoking, I sustained the notes.
We were then joined by some of her friends and other members of the audience. I played with a dog. I was well into my second hour of continuous playing. Neighboring businesses watched me from in front of their stores as they smoked cigarettes. Another dude smoked a blunt with me. I met a really cool DJ, who only creates soundscapes with music that he’s never heard before. I made at least 5 Facebook friends that day. Then the sun went down. The temperature dropped 20 degrees, and Guyana and her music friends left. The show continued. I was only wearing a light sweatshirt, and my knuckles ached. I continuously maneuvered my body to spread the pressure evenly among my 15 knuckles. I thought I may pass out, although that may have been the endless drone and strong weed. Finally the show ended, and as soon as Dan pointed to me, and I heard my applause, I cut the music, and ran inside asking the audience,
“Would you like to hear another song?”
OK. So, what the hell does this composition and this story have to do with loooong bus rides? Well, for one thing, a long ride is more like a La Monte Young Soundscape and less like a power pop single by Weezer. The rides go on what seems like forever. You tend to see the same sights repeatedly and endlessly, whether it’s corn and soybean fields in Iowa, cattle in Texas or flatlands in Oklahoma. The joy of both the long rides and playing and listening to La Monte Young soundscapes is that you have to experience the whole ride to appreciate the sensations, and it takes a lot of patience to sit through, whether you’re penned in a seat on a moving bus for 74 hours or linked to a two notes on a keyboard for two. They both fit into my philosophy as life being a marathon rather than a series of sprints.
As I mentioned, I will be turning this experience into a piece of performance art, which will combine my storytelling with Composition 1960 #7. Ironically, this will probably be a 30 -60 minute performance about a two-note minimalist composition. The only way to see if it works will be to bring it on stage. As a result of this experience, I will also devote a stretch of my next loooong ride to listening to one of the classic recordings that was inspired by La Monte’s Young’s compositions, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I’ll save that for the flat lands of Texas.