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Dream House

WORDS: Nathan Larson
PHOTOGRAPHY: MoMa, Dream House NYC

Lamonte youngs text note

Two blocks below Canal Street in New York City, 275 Church street: a nondescript address above a mediocre Italian restaurant. Mount the wonky 3 flight walk-up + the seeker is met by a white door. Through the walls, one can discern the hum of some sort of massive turbine, a churning of subbass, and wafts of Nag Champa.

You have arrived: this is LaMonte Young’s DREAM HOUSE, a hidden New York City treasure, priceless and unquestionably one-of-kind.

Two blocks below Canal Street in New York City, 275 Church street: a nondescript address above a mediocre Italian restaurant. Mount the wonky 3 flight walk-up + the seeker is met by a white door. Through the walls, one can discern the hum of some sort of massive turbine, a churning of subbass, and wafts of Nag Champa.

You have arrived: this is LaMonte Young’s DREAM HOUSE, a hidden New York City treasure, priceless and unquestionably one-of-kind.

Dependent on your sensibility/ level of openness/ taste/ set of needs, DREAM HOUSE offers the seeker a portal to new dimensions, a potential paradigm shift…or a new age nightmare, a hippy horror show, and everything in between. Worst case for the would-be-visitor, it is a place to be shrugged at and forgotten.

In my case I can tell you this place absolutely redirected the trajectory of my life and work, and continues to gain dimension and meaning with each visit.

DREAM HOUSE is always there for you; in fact, it always has been, up and running virtually non-stop since 1962. Composer LaMonte Young and his wife and co-collaborator of many years Marian Zazella (who designed the light/ sculptural and graphic identity of DREAM HOUSE, which constitutes fully 50% of the overall experience) live, as they have since its inception, in the exhibit itself, studying the effects of the environment on themselves and on others, staying awake for 24 hour stretches, and then resting for a day. As of this writing, two weeks past Marian’s 78th birthday, the couple remains there at 275 Church Street, and there is no indication this will change.

Like all pivotal works of art, DREAM HOUSE is a philosophy, a signpost, a challenge, an off-ramp from a highway of bullshit directly into the sensual unknown. Luminaries like Brian Eno calls composer LaMonte Young “the daddy of us all”. *

DREAM HOUSE is spiritual invocation, as well as a time-capsule of an older, lawless New York, a reminder of all that was once possible and dangerous. Its presence and longevity speaks to its value, and is a fine example of the complex and gorgeous independent substrata of New York City that no amount of designer hotels, farm-to-table brunch spots and astronomically priced condos can kill.

In practical terms, the DREAM HOUSE installation is described by its creators as a “a continuous frequency environment in sound and light with singing from time to time” *, rooted by two or three sine-wave generators, pure clean electronic tones pumped through very high volume PA speakers into a loft space, suffused by pink and purple (magenta) light. The incense is thick and heavy, video / sculptural / light works are placed here and there, on walls and ceiling, pillows and mats are strewn about the worn white carpet, and the visitor is encouraged to lie down, to sleep, to stay.

That’s it, a deceptively simple setup that might be easily dismissed if it were not for it’s incredible power and capacity for infinite variety.

Lie down. Initially you will hear and feel two or three tones, which give the attendee something like a heart/ gut massage. These tones could more accurately described as “un-tonal” than atonal. Over time, the colliding sine waves are pitched to bead against each other, creating an ever unfolding and unpredictable sound puzzle whose effect changes in accordance with you position in the room, whether you are seated or standing, etc. The changes can occur in quick succession or with incredible slowness and will never repeat themselves, or fall into a recognizable pattern.

It’s a time-based event, but the installations relationship with time is so completely at odds with the world we operate in. Just as ancient Mayan civilization is simultaneous incomprehensible and unmistakably human, DREAM HOUSE is alien, yet recognizable. The work is an archetype…what one might wind up with by disregarding the last thousand years of Western musical tradition, implemented by Cold War-era ham-radio tech.

The DREAM HOUSE saves lives. It saved mine, and enriched it.

Sleep room with a couple of pillows on the floor

Most of us are familiar with the sensations high volume bass frequencies can produce in the body, and the stomach in particular. We’ve all been a club and felt it, sound as a physical thing, kicking us gently in the gut…we’ve had the experience of cranking a stereo, seeing those woofers bounce in their housing, pushing air…we might find ourselves surprised anew, almost shocked, each time we observe these phenomena, and indeed it’s a spooky thing. Sound, something which we cannot see, shouldn’t be capable of knocking over a chair, or bursting an ear drum.

