PRINT November 2013


Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria, Instrument for La Monte Young, 1966, aluminum, contact microphones, Eurorack MX 602A mixer, 3 1/2 x 36 x 5".

WALTER WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST ARTISTS OF ALL TIME. I knew Walter longer, perhaps, than anyone in the established art world as we have come to know it. He and I were graduate students at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s. I was notorious on campus. Terry Riley has written about the impact I made as a musician there, and Michael Commons, now a behavioral psychologist at Harvard, claims that when I walked across the Berkeley campus, absolutely everyone stopped and stared.

I do not remember exactly how we got together, but Walter no doubt knew me through the noon concerts that I presented in Hertz Hall. Somehow, I went to Walter’s studio apartment, and he had a painting there that was at least three by four feet. The subject matter of the painting was an X, painted in broad black strokes on a white canvas. I was very impressed and surprised to find that there was anybody else on campus who knew anything about what was going on in the world of art. He may have shown me some other works that day, but the X is the thing that I remember.

At one point, probably in late ’59 or early ’60, the Berkeley architecture department invited me to organize a concert in their courtyard during the noon hour. They gave me complete freedom to take over the space, to put speakers on the roofs, to make sounds on the glass windows, and to use the space of the courtyard in any way I wished. Terry and I had already been working together closely, so of course I invited him to work on the concert with me. For the first time, I also invited Walter to participate. From the speakers on the rooftops, I played sounds such as Cans on Windows and Drumstick on Gong from my composition 2 Sounds, 1960, and the chamber-opera version of my composition Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc., 1960. Terry and I also made otherworldly sounds on the windows, using drumsticks to squeak on the glass, screeching and wailing. These were all sustained friction sounds. I think Walter simultaneously did a version of his Boxes for Meaningless Work, 1960–61, in which he transferred pieces of wood from one box to another and back. The name of this concert was To, and one of my most serious students, David Degener, helped me organize it and made the poster.

On July 3, 1960, at 8 PM, Walter, Terry, and I played a concert at the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco. I performed my Composition 1960 #3, in which I announced to the audience that everyone could do whatever they wished for the duration of the composition. Walter presented two pieces that I’ve always liked. One of them was called Licorice Stick, 1960, in which he took a package of licorice sticks and distributed a stick to each person in the audience. Anyone who knows me knows that I have been addicted to licorice for my entire life. Walter pulled the performance off with his typical charm. The other piece he performed was called Bats, 1960, in which he stood over a table with a baseball bat and proceeded to break the table to pieces. It was a little bit sensationalist, but being just across the bay from the Berkeley academy, it made a point.

Although I did not present Walter’s work at the concert series I organized at Yoko Ono’s loft in 1960–61, I did include his essays in the publication An Anthology (1963). Walter’s writing had a unique quaintness, and his work often expressed a naive humor. For example, his writings in An Anthology include references to me as a performer. In “Art Yard” (1960), he wrote: “Inexperienced people like La Monte Young will run the steam-shovels. From here on out what goes on can’t easily be said.”

All one thousand copies of the first edition of An Anthology were collated at Walter’s loft on Bond Street in 1963. It was quite a gathering; many artists and musicians from the downtown art scene came to help collate. The pages were stacked on long tables that Walter provided and everybody filed around them, picking up pages and putting them in order. For entertainment, Billy Higgins played drums and Sandy Bull played guitar; it was really very beautiful.

Walter and I often talked on the phone. He once told me about a photograph of a moose on the hood of a car that he had seen in a newspaper that had included an article about his exhibition. I asked him if he was going to the opening. It was known that Walter did not go to his own openings. I asked him why. He said, “I don’t want to be the moose.”

Marian and I moved to a loft on Church Street in August 1963. Walter frequently came to visit us. He would give me endless, inspired advice on how to manage my career. For example, he had heard my ensemble, the Theatre of Eternal Music, and he thought I should tour the college circuit. Obviously, this was one of the most ridiculous, unrealistic ideas I had ever heard. Instead, I was interested in the concept of a “Dream House,” in which the ensemble would play for years at a time. Such a thing had never occurred to him. His ideas about how I should develop my music career were so prosaic that I finally had to stop letting him come to my loft. We still remained friendly and talked on the phone from time to time.

One day in 1966, Walter brought me one of the aluminum sculptures from the nine-copy edition of his piece Instrument for La Monte Young. He wanted me to play it, and he also wanted me to amplify it. At that time, we were amplifying everything in the Theatre of Eternal Music. I tested several different ways of amplifying the instrument. Although it looked very beautiful as a work of visual art, I found it very difficult to make it sound worthwhile. However, I developed a very subtle performance technique in which I never allowed the ball to strike the ends of the instrument. This made a sound that was very static yet at times mesmerizing, like the wind. Friends loved to watch and listen to me perform it. (I still felt that it was nowhere near up to the level of the kind of sound I was interested in, such as that of the bowed gong and the Theatre of Eternal Music. Therefore, I never performed it in public.)

One of the highest points in my relationship with Walter was in the ’60s, when we would go to see Satyajit Ray’s Jalsagar (The Music Room, 1958). This film had a very deep meaning for me and I think for Walter as well. It was the story of a maharaja, a wealthy landowner, who was gradually using up his entire fortune. For those of you who know the histories of the maharajas, some of them were extraordinary patrons of the arts, keeping many singers, instrumentalists, and dancers of the highest caliber in their courts. The maharaja decided to take his last pennies and present a major private concert with the greatest performers of his time in his music room. We really loved listening to the music and absorbing the atmosphere of Indian culture. We left with a sense of romantic, head-in-the-clouds idealism that was so foreign to our Western commercialism.

La Monte Young is a New York–based composer.