It’s been a long, long time since there was much industry in Lower Manhattan’s Tribeca, but down on Church Street, you can still hear a pulsing, pumping drone, even if the drone and pulse is coming from the “Dream House” and the synthesizers therein—more industrial than industry.
Dream House is described as a “sound and light environment installation” by one of its creators, which is to say that apart from the sound and light, it’s pretty sparse in there. You buzz the buzzer at 275 Church St., remove your shoes and pay your six bucks and enter the carpeted loft that’s empty other than pillows on the floor, blue and red light, big speakers, the smell of incense and that’s about it. Well, there’s that shrine to Pandit Pran Nath, too.
There’s actually quite a bit going on beneath the surface at Dream House; its roots run all the way back to New York’s avant-garde composer boom of the post-war era and all the way to India.
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela first conceived of the Dream House back in the early ‘60s. Young had come to New York from California as a saxophonist. While still in college at Berkeley, Young was enthralled with John Cage, and in the spirit of Cage, reduced his parents to tears with a concert back home in Los Angeles. According to Young, they were “heartbroken to see what their son was doing,” which at the time involved dragging a gong across cement and banging wastepaper baskets on the wall.
In New York, Young found more sympathetic audiences in Yoko Ono’s loft, and more sympathetic collaborators, who formed the ensemble “The Theatre of Eternal Music,” whose ranks, at least briefly, included the gateway-droner and Velvet Underground-violist John Cale.
Zazeela came to New York after studying visual art at Bennington, mostly paintings and some calligraphy. In 1962 she did her first “lightwork,” and joined the Theatre of Eternal Music as a vocalist, singing steady tones under Young’s saxophone.
The Dream House, as a concept, revolved around having work going continuously. Initially, Young envisioned this as involving two or three musicians coming in in shifts, but thankfully electronics came along and made everything much easier (and as he notes, less expensive). In 1971, a Dream House was installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for two and a half weeks. In 1979, a Dream House was put up on Harrison Street, in Lower Manhattan, where it ran for six years. For being a piece that draws so much from the notion of continuity and being sort of static, the Dream House sure does get around, touring Berlin, Lyon, Paris, back in New York at the Guggenheim, and finally to its current home on Church Street.
There's something about it that requires immersion, so I didn't think about grabbing video while I was inside Dream House. But this should give you an idea
The minimal visuals come from these various incarnations. The smaller of the two rooms at the House has Zazeela’s sculpture Ruine Window, which dates back to Berlin. Immediately upon entering the Dream House, you see Zazeela’s neon piece, Dream House Variation 1, on the ceiling. The windows in the larger, louder, front room are covered in reddish plastic, so even as her lights change the interior, Tribeca itself is seen through rose-colored glasses.
No effort is made to conceal the lights or the speakers, and the windows remain open, if pink. In contrast with other drone or sensory deprivation experiences, the Dream House feels very public and straightforward. Other people come and go, and sit on the other pillows that are placed around the room, like a cathedral in the middle of the week, which is probably no coincidence.
In an interview with Frank J. Oteri in 2003, Young talked about the spiritual aspect to the Dream House, how “it takes into consideration the various senses and tries to, through a vibrational process, take people up into this high spiritual state and allow them to have a very specific communion with God.”
Both Young and Zazeela were close to the Indian musician Pandit Pran Nath, who not only taught them the tonal possibilities beyond the Western scale, but who also seems to instilled some spirituality into their approach, with sayings like “when you're singing and you're perfectly in tune it's like meeting God.”
A trained and accomplished musician of classical Indian forms, Pran Nath took on La Monte Young as a student in 1967, passing along his insistence on precise intonation and the possibilities of gradually changing tone, even at a tectonic-plate-like pace, as well as establishing the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music. Indian music featured continuous notes and harmonics on instruments like the tambura, which Young was already interested in. He and Zazeela spent 26 years with their teacher and guru.
Under the gaze of a shrine to Pandit Pran Nath, who died in 1996, Young’s synthesizers at the Dream House follow a mathematical formula creating 32 different frequencies that reveal themselves depending on where you’re sitting, how your head is angled and how much you’re paying attention. (The specifics of the formula make up the name of the piece, which is too long to include here, but are explored in more depth on the piece’s press release page).
Even the motion of others around the room can affect how and what you’re hearing. There is high, whining sounds, and low pulsing ones, and the longer you stay the louder some seem, but the “click” of my pen was always audible—perhaps it’s not overpowering so much as it is all you can hear.
Likewise, strange things can emerge from the static background. With my eyes closed and testing out a mantra (because if you’re not going to try one there, then where, right?), when the sound suddenly shifted. I opened my eyes to see a fellow Dream House guest walking over to the window, the sonic environment changing in his wake. I felt like Daredevil; it was like a dream.
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