It’s likely that as a “modern” human being navigating pop culture we have experienced bass, this sound-as-physical-force event, in the context of a nightclub, a rave, hip hop/ rock/ stadium concert etc…in other words, in a context which these sensations are inseparable from constant physiological and psychological reward…the dopamine slow-drip of pop music, the adrenaline blast of a drawn-out drum-break/ EDM bass drop.

Tension and release. Like a roller-coaster, we subject ourselves to these situations because we understand their constraints, their format, and the agreed-upon parameters, and the eventual (but assured) climactic payoff. A EDM drum-break is always an effective mechanism…there’s safety within, and the joy we experience is tied to the understanding that in due course the bass will, and in fact must, drop again. We find ourselves in a warm, familiar place of suspension, from which deliverance is guaranteed. Resolution and reward are assured. It’s all good fun….and we could extend this to include the horror film or airport paperback police procedural. Our enjoyment of the experience is directly linked to the knowledge that we enter knowing the things framework, and most importantly we will be freed of its grasp, that this event will conclude.

DREAM HOUSE provides no such conclusions. It is inconclusive. It does not have an objective, a narrative arc, a start or endpoint. It is an antidote to a quick fix culture we operate in and enjoy. Neither does DREAM HOUSE offer harmony, harmonic resolution, and its payoff is experienced in a much less direct (arguably more valuable but here I betray my own bias) way. Its reward is directly correlated to the energy and concentration the beholder gives to it…. like anything valuable it requires an investment.

DREAM HOUSE is the Vedic “shruti”, Sanskrit for “what is heard”, used for both a reference to a complete body of knowledge about the universe (“what is known”), or a term for an actual sound, the humming of the stars, a reflection/ echo of the AUM that initiated the Big Bang. It evokes emotions and memories with shocking force and luminosity.

How does it do it? It’s old news to point to the multitude of mental and physical health music and sound can have on the human being, to what sustained frequencies can have on the body. It’s not just the DJs of the world who understand this, but the military (more on this in another article) and churches of any faith…music/ sound, and particularly sound in combination with an environment, with light say, affects the human body and mind in ways we are only beginning to understand scientifically.

composer lamonte young wearing a black hat and shirt

My relationship with DREAM HOUSE began in 1992-3 when I was introduced to Young’s music by my then band-mate/ partner/ mentor Craig Wedren. We attended a performance by LaMonte at The Kitchen, this being Young’s “Forever Blues Band” concept. My impression at the time wasn’t great. I remember a kind of “rock band” setup, chords held for long periods, but to my ears it seemed like a lesser version of Swans, or early Sonic Youth, who were then young masters of shamanic post-punk…Young’s ensemble seemed to be aiming for something like this and falling short. With hindsight I can compare this performance (at least in concept) to contemporary monolithic drone metal like Sunn O)) or Earth, but those references lay in the future.

I was unaware that LaMonte had taught guitarist Rhys Chatham, who in turn was a contemporary and collaborator with Glenn Branca, through whom Sonic Youth was founded. A generation prior, three of the original Velvet Underground members played with Young, and the first VU commercial release was entitled LOOP, a nice bit of noise- drone. Lou Reed would eventually dedicate his fuck-everybody album METAL MACHINE MUSIC to Young, the liner notes reading: “Drone cognizance and harmonic possibilities vis a vis Lamont (sic) Young’s Dream Music (sic)”. Doing the math, this would then make LaMonte Young a wellspring for pretty much all early alternative-rock on planet Earth.

So what did I know.

It wasn’t until 1994 that I made it down to DREAM HOUSE for the first time. Again, the moment was wrong, and we didn’t connect. The incense and ‘60s trappings gave me an unwelcome hippy vibe, and I couldn’t get past these superficial elements. But I left intrigued, and a seed had been planted.

At a particularly low point in 1997 or 98, I woke up face-down on a white-carpeted floor, my body suffused with sound waves, magenta light….it was the DREAM HOUSE again, and it was post-bender me, in rough condition, having no idea how I’d come to be there, and with whom if anyone. In my exhaustion, I gave in to the place, let it do its work. In short order I was weeping. I wept forcefully for what could have been minutes or hours, into the carpet, harder than I had for years. Some combination of the environment and my broken condition allowed for some sort of breach. I lay there as long as possible, this may have been 15 minutes, it may have been six hours, somewhere between sleep and waking…until someone gently nudged me, and whispered it was time to close the exhibition. I asked to stay. The person smiled, and gave me a flier, with a phone number I could call if I wanted to volunteer there myself. “What you’re going through, dude?” they said, “Is why I volunteer here. I never gotta leave.”

Writing this anecdote down feels uncomfortable but it was lovely in the moment, and it made all the sense in the world.

