Music Professor Shines Light on enigmatic Composer

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He ironed his shoe laces, enjoyed the steady hum of step-down transformers and became the father of a genre of music which inspired some of the most well-known artists of our time.

Despite his tremendous influence and parenting an entire genre, La Monte Young is seldom mentioned among the great composers who changed the sound of music.

In an effort to reveal the life and work of this little known, yet highly influential composer, Jeremy Grimshaw, assistant professor in the School of Music, is releasing an Oxford-published biography he’s been working on for the past 10 years.

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Jeremy Grimshaw is the author of a recently published biography on composer La Monte Young. The book, titled, "Draw a Straight Line and Follow It," is published by Oxford University Press.
“Not only do I love his music, but I can relate somewhat to his childhood and upbringing,” Grimshaw said.

Grimshaw and Young share common childhood experiences. Besides a love for music, both were raised in Latter-day Saint homes in small, western American towns, and both fostered their love of music by listening to cowboy songs, although Grimshaw admits cowboy songs weren’t as formative for him as they were for Young.

Young wouldn’t stick to western songs long and through his studies he would father a style of music called “minimalism.”

“Minimalism involves limiting all things going on in a piece in order to bring out the things that are there,” Grimshaw said. “In a sense, minimalism acts like a telephoto lens for your ears. It allows you to zoom in and listen more to the details of the sounds.”

Young’s work deviated from the prevailing musical aesthetic in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“His experiments made it OK to write music that didn’t have rapid successions of changes and to have slowly changing, droning, or repetitive music,” said Christian Asplund, composer-performer and associate professor in the School of Music, in an email.

Grimshaw’s book, “Draw a Straight Line and Follow It,” outlines Young’s life, and development in music, from his LDS upbringing in Bern, Idaho, his post-secondary work at L.A. City College, UCLA and Berkeley and finally his success as a composer and the father of minimalist music.

The title of the book, which is also the title of a composition of Young’s, has a deeper meaning. According to Grimshaw, the message of the title is a recurring theme not only in Young’s musical work, but throughout his life.

“The idea of a straight line becomes the underlying message in the book: here’s an artist who decided what his path in life would be, and followed it no matter what,” Grimshaw said. “This is perhaps one of the reasons he isn’t better known. As much as he would love a legacy, or to be recognized for his achievements, he would never deviate from his vision in order to obtain those things.”

Grimshaw’s book is now available and has already received impressive reviews.

“Jeremy Grimshaw’s ‘Draw a Straight Line and Follow It’ provides a uniquely balanced and engaged look at perhaps the most reclusive, enigmatic, and controversial figure of twentieth-century experimental music,” said Robert Fink, professor and chair of the Musicology Department at UCLA, on the Oxford University Press website.

Young lives in New York City and continues to work with his wife and collaborator Marian Zazeela. He is working on two projects, a sound and light installation, called “Dream House,”and a series of adapted North Indian classical singing concerts, which Young learned during 26 years of study with Indian vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath.

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