|By Kyle Gann
Math phobes can get lost this week. God, I love numbers. My high school math teachers thought I should go into math. Come to think of it, so did my music teachers. And when La Monte Young sets up one of his vibrating sinetone sculptures such as the one that's running Thursdays and Saturdays from two to 12 at the Mela Foundation, 275 Church Street, I get to use music as an excuse to bathe in the algebra I left behind. Let others get their ears massaged by the pulsating drones. I like to gaze at the tuning diagrams and let my mind slither naked through the mysterious clusters of luscious integers.
And what integers there are: large prime numbers, octaves of primes, whole classes of primes newly categorized for musical purposes. Having captured another octave of the Overtone series, Young has strung his aural hammock between the 1792nd and 2304th overtones, where he's basking peacefully. The installation, whose 107-word title begins The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time ... (I save more space by not completing it than I waste with this parenthesis), consists of 35 sine tones stretched across 10 octaves, 20 of them squeezed into a small band in the seventh octave, some separated by only 1/14th of a half step.
Young likes the effect of large prime-numbered ratios, including Mersenne Primes (primes that conform to the formula 2P - 1 , such as 31) and what he calls twin primes (primes separated by only 2 , such as 59 and 61). He's even invented a new type: Young's Primes, expressible by the formula pXMn- 1, where p is a prime, m is a positive integer that isn't a power. of 2, and n is an integer greater than 1. Example: 71.
"This is over my head,". you're saying, but listen. The point of all those "minus ones" is that Young uses tones that approximate the most consonant overtones, but are far more complex in their resulting combined wave forms. His math gives him a variety of sizes of seventh and ninth intervals, all closing in on the octaves over a fundamental B (actually a quarter-tone flat)., In each octave, all the pitches are within the major third between A and C sharp. Imagine a ladder of 1 0 octaves of the same pitch. Now imagine the rungs bent and diffracted into lots of different tones, the lower rungs slightly lowered, the upper rungs raised. And because even these exotic overtones of a single low pitch are theoretically more harmonious than the scientifically irrational tuning of a modem piano, you're hearing a wild frontier of tonality that has never been explored, the outer edge of consonance.
Walk into The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry and you'll hear a whirlwind of pitches swirl around you. Stand still, and the tones suddenly freeze in place. Within the room, every pitch finds its own little niche where it resonates, and with all those close-but-no-cigar intervals competing in one space (not to mention their elegantly calculated sum- and difference-tones), you can alter the harmony you perceive simply by pulling on your earlobe. If you visited Young's installation The Romantic Symmetry (over a 60 cycle base) at Dia Art Foundation back 'in '89, you remember the effect. But while Romantic Symmetry was more "melodic" in a sense, since its overtones were more evenly spread through the range, The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry is more textural. Moving your head makes those tones leap from high to low and back, while that cluster in the seventh octave, with its wild prime ratios like 269:271, fizzes in and out. Marian Zazeela's light sculptures in the same space are the perfect visual analogue. Her Ruine Window 1992 for example, is a simple geometric construction of white boards illuminated with magenta light from one side, blue from the other.
Since she's working with colored shadows instead of colored surfaces, and light behaves differently from pigment, the colors combine opposite to the way we expect. (You only learn light-color theory in art school, Zazeela says, if you go into television.) Stand in front of Ruine Window 1992 for a while, and let your eyes move up and down the verticals: not only will the colors take on a deep intensity, creating an illusion of two-dimensionality, but the edges will flicker in your peripheral vision.
As the shimmering of Young's overtones resists being recorded, Zazeela's shadows fall flat when photographed one reason she's never been sufficiently celebrated in the art world for her originality of her minimalist constructions. Both the sound and light sculptures are static entities that move wildly within your eyes and ears, proving with pure wave forms how subjective perception is. Since we're more sophisticated visually than aurally, I figured out an exercise that, if you can hum, will help you hear more precisely what Young's sculpture is about., If you can isolate one of the lower drones (not easy), slowly hum a major scale up from that pitch. (The beginning of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" will do.) By the time you reach the third, fourth, and fifth steps, you'll be humming pitches that find no resonance among the other drones-you'll be in the empty spaces. Hearing a gap within an articulated pitch space, as some European works of the '50s and '60s like Xenakis's Pithoprakta asked us to do, is usually a task beyond mortal ears. But here, in these sustained sine waves, even earthlings can make out the negative musical spaces between the rungs of Young's overtone ladder.
Why would you want to do that? Because it's there. Because music isn't always just background, or something familiar. Because you've never heard so complex a chord so pure. Because music that refuses to change subverts capitalism. Because you'll never get any closer to the music of the spheres this side of enlightenment. And because there are more numbers in the musical universe than I IV V I.
This article originally appeared in the Village Voice. It appears here with the permission of the author.