BY Sasha Frere-Jones in Opinion | 26 MAY 23
Featured in
Issue 235

Discover the Mathematical Magic of ‘Dream House’

In New York, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s permanent sound and light installation continue to amaze its visitors

BY Sasha Frere-Jones in Opinion | 26 MAY 23

The official titles of the two sound pieces that play in Dream House – one by La Monte Young and one by Jung Hee Choi – would take up half of the word count of this text. I mention this because mathematical precision – Young’s title contains the phrase ‘The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261’ – is central to the immersive installation that is still located at 275 Church Street, 30 years after it was first opened to the public and 60 years after Young and his partner Marian Zazeela originally moved into the building. Since meeting in 1962, the couple has remained entwined, as Young has said, like ‘two turtles, living in a dream house’, while maintaining the sound and light environment that fellow artist Tauba Auerbach recently nominated as her ‘favourite artwork by someone else’ in an interview with The New York Times.

La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Jung Hee Choi, Dream House: Sound and Light Environment, 2018–2023, installation view. Photograph: Jung Hee Choi

Choi’s work is now the main player in the larger of the two ‘rooms’ fashioned from this Tribeca loft. Take off your shoes, hand over ten dollars and you, too, can lie on the white shag carpet and absorb it all. Choi’s Environmental Composition 2017 No.1 (2017) is, in short, a massive black sheet that bisects the main space. It has been pinpricked thousands of times to create flowery, organic shapes that admit light and video from the other side. As with everything in the installation, the fullness is not immediately visible and, if you don’t take time to stare at the work, you won’t see the light bubbling behind the pinholes, a world beneath a world.

La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Jung Hee Choi, Dream House: Sound and Light Environment, 2018–2023, installation view. Photograph: Jung Hee Choi

The bulk of the experience comprises the fairly loud series of tones that are being generated by Young’s custom-built Rayna synthesizer on the second floor (where he and Zazeela live) and piped into the third floor (where Dream House is installed). These tones are based on microtonal adjustments, derived from prime numbers, which are basically impossible for most fretted instruments to achieve. Imagine less a piece of music than a demonstration of natural properties, an embodiment of what certain tunings can conjure. Young’s music moves so slowly in part to help the listener overlook the fact that it’s a composition. His role is more that of a docent in the world of natural math, a guide through the Grand Canyon of sound. The relationship between pitches has always existed but the means of discerning them did not until advances in electronics made precise tunings available for human manipulation. Young shows us something that exists always, bypassing ideas of form and resolution, or even tuning and harmony. In many ways, Dream House is entirely unlike a dream; rather, it is a staunchly empirical, concrete demonstration. Almost as soon as I leave, I find myself wanting to go back.

This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline 'A World Beneath A World’

Main image: Jung Hee Choi, Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI, 2023, installation view. Photograph: Jung Hee Choi

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was just published by Semiotext(e).