In New York you can walk through a freezing rainy December night and get on the subway downtown to a house of dreams.
You get off on Franklin street in Tribeca and walk a few blocks in the driving sleet and wind that keeps turning your umbrella inside out. Turn down to 275 Church street, a nondescript white building. Press buzzer 3 and the door opens. On the third floor you take off your shoes, open a large white door and enter Dream House.
La Monte Young, the avant-garde composer and performance artist, created Dream House, a sound and light instillation with his partner Marian Zazeela in the 1980s. They moved it to this location in 1993. Young is perhaps most famous for his six hour piece, Well-Tuned Piano. And he is considered the father of minimalism and one of the greatest composers of the 20th century alongside John Cage and Philip Glass. His work continues to influence artists like Animal Collective, Ariel Pink, and Tim Hecker.
Dream House consists of an all white room with white carpet. In each corner are massive speakers that play Young’s composition. It’s a long drone made up of thirty five microtones between two notes. With complex frequencies and synthesizers, Young creates sounds that have literally never existed on earth before. The frequencies change as you move. Turn your head and the pitch bends. Walk around and the tones change. It’s as if you’re moving through the sound. Zazeela’s light installation completes the experience. Dark purple and red lights make shadows on the walls from thin pieces of cut paper. There are pillows on the floor and people stay there for hours, sometimes napping, sometimes walking around the room.
Lay on the floor and close your eyes and fall into a trance. Each time you open your eyes a little, there are colors moving around your head. You start to hear harmonies in the droning. Sometimes even voices. A great calm washes over. You open your eyes, refreshed. Feels like 20 minutes but you’ve been there for two hours. In the hallway a French girl with blue eyes is taking off her shoes to go inside. It’s her second time today she tells you. In her broken English she says, “Being in there. It makes your head full of fire.”
Young and Zazeela live on the floor below the Dream House room. It was once a Mecca for Downtown musicians. David Byrne and John Cale were regulars, Thurston Moore was involved with Young and Zazeela’s MELA foundation. Glenn Branca had his wedding there. It’s a living embodiment of an attitude of New York music and iconoclasm.
Dream House belongs to a time when art and music were becoming interchangeable. Experience was valued over expression and New York was the birthplace of those groundbreaking ideas. Dream House acts as a conduit to an otherworldly experience. It’s a small, strange place to get away, not just from the blistering night outside, but to escape your own racing thoughts.
They’ll tell you all about how sunny LA is in the winter. They’ll say it’s just minutes to the beach, a few hours from the mountains. All the cheap weed you can smoke and nice cars. New York’s over, they’ll say. New York’s just one big parody of what it used to be. And they might be right, but as you walk back out to Church Street, the sleet has stopped and everything is still. And yeah, you feel different. Chinatown is closing down for the night and Little Italy is all done up for Christmas. A few drunks stumble home. You think, let them keep their medical weed and convertibles, their mountains and their beaches. It’s cold as hell but you just can’t stop walking. You don’t want to go home just yet. Your head is full of fire.