Pop music: Minimalist with the mostest

La Monte Young is the grand old man of minimalism. His influence has been felt in most major strands of music, pop and classical, since the Sixties, yet few actually know his work. Robert Worby looks back at Young's life and previews an all-star benefit gig in aid of the composer's wife and collaborator, Marian Zazeela

The phone's ringing. It's Pulp on the line ... Spiritualized on the line ... David Bowie on the line ... Kraftwerk... Brian Eno ... Michael Nyman ... Gavin Bryars ... The English Chamber Orchestra. A multitude of music stars ranging from the serious, Radio 3 end of things through Techno, Ambient and Psychedelia to some of Britain's finest bands. And they're all on the line.

It seems that the line in question is drawn on a piece of white card, 3in by 5in. This is Composition 1960 No 9 by La Monte Young. It comes in an envelope on to which is printed the following text: "The enclosed score is right side up when the line is horizontal and slightly above center." Composition 1960 No 10 is dedicated to the sculptor Robert Morris. The score reads "Draw a straight line and follow it." Obviously lines are pretty popular with this composer; and this composer is pretty popular with our multitude of stars, many of whom are gathering at the Barbican Centre on Friday 31 October to pay homage to him in a benefit concert to raise money to fund the continuation of his work.

La Monte Young is 62; he lives with his wife Marian Zazeela in the same downtown loft in New York that they have occupied since 1963. He's a composer and she's an artist who works with projected light; together, as the Theatre of Eternal Music, they have been drawing lines and following them for well over 30 years. Young is the godfather of minimalism. He was doing it long before any of the others and his musical influence is spread so widely through our half of the 20th century that it's possible to trace almost anything back to him. And it's not just the rarefied world of the "serious" or "classical" that he's transformed: 1960s pop, Punk, Techno and Ambient all have some major link with La Monte Young. Brian Eno has said "he is the daddy of us all". Look in the index of almost any book on contemporary music and you'll find he's there. He's one of those people whose name often comes up but few know his work. The name is bandied about but nobody has his records, mainly because his records are precious rarities.

Alex Poots is also on the line. He's the promoter who's persuaded the powers that be at the Barbican to generously support and co-promote this benefit. Next year he's the artistic co-ordinator of "Inventing America", a major festival of American culture at the Barbican that will include the first ever British performance by the Theatre of Eternal Music. That is, if all goes well. Sadly, Marian Zazeela has been struck down by a mysterious, debilitating illness and their work has ground to a halt; hence this benefit. It's a fitting tribute that the best in current pop music are coming together with the classical tradition to raise money for these founders of minimalism.

It will be a unique evening. Those expecting a "Pulp with Spiritualized" gig will be disappointed - it won't be as straightforward as that. The event will be a series of compact, neat contributions. Pulp will play - premiering songs from their next album This is Hardcore with their performance supplemented by the English Chamber Orchestra and, on one number they'll be joined by Gavin Bryars on piano. In turn, their guitarist, Mark Webber, will join the Gavin Bryars' Ensemble in a performance of "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". There'll be a performance of Crossing the Border by post-minimalist Steve Martland, a film of La Monte Young playing an extract from his piece The Well Tuned Piano and a set from Jason Pierce - he of Spiritualized and late of Spacemen 3. All this and more. Some of the illuminati who are unable to perform, because of prior commitments, will be making contributions in other forms.

This event, which will be Pulp's only performance this year, will provide an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wide range of Young's influence. When the Theatre of Eternal Music was formed by Young and Zazeela in 1962 they performed single, static pieces that lasted for weeks: incredible, marathon duration works coupled with a sculptural transformation of the performance space through sound and light. One of the early members of this group was a viola player called John Cale. He went on to form The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed and he took with him ideas he had gleaned from La Monte Young: the repetition, the dense drones, the filed-down viola bridge that allowed him to play three strings at once. The Velvets influenced two generations of rock music through David Bowie and Punk to Pulp and Spiritualized. Pulp's Mark Webber had traced this link and when the band played in New York two years ago he took Jarvis and pals, immediately after their gig, to experience Dream House: Seven Years of Sound and Light, the Young/Zazeela installation at 275 Church Street. The chums were impressed. "It was really nice," says Cocker on the phone. "You'd think it'd be really dry and boring if it was explained to you, but it was truly interactive. You've got all these sine waves and microtones really loud in the room but nobody's hearing the same thing. You walk around and all these tiny melodies happen because of the way you move. Just turn your head and something different happens." The "melodies" that he's talking about are generated exclusively by the observer moving through the air in the room. A single, dense chord of 35 sine waves, spanning 10 octaves "sculpts" the space by causing differences of air pressure. Everyone makes their own unique melodies because it's their own ears moving around. You cannot hear with somebody else's ears. Clever, beautiful and incredibly minimal.