Many visits followed, though I remember one in 2000, the year I got engaged. It was a miserably hot day and the air conditioning inside DREAM HOUSE was severely compromised, contributing a sauna-like effect. LaMonte and Miriam were there, and I tried to speak to them. LaMonte silenced me with a finger to his lips. I recall thinking “yes of course, of course”. But I stayed there into the evening, feeling almost certainly imagined comradery with the composers, and left around midnight. I walked through Chinatown jubilant and unnaturally wide awake, with a sense that I just been to the gym or a spa. It was a gorgeous evening, and I couldn’t find anywhere I wanted to eat. Eventually I wandered home.

a hangar with pillows scattered on the floor and dim lights on the walls

By the time the second plane hit, my thoughts were naturally fixed on connecting with family and immediate friends. We were in Paris so as we worked the logistics necessary to getting back to New York, I began making a secondary list of everybody else I could think of in that part of the City, or anyone in my life who might have been all the way downtown at that hour. The DREAM HOUSE staff, and LaMonte and Miriam, were on that list. 275 Church was a little over a half mile from the blast site, and nothing was clear, except for the fact that everything had changed, forever. Though no one slept, the next morning still insisted on arriving, and with my 31st birthday: September 12th, 2001.

By September 16th, the day we flew back in, the area of lower Manhattan south of Canal Street had been evacuated and cordoned off. We lived at the bleeding edge of the new borderland, on the north side of Canal Street, which itself had become a military staging area complete with tanks, firetrucks, NYPD ATVs, futuristic vehicles equipped with anti-aircraft and other unidentifiably weaponry, human walls of nervous, traumatized cops and soldiers in gas masks, M4s in shaky hands. A poisonous, shimmering fog permeated everything, a constant metallic grit dusted your nostrils and throat…and much has been said about the Smell: burning plastic, something unidentifiable industrial, and something else beneath that, as specific as any expensively crafted perfume.

This is not a 9/11 story but rather giving context…as seismic as the event itself was, an equally powerful wave of supportive energy swept over the City in the disaster’s aftermath, exploding forth organically and subconsciously from the municipal level to the micro level, on the streets, and significantly within the arts and “wellness” communities (whatever that entails).

Museums, galleries, churches, yoga studios, all threw their doors wide open and offered space for citizens to process, generally waiving any entrance fees they would impose under normal circumstances. Strangers embraced on the subway. I recall a heavily armed marine, crying open-mouthed on a street-corner. Small and big things.

DREAM HOUSE reopened September 22nd, 2001. It’s impulse to provide a setting for peace was much the same, “providing a harmonious and inspiring respite from the chaos without, and a chance to reflect upon the powers within us all”, to quote the archived website post of October 21st 2001. Not lost on those who had come to depend on the place was the fact that this had always been the service DREAM HOUSE provided…that the need was so specific and acute lent new value. We needed churches, and the DREAM HOUSE did the trick for me and so many others.

Since I was working at a kitchen for the workers down on Ground Zero, the HOUSE was right on my way home, and my first couple week back I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings there. It became a bit obsessive-compulsive. I was terrified at the thought that I might one day come by to find them closed, and thought again of volunteering to somehow prevent this, but couldn’t square it with my work at the site.

Two axioms were very clear in this unique time, married in my mind with the DREAM HOUSE experience:

A) Words and conversion were useless during this period. Communication occurred on a sublingual level, and it was profound down there, raw and extremely tender, to be expressed only by gesture and physical action.

B) There was a new psychoacoustic element in play: that of the deafeningly loud silence. As New Yorkers, we knew all about this kind of thing; yeah it’s a loud city, you learn to function, you don’t turn your head at every passing siren. But a whole new level of inoculation was required to get through your day.

These anomaly: fresh additions to the vocab of the City’s noisescape. New sounds of impossible size and weight…huge cranes extracting twisted girders of incredible dimension…a horrible and awesome grinding, a Lovecraftian creaking, the awakening of a prehistoric god cracking the earth…these were sounds never before heard, they were new sounds…even during the construction of these destroyed buildings. Like so many others I tried to document these sounds, but it became unbearable, it felt wrong, like spying on someone else’s suffering.

Flip this coin: in those rare moments of silence, there lived something new. Potential…for what? For literally anything. What fresh hell might come next? This made these silences loud, and scary as fuck.

The constant vigil of DREAM HOUSE represented the known unknown, it’s strangeness and contours known intimately to me now, and anything “known” in a period of redefinition and upheaval is welcome. I now had a deep history and personal relationship to the work, and accepting its embrace was like sliding into your own bed. Such relationships took on new importance in the moment.

