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The Biggest, Oddest (and Most Unique) Sound in New York

Inside the Dream House, the audio installation that's been blowing minds since 1993

June 4, 2009 1:28 PM ET

Several months ago, a group of college students waited to be admitted into 275 Church Street, a small, unremarkable black building in New York's Tribeca neighborhood. After being buzzed in, they began to ascend the stairs and got the first sign that they were at the location of the Dream House: "We heard this strange sound coming from upstairs," says Troy Carey. They started to feel uneasy. It was a jarring, droning noise that only got louder as they approached the exhibit's entrance on the third floor. "We peeked in," he says — the sound was now blaring — "but we got too freaked out, so we left."

The Dream House is simply a warm, dimly lit, spacious room, but it's also a portal that whisks visitors away from the world outside. It is the creation of minimalist composer La Monte Young ("The Well-Tuned Piano") and his collaborator, visual artist Marian Zazeela. The ominous droning sound is a composition by Young. The full title is notoriously long but it begins, "The Base 9:7:4: Symmetry in Prime Time... ." The room is empty save for some pillows, a shrine, Zazeela's light works and the four refrigerator-sized speakers blaring Young's work. Since Young and Zazeela first opened the Dream House in 1993, intrepid New Yorkers, musicians and sound fanatics have been going to bask in its unusual environment. It will close on June 20th and reopen again in September.

At first the sound at the Dream House may seem like a noisy bog, but closer listening reveals it be an intricate composition that contains very specific properties. The sound is composed of 35 tones that create small and never-before-heard intervals found between the notes Ab and C, which are then redistributed over nearly the entire range of human hearing. Young was able to articulate these innovative intervals through the use of a specialized electronic instrument called the Rayna synthesizer. "Not only is it unlikely that anyone has ever worked with these intervals before, it is also highly unlikely that anyone has ever heard them or perhaps even imagined the feelings they create," Young once said of the synth's capabilities.

"La Monte has always been interested in making new music, and he doesn't mean new as in novel, he means new as in 'it didn't exist in the universe before,' " says Jeremy Grimshaw, an Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University who is writing a book on Young's work. "When you first walk into the Dream House you've probably never heard those sounds before. This is not a fully accurate explanation but imagine it like this: Ring the G string and then the B string on a guitar. Now imagine 35 microtones crammed in between them and then redistributed over seven octaves. That is approximately what the sound played at the Dream House is like."

The notes are so shrill, minute and foreign to the human ear that we react with sensitivity to them. "Most music changes as it goes past your ears," says Grimshaw, "but in the Dream House it stays still if you stay still, but it changes dramatically if you move." So the visitor has the ability to manipulate his experience in the Dream House. "If you turn your head a little you can make a pitch come into focus, turn back and it will disappear again. If you stand up on your toes you may find that the tones are different two inches higher," he says. Tugging an earlobe, tightening the jaw or sneezing can also alter the pitch.

Most listeners, after getting used to the sound, tend to find a soothing and relaxing quality to the drone. There are even some people who enjoy lying down and napping to it. "We have one guy who comes in after work every Thursday and stays in the room for three hours," says Rob Ward, the coordinator of the Dream House. "He sits and meditates. It seems like he goes to a different place." A blonde out-of-towner named Burette visited the Dream House for the first time recently and emerged an hour later dazed and visibly relaxed. "It feels good. It's like when you're on a beach and there's that droning of the surf, in and out," he says. "You can have dreams. I went to that other place."

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela have been creating sound and light environments as a team since they got together in 1962. The pair are anything but typical. At 74 years old Young looks like an ornery Hell's Angel. He wears a black denim biker's jacket slightly open to expose some chest hair, wristbands, a bandanna and shades, and he has a devilish white beard and goatee. Zazeela has artfully braided hair and almost always wears either magenta or purple; the two colors that feature most prominently in her art. Due to the intricate nature of their work they maintain a 36-hour sleep schedule: roughly 23 waking hours and 13 sleeping hours. "Our work is very complex and it takes time to get into it," they say. "Our lives are dedicated to the process of offering unique phenomena to the world."

Young is widely considered to be the father of minimalism (or the "granddaddy of us all," as Brian Eno once referred to him). His most well known work, "The Well-Tuned Piano," is a six-hour solo piano piece that slowly induces its listener into an immovable trance-like state. Some call it the most important piano work of the late 20th century. "La Monte's work as a performer ... takes people into new realms of understanding," says Zazeela. Zazeela was one of the first contemporary artists to use light as a serious medium for expression. Her emotive magenta lights and shadow creating mobile designs help give the Dream House its greatest sense of escapism. They reside below the hum of Dream House in their apartment on the second floor and say living with the sound is "like heaven on earth."

The college students returned a week ago determined to experience the Dream House. They emerged almost two hours later also reporting feelings of calm. "It's really intense," said Gary Edwards, a sophomore studying journalism. "It's intimidating when you don't know what you're in for, but it was awesome. It was like yoga, or listening to rushing water." The students also claimed to hear songs and melodies within the complexity, an experience common with the Dream House. "I could have sworn I heard the Benny Hill theme song," said Carey. Another one of the students, Erica Fald, was certain she could hear parts of Rihanna's "Disturbia."

"Some people are really taken by it," says Rich Hazelton, a DJ at WFMU who has helped monitor the Dream House for the last 10 years. "Monitors" are unpaid interns who sign up to help supervise the exhibit. "One time a large group of people started showing up," he recalls. "They started sitting in semi circles and making ohming sounds. They hadn't contacted us ahead of time. It turns out they were going to perform some sort of Aleister Crowley ritual. They looked like they stepped out of a British sci-fi show."

Since it opened, the Dream House has been oft visited by music cognoscenti. Brian Eno and David Byrne used to come to Young and Zazeela's earlier Dream House installation on Harrison Street in the 1980s, and members of Sonic Youth have frequented the Church Street House over the years. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore used to be a contributor to the MELA Foundation, Young and Zazeela's organization. The composer Glenn Branca held his wedding in the Church Street Dream House.

Andy Battaglia, a staff writer for the Onion A/V Club, sometimes likes to take his subjects to the Dream House before he interviews them. He's brought Fiona Apple and the members of Olivia Tremor Control in the past. Last May, while on assignment he took Animal Collective to the Dream House before interviewing them at a bar nearby. "They were really into it," he says. "We hung out there for like half an hour and laid out on the floor staring at the ceiling. It made sense to take them there because their music has such mysticism about it. I find there's an interesting communion you can have with people there without talking. There's no mistaking the environment you're in when you're there."

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