Writings about Music

Loving & Rerigging La Monte Young's Tuning

Michael Robinson was surprised to learn he is the first composer to use The Well-Tuned Piano tuning for a new composition outside of La Monte Young who invented the tuning in 1964. Robinson uncovered previously unnoticed and thrilling new details about the tuning. Michael retained 8 of the 12 swara (tone) tunings of the saptak (octave), while tempering the remaining 4 swaras for A Parrot Sipping Tea, the title of his new 64-minute work.


La Monte Young and I were reunited in 2021 in a most unexpected manner. In 1991, following an interview on WBAI FM in Manhattan, I returned home to a voice mail from Marian Zazeela, Young's collaborator and wife, asking me to phone back because La Monte was excited to speak with me about my music after hearing the show featuring my first album, Trembling Flowers. Doing so, the composer born in Bern, Idaho in a log cabin, and myself born in Manhattan at French Hospital in Chelsea, first living in Borough Park, Brooklyn, entered into a charged conversation lasting over three hours, including discovering how we had both studied privately with Lee Konitz; La Monte in the fifties, and myself in the seventies. Similarly, we both had composition lessons with Leonard Stein, best known for his association with Arnold Schoenberg; La Monte also in the fifties, and myself in the eighties.

Some years later, in 2002, I spoke on the phone with Marian because I had begun giving live performances of my music for Meruvina together with video improvisations. She was thrilled with the prospect of having me perform at their Dream House in Manhattan, and said she would consult with La Monte, but for whatever reasons this didn't happen.

Now, in 2021, thirty years after our initial talk, seeming like a brief time span, I became intrigued to investigate the tuning La Monte invented for The Well-Tuned Piano. Unlike others who have written voluminously about the tuning, I have considerable knowledge and experience with Indian classical music, this being a central influence on my music as it has been for La Monte, too, not to mention the other three composers he is commonly linked with, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, Steve’s coming mostly by way of John Coltrane, of course. Right away, I detected how La Monte's tuning is actually a form of Khammaj thaat, similar to the Western Mixolydian mode, something others overlooked. More specifically, his tuning is closest to pentatonic ragas Madhmad Sarang and Megh, both of which I've based extended compositions upon.

La Monte's tuning is a form of Just Intonation, and he has used it notably for vertical environments, meaning various chords and intervals sounded simultaneously. My own approach to composition and performance has been closer to Indian classical music given how there are no chords or vertical happenings other than the relationship of the melodic voice to the drone or drones, the sole exception being very occasional chords of various voices enacted for reasons of musical contrast.

My eschewing of chords and vertical melodic relationships, in confluence with Indian raga practice, occurs even when using various keyboard instruments traditionally capable of chords, such as piano, harpsichord, clavichord, and organ, my music following a purely horizontal approach in the manner of the sitar, santoor, harmonium, and gatra vina (human voice).

Since 1995, beginning with the Hamoa album, I have been using Just Intonation, too, this being closest to tunings used for ragas. La Monte's tuning is an extreme variation of Just Intonation.

What I found most exciting about La Monte's tuning is how there are two enharmonic versions of Shadja (tonic), three enharmonic versions of Rishaba (second), and three enharmonic versions of Panchama (fifth). These enharmonic tones are incredibly gorgeous-sounding in combination with the remaining solitary swaras (tones). Again, none of the myriad writings on the subject noticed what I find the most remarkable aspect of the tuning - the stunningly alluring enharmonic swaras; an oversight understandable due to a focus upon chords and vertical constructions together with a lack of Indian classical music knowledge. Joining the enharmonic swaras are single swaras for Gandhara (third), Madhyama (fourth), Dhaivata (sixth), and Komal Nishada (lowered seventh).

Alain Danielou published a famous book about ragas - Ravi Shankar once mailed me his personal copy by mistake while intending to send another book - including an analysis of pentatonic Raga Gunkali with three enharmonic tones for Komal Rishaba (lowered second), and three enharmonic tones for Komal Dhaivata (lowered sixth). My guess is Young is familiar with this publication regardless if it had any influence or not. My composition and performance, Porcelain Nights, is based upon Gunkali, this raga actually being one of the very first I ever heard on a famous recording made by vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

La Monte's tuning includes two vakra (crooked) features, whereby Madhyama precedes Gandhara in ascent, and Komal Nishada precedes Dhaivata in ascent, vakra features being common for Indian ragas, something also apparently unfamiliar to those writing about The Well-Tuned Piano tuning previously.