Such relationships regardless of circumstance are what one takes stock of as middle age approaches, we begin (hopefully) to slough off the people/ places/ situations in our lives that act as parasites, energy vampires, and we distinguish between those who take as opposed to those who give in proportion to our giving to them. DREAM HOUSE is a giver.

On April 18th of this year (2018), I head over for a concert. This is an opportunity to speak with and meet LaMonte Young in an organized capacity (he will otherwise ignore attempts to speak, I have learned from others and from experience), I wouldn’t be ambushing the man. The performance is in honor of Marian Zazeela’s 78th birthday, a tribute to Pandit Pran Nath, a master of North Indian Alap music, and a man whom in his lifetime both LaMonte and Marian related to as “disciples”. Today: a morning raga, the “Bhairava”, and Young and Marian are joined by the excellent Jung Hee Choi on vocals, and tabla player Naren Budhkar.

The DREAM HOUSE that Spring morning was as it ever was, probably not so far from its condition in 1978: the incense, the lights, the wonky stairs. “Doors” are an hour and a half delayed. A crowd of perhaps 40 people (max capacity at DREAM HOUSE) file in quietly, clearly adherent geeks like me, genuinely happy to have been made to wait, and versed the ground rules: no pictures, flight mode, minimal talking, general reverence.

We enter the magenta environment to a two-tone drone, not the sine-wave drone of the DREAM HOUSE but from something like a “shruti box”, a cheap device that emulates the sustained notes of a sitar. We are seated and arrange ourselves: I make the mistake of parking myself too close to the shrine, and am rebuked.

We wait another twenty minutes; there’s just a few too many people and folks keep violating the performance space jockeying for a place to sit.

In comes Young, now 83, leaning on a pair of canes, in trademark biker-wear, supported by an assistant. He’s clearly fragile, though there is a careful, performative aspect to his movement, and his eyes are quick and supple behind his shades. Mariam and the other musicians follow, in whimsical ceremonial wear.

LaMonte is parked in an Aeron chair, the others placed in a semi-circle next to him…and after a contemplation of the drone, he, Mariam and Jung begin trading ghuarna riffs, a style of devotional Indian classical singing, largely improvised… which is to my ears bears a resemblance to the ecstatic Qwawali Sufi vocal style made famous by the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…complete heresy to those who study South Asian classical music but it puts you in the ballpark.

Like so much of Young’s work, the music is deceptively simple, vacillating between the reverent and irreverent. It does what he does best, which is smashing two incongruent aspects together….in this case I’m reminded that he was once a shredding tenor sax player who played with the likes of Ornette Coleman, and this is in evidence in his risk-taking and sometimes way-out vocal improvs. LaMonte’s respect for “correct” or consonant pitch is known to be limited, and he has written at length about this.

The performance winds up, there’s another lengthy contemplation of the drone, and then the musicians are on their way out again, a bit awkward as the hallway to exit the House is narrow and crammed with overflow crowd…but they’re cleared, the performers disappear, and it’s made plain the show is over.

It dawned on me that I had nothing to ask the composer LaMonte Young. My notebook with a few skeletal questions struck me as meaningless.

What was more interesting was the fact that here were these two artists of the old school, LaMonte and Mariam, who were out here still doing it against all odds, still living their art exactly as committed to in 1962, here in this neoliberal reality where nearly everything is co-opted and/ or made impossible by money, or lack thereof.

When the moment came to speak with Young, I merely told him DREAM HOUSE had greatly affected my life, and gave him my deepest thanks. He clucked his tongue and winked at me. It was exactly enough, and with that, I split.

I maintain Young is one of three most important post-war American composers. However, my fascination is not with him as a man, but with his work, in particular one work. My fascination is and was with DREAM HOUSE itself, which will outlive him, and hopefully outlive me, should we all be so fortunate.

Which is why I spent my 45th birthday in DREAM HOUSE, all day and evening, luxuriating in the waves of light/ sound/ scent, and communing with what was now like an old, unpredictable yet steadfast friend.

So many visits, so many days and evenings spent in that weird embrace. One relatively recent occasion stands out:

Bringing my then 5-year old son to DREAM HOUSE, watching him run around delighted and unafraid, slowly coming to a contemplative stop, before he too lay down and fell asleep…this was everything. I had wondered if the oddball unmusical sounds, the sheer volume, and the relative darkness would scare him. It didn’t. No need for details, no need for analysis. He got it straight away.

DREAM HOUSE is still doing its job with or without me and you, at exactly the moment you read this. I write this in the hopes that you might see its incalculable value. To support Young and Zazella’s operation, please see this link. Thank you.

Thanks also to the DIA Arts Foundation, who have done us all a huge service by preserving great underground NY works that would have otherwise been lost…please support them here .

Four people sitting on the floor and singing together