In 1964, the composer La Monte Young made the first recording of his solo-piano work “The Well-Tuned Piano.” It lasted less than an hour. In 1981, he took another pass. This time, it was just over five hours long.
Something had changed. Mr. Young added new thematic material. A lot of it. He also refined the work’s peculiar system of “just” intonation tuning into something even more idiosyncratic, while exploring new combinations of favored chords.
The result was widely celebrated. The critic John Rockwell called it “throbbingly mystical” in his list of the best recordings of 1987 in The New York Times, when the 1981 version was released on the Gramavision label. But in the 1990s, it went out of print and became a kind of holy grail of Minimalism, with LP and CD editions commanding eye-popping prices (often north of $400), when they weren’t being bootlegged.
Yet it wasn’t the last word. In the booklet for that five-hour set, Mr. Young listed the work’s composition date as continuing up to the present. On May 10, 1987, he ventured a six-hour-and-24-minute version of “The Well-Tuned Piano” that stretched into the following day. There were new themes, and more extensive passages of droning filigree, quaking with beating acoustic tremors that emerged from Mr. Young’s precisely controlled frequencies.
That performance was captured on both audio and video. The addition of a visual component made it possible to preserve the transfixing mobile sculptures and lighting — purples and dark blues — of the visual artist Marian Zazeela, Mr. Young’s wife, whose work has long enveloped and enhanced presentations of his music.
The two produced a DVD, “The Well-Tuned Piano in the Magenta Lights,” and released it on their own imprint in 2000. Then that edition also went out of print, sparking another run of high-price speculation among secondhand sellers. Earlier this year, though, Mr. Young and Ms. Zazeela quietly reissued the DVD version on their website. For the first time in nearly two decades — legally, that is — you can purchase a new copy for less than $100.
In an interview at their apartment in Tribeca, I asked them whether they had any advice for those approaching the DVD (which they have resisted providing any online excerpts from). Other than expressing a desire that people play it “pretty loud” — citing the contrast between passages of “pin-drop silence” and deep pools of repetitive density — Mr. Young said he has “learned that it’s not good to try to be a policeman. Let people find their way.”
For dedicated fans of Mr. Young and Ms. Zazeela who have visited one of their “Dream House” sound and light environments — either at 275 Church Street in Manhattan or at other locations around the world — the DVD is an automatic purchase. (Who knows when this run will sell out?) But more casual listeners might wonder what’s new here.
To my eyes and ears, plenty. I woke up at 6 one morning, drew curtains over the windows, turned up a subwoofer, pressed play, and sat (fairly) still for over six hours. I found the work both more thundering and more delicate than it had before. On the 1981 recording, the most forceful explorations of a given chordal area — Mr. Young calls these “clouds” — tend to last between four and nine minutes, nowhere near how long the artists spend in sustained tone environments in their personal practice.
“The Well-Tuned Piano in the Magenta Lights” brings us deeper into how they actually live and work. The first “cloud” section of the DVD lasts 13 minutes. The second goes on for 37 minutes. (An accompanying booklet provides time stamps for each chordal section, as well as a valuable essay by Jung Hee Choi, their longtime associate, on the tuning and the work’s genesis.)
Ms. Zazeela’s lush designs offer poetic visual counterpoint. While the pianist thrashes away at a collection of pitches, her mobiles and their shadows twist calmly in front of the lights, creating a potent contrast with the instrumental ferocity.
Some of the gentler additions to the work are wonderful, like a gorgeous melody, reminiscent of gamelan, that Mr. Young has titled “Blues for Eurydice.” (It comes in the fourth hour.) Chordal relationships from the world of pop are grafted to Mr. Young’s tuning in the piano’s lower range, during the “New Böse Brontosaurus Boogie,” resulting in a thrilling symbiosis of the familiar and the otherworldly. (That’s in the fifth hour.)
Mr. Young said that he could have played longer, but that in the 1980s, a composer of extended continuous works had to worry about the amount of audio or videotape that could fit on a reel. After the concert preserved on the DVD, he stopped presenting the piece. In the liner notes to the new edition, he calls it “probably my best performance ever.”
Asked if he would ever dust it off again, he said that a revival could take place only under “extraordinary circumstances.” Instead, he, Ms. Zazeela and Ms. Choi are conceiving an ambitious slate of potential releases. Projects currently under consideration include some of their work together in the Just Alap Raga Ensemble, as well as a collective performance of one of Ms. Choi’s compositions, heard last fall at the Church Street Dream House. They are also considering appending a series of archival recordings to a planned book of interviews.
Any of these could be months or years away. But soon a major American orchestra may well play Mr. Young’s work for the first time. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is currently negotiating with him over a potential performance of “The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer” (from “The Four Dreams of China,” 1962), tentatively scheduled for November.
“They do two or three rehearsals, and they think they’re ready,” Mr. Young said, describing the typical orchestra’s approach to works by living composers. “And I rehearse a lot.”
It’s the participation of two members of Mr. Young’s ensembles — the trumpeter Ben Neill and the cellist Charles Curtis — that has made the idea of a Los Angeles performance seem palatable. “I hope for the best,” Mr. Young said. “Ben and Charles know it very, very well. And if they will let them lead, they can do wonders.”
When I reminded Mr. Young that in a previous interview, he had said he wasn’t sanguine about the possibility of orchestras tackling his work, he chuckled softly. With a slight shrug, he said, “Something changed.”