There was a fortuitous discovery on my part because originally I confused the cents tunings for Gandhara and Madhyama, and Dhaivata and Komal Nishada, respectively, subsequently realizing how my new tunings for these four swaras sounded infinitely more beautiful than La Monte's original tunings in the context of my new composition whereby chords are non-existent and pure melodic development reigns. This has always been my attraction to different tunings; how I respond to them aesthetically, as opposed to theoretically. My preference has been for tunings derived from world music cultures, including Japanese, Tibetan, Arabic, and American blues tunings I have used for composition, in addition to creating tunings on my own. I much prefer considering different tunings based upon the way they sound over how they are calculated.

To be clear, for my purposes, I decided to retain all of La Monte's tunings for the eight enharmonic swaras, joining these seamlessly with my rerigged tunings for the other four swaras of the saptak (octave). Coincidentally, I subsequently realized how three of my four adjusted swara tunings are closely related to tunings for these specific tones surviving from ancient India, some of which I used previously for Megh. I especially enjoyed finding the word "rerigged" for describing my tempering because it evokes the sea, something my initials, MER, spell in French.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela

All in all, I'm thrilled to be reunited with La Monte through his amazing tuning, including how I made some pertinent modifications, and am looking forward to releasing my new composition using the tuning, titled A Parrot Sipping Tea, lasting 64 minutes, with separate movements of Alap, Jor, Jhala, Drut Gat, and Ati Drut Gat. The 689 page score contains 61,718 through-composed notes, none of which were changed after composition as customary.

Like The Well-Tuned Piano, A Parrot Sipping Tea is primarily for keyboard, with clavichord for the Alap, Jor, and Jhala; piano for Drut Gat; and Hammond B3 organ for Ati Drut Gat. Tabla, dholak, dhol, wadon, bebarongan, and pelegongan are equal drumming partners for the gats, with two tambouras, and an organ-flute drone sounding throughout my composition. Sheng, African harp, hunt pipe, ud, and clarinet provide additional instrumental color for the Jor and Jhala.

Working on A Parrot Sipping Tea was a most pleasurable, challenging siege, taking around four months from inception to completion - encompassing pretty much the spring of 2021. Programming eight different enharmonic tones was fantastically complicated and utterly, satisfyingly simple after figuring out the best method. The completed work exceeded all expectations, truly taking my breath away; almost unbearable in its wild and refined beauty at once touching upon unvisited domains, no small part being attributable to the tuning enhancing my composition and orchestration.

During the composition phase of Ati Drut Gat, I learned a dear friend whose magical Carriage House in Brooklyn Heights I had the pleasure of staying in a number of times, including original iron rings used to tie horses in previous centuries attached to a brick wall in the living room, had left us at 91, an especially dramatic, extended passage in my piece resulting from this mournful news. Jerry was a great lover of classical music, including teaching music appreciation classes. Most recently, he and his wife, Adele, were thrilled I was taking lessons with tabla genius, Anindo Chatterjee, also in Brooklyn at the time, having me over for dinner afterwards. Hector Berlioz was Jerry's favorite composer.

It will be a great pleasure sharing A Parrot Sipping Tea with La Monte and Marian. My hope is that every new composition is somewhat different from previous efforts, and fortunately this has occurred.

For Indian classical music, La Monte's primary teacher was Pran Nath, whose guru, Abdul Wahid Khan, also taught Ram Narayan, who first brought the sarangi into prominence as a solo instrument. Narayan's exalted Sarangi: The Voice of A Hundred Colors album was my introduction to Indian classical music, later inspiring "Pink Moon" from the Tendrils album. I have recently been in touch with Jac Holzman, the founder of Electra and Nonesuch Records, including the Explorer Series that released Narayan's historic album, and he's hoping to find a way to make this and other momentous albums from that series available again. Of course, every title from the Explorer Series is worthy of such treatment. Jac and I were originally put in touch by our common friend, Gaylord Combash, who was an original member of the Merry Pranksters with Ken Kesey, later becoming a master woodworker in Maui where I met him.

My study of Indian classical music commenced with legendary teacher, Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, including being the person who wrote down in words what Ravi spoke for My Music My Life, which I've long felt is the finest book about music ever published. Ravi Shankar, of course, is the visionary musician from Varanasi who both transformed Indian classical music, and brought it to the attention of the Western world, including composers like Riley, Reich, Young, and Glass, together with Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan, Alla Rakha, and others. There are many parallels between Ravi Shankar and Charlie Parker, both born the same year of 1920, bringing new melodic, rhythmic, formal, and expressive innovations to their respective disciplines, Shankar exerting a pervasive influence upon Indian classical music, American jazz, rock, and Western composition that is difficult to overestimate.

