“I’ve always sought a different world,” composer and musician La Monte Young told writer Alan Licht in a rare public appearance earlier this year at Red Bull Studios. A founding father of what was once referred to as the New York Hypnotic School, Young is more commonly credited these days as the first minimalist, a pioneer of drone music who abandoned melody’s seductive constraints to explore duration as the means to push the experience of sound into farther-reaching realms. Brian Eno famously dubbed him “the daddy of us all.” John Cale claims that he moved to New York just to study with Young. Lou Reed, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Thurston Moore, and Glenn Branca are just a handful of the other essential artists who bear the composer’s unmistakable influence.
It was undoubtedly Young’s quest for a different world that sparked the idea for a Dream House — an immersive, ongoing sound-and-light environment he co-created in 1963 with his collaborator and wife, the visual artist Marian Zazeela. As the story goes, the first glimmers of a Dream House came to Young in the 1950s. By 1962 the idea had firmed into a vision for a permanent space where, as he and Zazeela wrote in the essay “Dream House,” “a work would be played continuously and ultimately exist in time as a ‘living organism with a life and tradition of its own.’ ”
That year he met Zazeela, a young artist who was working as a model for filmmaker and performer Jack Smith, whose notorious masterwork Flaming Creatures was conceived as a vehicle for her. In the late summer of 1963, Zazeela and Young moved into a loft on Church Street, which served as the first Dream House. Young wrote and performed compositions with their ensemble, the Theatre of Eternal Music. Zazeela performed too, and soon began to create light-based sculptures for the environment. They married in 1964 and have lived and worked together ever since.
In the intervening years, a Dream House has been on view in New York and elsewhere, in various iterations, if with a few interruptions. It’s had a consistent home just above Zazeela and Young’s loft at 275 Church Street since 1993 and has become a pilgrimage site for fans and seekers alike who want to experience what Young, now 79, calls the “drone state of mind.” Dream House has always been less of a traditional art installation and more of a sacred space. Inside it, you might feel as though you’re dipping a cup into a river, catching what you can while the rest slips by. When I first visited, years ago, a woman sat cross-legged on the floor meditating while two serious-looking young men paced between the speakers (music students, I guessed). Each was there with equal focus, though all were experiencing the environment very differently.
The Dia Art Foundation recently acquired its own version of Young and Zazeela’s work, titled Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House, currently on view in the organization’s Chelsea exhibition space. This iteration of the couple’s “time installation measured by a setting of continuous frequencies in sound and light” has Young and Zazeela working with composer/artist Jung Hee Choi, their longtime student and collaborator. For dedicated enthusiasts, this exhibition may seem to possess less of the Church Street Dream House’s intimacy and community, owing in no small part to the distinction between “destination” and “drop in” visitors. That said, to see a Dream House expand and breathe inside a grand Chelsea art space is to be reminded of its palpable power, as well as its poignant singularity. There is — to use a tired but true phrase — nothing else like it.
Entering West 22 Street Dream House, you remove your shoes to walk across plush white carpeting into the main space, where Young’s composition The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time… (1991–1993) thumps and throbs from four large speakers. Three mesmerizing sculptures by Zazeela hang on the east and west walls of the gallery; she has further transformed Dia’s interior by gelling the windows and skylights, bathing the space in red, blue, and magenta. Almost in counterpoint, Choi’s dark, romantic, monolithic sculpture, Environmental Composition 2015 #1…, comprises four “light point drawings” made from pinhole punctures in fabric.
We are used to thinking about attention in terms of span, but we rarely consider its depths. The Dream House exercises both. Dozens of pillows are strewn about: an invitation to sit or lie down if you wish. Time is the subject of the piece. The amount you spend is up to you, but know ahead that duration is rewarded. For example, walk around or just move your head and what initially sounded like a single, perpetual chord by Young shifts, shattering into multiple waves that hit the ear like muted machine-gun fire. I closed my eyes and sat for a while until my hearing almost seemed to reverse itself, the composer’s drone radiating from inside my head.
Zazeela’s works play light, shadow, and color — the elements essential to form and its perception — off of one another. I spent a great deal of time looking in particular at Imagic Light III (2015), two thin curls of white aluminum suspended from the ceiling. Illuminated by two theatrical lights, one red and the other blue, the curls take on those hues while at the same time creating colored shadows on the wall behind them. Up close, the piece’s quiet dazzle is a meditation on light and color. Seen from a distance, however, the shadows appear to take on a material presence, and the eye has to flex itself a little differently to distinguish the artwork from its cast silhouettes.
Duration teaches its pupils many things, not the least of which is letting go of the impossible desire for permanence. Stasis, after all, is an illusion. Although Dia plans to dedicate a space inside its new building to West 22 Street Dream House‘s ongoing exhibition, there’s no knowing what its precise future will be. Come September, the installation on Church Street will reopen and, for a few weeks at least, the two Houses will glow and hum in tandem across town from each other. Whichever Dream House you visit, whatever experience you have, go there and have it. It is an unparalleled encounter with art, music, and time that will not waste a single second of yours.
Dia 15 VI 13 545 West 22 Street Dream House
535 West 22nd Street
Through October 24