La Monte Young is an uncompromising character, a control freak in the most positive way. His work reflects a fascination with precision: he has said that he is "wildly interested in repetition because I think it demonstrates control". His piece, colloquially known as, X for Henry Flynt (the X refers to any positive integer) instructs the performer to repeatedly "bang" a piano keyboard with their forearms, X number of times, as evenly as possible. The piece is meticulously notated giving exact details of dynamics, duration, articulation and the lengths of silence between each "bang". Michael Nyman performed a slightly inaccurate, though spirited, version in 1977 by playing the same dominant 7th chord, on the piano, 793 times - it took a whole evening. And there's a strange story of Phil Spector who, when producing the Ramones, listened to the opening chord of "Rock 'n' Roll High School" over and over and over - all night long. A found performance of Young's piece?

Another composition, 2 Sounds, involved Young beating with a hammer on a bucket of nails to which was attached a contact microphone amplifying the result to the threshold of aural pain. The other sound was a tin-can being rubbed on a sheet of glass. The late Cornelius Cardew wrote in the Musical Times: "When the first sound starts you cannot imagine that any more horrible sound exists in the whole world. Then the second sound comes in and you have to admit you were wrong." Before minimalism became the polite, dinner-party backdrop it is now it was a rigorous downtown din made by the cool, 1960s conceptualists who occupied the lofts and studios of avant New York: and La Monte Young was their mentor.

The 1960s were pretty dangerous times. As The Who sang "My Generation" and smashed up their guitars a group of artists in America were setting fire to violins, sticking their fingers into "feelie" boxes containing razor blades and instructing performers to "crawl into the vagina of a living whale". This was Fluxus, a kind of crazed, anti-art art movement that simultaneously sprang into existence in New York, Tokyo, Berlin and other major cities. Described by one of its anti-leaders, George Maciunas, as "the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children's games and Duchamp".

These times were also pretty boring. The Fluxus crowd elevated boredom to the position of high art. There were lots of examples of straight lines being drawn and followed. This was the time when John Cage and friends gave the premier performance of Erik Satie's Vexations. Composed in 1896, the piece comprises two lines of slow, dissonant piano music to be repeated 840 times - an average rendition might last about 24 hours.

Young's refusal to compromise - with the commercial world or the music establishment - has inspired many of the benefit's performers including guitarist/singer Jason Pierce, the guiding light of Spiritualized, who are currently touring Britain. At the post-gig party, after they'd sold out the Albert Hall, last Friday, the chat focused on contemporary music, from Michael Tippett to La Monte Young. Hand-copied tapes of rare, long- deleted recordings were circulating among the aficionados. "I just love the way he's never given up and stuck to his guns," Pierce enthused passionately. "His music's so uncompromising. The listener has to make a commitment. I hate academics who think you cannot understand their music. There's nothing to understand. Listening is as important as composing and, if you're doing it properly, it involves real effort." Jason Spaceman really loves this music and its influence is discernible in his dense swathes of monochordal cacophony that emulate Young's early pieces.

The composer Gavin Bryars agrees. "Young has never succumbed to compromise. He was the first. [Steve] Reich and [Philip] Glass are popular now but La Monte was there first." There's no doubt that Young's work has informed the "experimental tradition". The repetition, the singularity, the re- introduction of tonality are all trademarks of the ecstatic sound world that developed as a reaction to the post-war European avant-garde. The concert on the 31st will present a rare opportunity to witness the generous legacy established by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.

Tickets, pounds 15/pounds 17.50, on sale from today from the Barbican box office: 0171-638 8891

Ten crucial facts about La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and minimalism

1 The term `minimal' was first applied to music in a review by Michael Nyman (then a music critic) published in The Spectator in October 1968.

2 Young's Trio for Strings (1958) begins with a single, incredibly quiet, viola note, without vibrato, held by itself for 51 seconds. Then it is joined by a single note on the violin. One minute and 17 seconds later the cello joins in. The piece continues like this for about one hour.

3 La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela have spent every night of their lives together since 22 June 1962.

4 They used to subscribe to a 28-hour day, phasing in and out of everyone else's 24 hour day.

5 They are experts on vintage denim and have an impressive collection of old Levi's.

6 In a competition for the 2nd alto sax chair in the Los Angeles City College Dance Band La Monte Young beat Eric Dolphy. That was in 1953.

7 Young's Piano Piece for David Tudor No 1 calls for a bale of hay and a bucket of water to be brought on to the stage for the piano to eat and drink.

8 No recordings of La Monte Young are in print anywhere in the world.

9 Young used to charge fees that were inversely proportional to the duration of a performance. So, a piece lasting several weeks would only cost a few dollars, whereas a piece lasting only a few minutes would cost thousands.

10 La Monte Young on Beethoven: "Once I tried lots of mustard on a raw turnip. I liked it better than any Beethoven I had ever heard." (Lecture, 1960)

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