Dream a Little Dream

The Just Alap Raga Ensemble performing Raga Darbari, Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House. Jung Hee Choi, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, voices; Naren Budhkar, tabla. (Photo: Jung Hee Choi)

PROHIBITED FROM SPEAKING, applauding, taking photographs, making recordings, eating, drinking, or—in observance of a traditional Indian custom—pointing their feet in the direction of the performers, the crowd at the first of three concerts of raga darbari (a variant on the Indian classical form) given by minimalist pioneer LaMonte Young and his Just Alap Raga Ensemble at the Dia Center’s Twenty-Second Street Chelsea digs on a recent Friday evening was never going to start much of a party. Fortunately, the 150-odd studious attendees seemed perfectly content with the demands imposed on them, happy to keep a lid on it in the interest of witnessing a rare live appearance by the legendary seventy-nine-year-old composer and musician, his wife and collaborator Marian Zazeela, and their disciples Jung Hee Choi and Naren Budhkar.

Presented to mark the Dia’s acquisition of a new version of Young and Zazeela’s sound-and-light environment Dream House, incarnations of which have been on display at various sites in the United States and Europe more or less continuously since its premier incarnation at Munich’s Heiner Friedrich Gallery in 1969, the performance was framed as a tribute to the late Hindustani classical singer and teacher Pandit Pran Nath, whose perfection of the slowly unfolding unmetered section of the raga known as alap was a key influence on Young’s fascination with extended drones. Entering the wide white-carpeted space—which made the Dream House’s longtime walk-up digs on Church Street feel distinctly (albeit charmingly) poky by comparison—we were directed to remove our shoes, silence our phones, and take a program.

La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Jung Hee Choi, Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House, installation view. (Photo: Jung Hee Choi)

The last, unreadable under the conditions produced by Zazeela’s rose-tinted light-and-sculpture works and Choi’s large pinprick “light drawing,” goes into exhaustive detail on the historical and technical aspects of Young and company’s respective and collective oeuvres. It’s a fascinating but sometimes opaque document, and not one to flip through in situ. Filing it away for the ride home, I took up a spot just behind a rope that defined the performance area (no stage, just a simple rug equipped with a few flat cushions, a black balance ball, and Budhkar’s tabla), aimed for the lotus position, came up a bit short, and waited. A tambura whine emanated continuously from three large white-clad speaker stacks, and time began to melt pleasantly away.

After a good fifteen or twenty minutes, a shadowy group of figures made its way slowly, very slowly, from a side door into the arena. With infinite patience, the members helped one another settle into their designated spots, exchanged a few whispered words, and ingested something (acid? Tic Tacs? Fisherman’s Friend?) invisible to all but themselves. Budhkar spent some time tuning his tablas before sitting back in meditative silence. Young, imposing, white-bearded, cane-wielding, and clad in black robe, hat, and long gloves, gave a signal and began a gentle ululation. Rather than taking the place of the tambura, his voice and those of his band members joined it to produce an ecstatic “cloud” of two- and three-part harmonies that gained in intensity over the course of perhaps half an hour, the vocalists taking turns to improvise.

As the room became spiced with incense and the crowd settled in for the long haul, the quartet embarked on a second piece, this one featuring Budhkar’s exquisitely restrained no-frills drumming. While Zazeela looked oddly pained from time to time, Young retained a tranquil appearance throughout. Some audience members were flat on their backs by this point. I closed my eyes for a bit, opened them, shifted position, closed them again. The music seemed to phase in and out. My mind went to some unusual places. I may have drifted off for a bit. Then I opened my eyes and the musicians were gone. No, not quite gone—there they were, they were still making their way back to the stage door, jobs exquisitely done.