It is remarkable how some in the new-music world were apparently distracted by the attention afforded Ravi through his relationship with George Harrison, missing how the sitarist's playing is among the most esoteric of Indian musicians in terms of intellectual complexity, transcendent rasa, and technical profundity. Some had difficulty with Shankar's innovations similar to individuals from the Swing and Dixieland eras not comprehending Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Indeed, Shankar's music passed over my head initially, and it was only after I obtained a degree of sophistication with Indian classical music that his incredible artistic accomplishments were revealed.

There has also been some confusion about tuning, mostly by those unfamiliar with Hindustani and Carnatic music, not understanding how tuning and intonation is centrally vital, being a necessary obsession, for all great Indian classical musicians. I've personally found focusing on tuning alone tends to be an artificial concept conjuring serialism, if another extreme, oftentimes based more upon theoretical concepts and numbers than music itself. I fully understand such pursuits, including knowing John Cage, who was an innovator in these areas. Focusing on tuning alone in the context of ragas may compromise development and tone quality, just to begin with, missing the forest for the trees, and I tend to feel much the same for Western composition, though anything is possible, including exceptions.

I've been to concerts and performance spaces where there is a focus on the tuning relationship between two or more tones. Listening to and considering various forms of acoustical phenomenon is understandable, and I encourage those who wish to pursue such areas, if rarely being my own first choice. In other words, if asked to choose between Jackie McLean and oscillating difference tones, my preference is for the former.

As I was blessed to study with Harihar Rao, so I was blessed to study under Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, whose musical acumen and verbal eloquence were reminiscent of classes and encounters I had with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood.

Pandit Jasraj, a divine vocalist known as The Sun of Music in India, also embraced me, enjoying myself as a student so much he invited me to stay with him at his home in Mumbai, something I regretfully was unable to do, but our time together in California proved transformative. One of many unforgettable experiences was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles together, him in the passenger seat, and myself at the wheel, with a glorious full moon visible through the windshield. It was that hour, and Panditji began singing midnight raga Sohini, which I had never heard before, a Cappella in full voice for a half hour. When Pandit Jasraj left us last year, I wrote a heartfelt tribute.

Most recently, I've been awestruck to study with Anindo Chatterjee, as mentioned above, whose humility, kindness and superhuman musical abilities are endless sources of inspiration.

Mention must also be made of my two interviews with Shivkumar Sharma, who like Ram Narayan, elevated his chosen instrument, the santoor, into the realm of a solo instrument. I treated these interviews as music lessons, and the sublime knowledge and insight communicated by this magnificent artist - truly beyond words - are fortunately documented on my Interviews with Indian Masters page, along with other momentous musical encounters you are invited to visit.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Kyle Gann for his extraordinary feat of figuring out La Monte's tuning, after which Young eventually gave permission to publish his auditory deciphers, thus gifting the world a miraculous tuning for others to explore.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kyle on the phone regarding my findings last month. There was some initial confusion due to whether Just Intonation ratios or Well-Tempered ratios were being used as a reference point, and once that was settled, Gann concurred with the absolute soundness of my unprecedented observations. Not having a background in Indian classical music, Kyle was unfamiliar with the thaats, including Khammaj thaat, or ragas Madhmad Sarang and Megh, but he does know the ancient Greek modes, of course, including the Mixolydian mode.

Kyle also told me he believes I'm the first person to compose music with this tuning other than La Monte himself, something I find surprising given how it has been publicly available since 1993. Perhaps others found the technical complexities of the tuning daunting, as indeed they are. Personally, I welcomed the challenge of finding an effective way to make music with them other than attempting to copy their originator.

My insights into the music of Conlon Nancarrow were part of the reason why Gann invited me to lecture about my music at Bard College in 2016. Writing about my second album, Fire Monkey, for the Village VOICE in 1994, Kyle included what is his highest compliment for a composer, describing me as "an original." He also included me on a list of notable composers together with La Monte. I only wish we lived closer together so I could invite Kyle over to my studio and hear his reactions to how my music is actually created, no doubt providing new insights and suggestions given his brilliant mind.

It is important to note how A Parrot Sipping Tea is entirely notated, while La Monte's The Well-Tuned Piano, originally composed in 1964, and debuted in 1974, with subsequent additions, is realized through improvisation.

Of course, my music is all about content and syntax imbued with and reflecting how American jazz and Indian classical music superseded the European classical music of the era I was born into, finding unprecedented ways of assimilating these two titanic improvisational languages into composition.

- Michael Robinson, July 2021, Los Angeles


© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 198 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.