The canon of musical minimalism tends to be set in stone, carved like Mount Rushmore: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Younger. It’s stable, immovable, however the lineup has lengthy lacked for figures who’re under-acknowledged or under-appreciated—most notably Tony Conrad.
Earlier than his demise in April 2016, Conrad was a musician and multimedia artist whose profession successfully started within the Theatre of Everlasting Music, with Younger, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and Angus MacLise (and others in an evolving solid). As a violinist within the group, starting within the early 1960s, Conrad developed a method for enjoying long-durational drones constructed round a choose few microtones. The ensemble performed live shows that had been notoriously prolonged and loud, growing an enormous sound with expansive tones that moved slowly, like shifting sands. With Cale, Conrad was instrumental within the embryonic early phases of the Velvet Underground; he was a member of the pre-VU group the Primitives, and a paperback e book he owned, with regards to sexual deviancy, is alleged to have been the supply of “The Velvet Underground” as a identify. He was additionally an essential determine within the historical past of experimental movie—most importantly for The Flicker (1966)—and, for many years, a deeply dedicated instructor.
Final fall, shortly after his demise, Tate Fashionable in London offered the UK premiere of a brand new documentary concerning the artist, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, directed by Tyler Hubby. A number of weeks in the past, it adopted that up with a presentation of Conrad’s movie/efficiency piece Fifty-5 Years on the Infinite Plain in its concrete bunker house, the Tate Tanks. Whereas 16mm movies projected stroboscopic vertical strains on a loop, former Conrad collaborators carried out the music of the piece: Angharad Davies on violin, Dominic Lash on electrical bass, and Rhys Chatham on a customized instrument known as the “lengthy string drone” developed and designed by Conrad himself. The work was first carried out in 1972 as Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain on the Kitchen in New York (the “ten years” within the authentic title referring to time Conrad had by then been engaged on drone items).
The music in efficiency was overwhelming. There was no rating, with the gamers working as an alternative from earlier recordings and their very own reminiscences of Conrad’s verbal directions. Davies carried out the identical piece with Conrad in 2006 and, in an e-mail to me shortly after, described it as an “intimate exploration of the timbral high quality of every particular person string” that works round “infinitesimal small tuning changes, the pulling and pushing of sound.”
Conrad’s personal violin enjoying had a really explicit tone, marked by a slight abrasiveness and tonal density, and Davies’s enjoying was on the mark: fierce, stable, nuanced. The “lengthy string drone” performed by Chatham seemed like a primitive lap metal, with only one industrially clanging string hit repeatedly for the total efficiency accompanied by a single repeating notice on bass. In sound and impact, the music fell someplace between Conrad’s seminal minimalist recording Four Violins (1964) and his extra rhythmic collaboration with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973), for which he’s stated to have issued the German krautrock band a easy command: “one notice, one beat, one hour.”
The projections, organized by Conrad collaborator Andrew Lampert, comprised 4 16mm movies of black and white vertical strains shifting out and in of focus and progressively transferring collectively, blurring into one. The impact was hypnotic, mesmerizing, with a strobing impact. Many within the viewers spent a variety of the efficiency with their eyes closed, the strobing nonetheless current whereas the sound roared. In Fully in The Current, Conrad describes his sound as “coming at you want a railroad practice”—and there it was: highly effective, compelling, loud.
Causes abound for Conrad’s longtime presence on the musical periphery, amongst them the historic void left by the Theatre of Everlasting Music current principally within the realm of delusion. (Younger recorded their legendary periods however has refused prepared entry to the tapes.) In any case, Conrad held no truck with legacy-building. “I hate superstar,” he instructed the Guardian final yr. He actively resisted professionalization of his follow, and he didn’t wish to be a composer. Within the documentary, with regards to his formative ideas on the destiny of composition, he says, “I wished it to die out. I wasn’t inquisitive about propagating the tradition of musical composition as knowledgeable enterprise.”
After his time within the Theatre of Everlasting Music, he grew to become more and more drawn to underground filmmaking, working with Jack Smith on the soundtrack to Flaming Creatures (1963) and making motion pictures of his personal amongst others in a downtown New York milieu together with Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton, and extra. A part of the attraction of that scene, he says in Fully within the Current, was the “hopelessness” of it—“no person knew who any of those individuals had been.”
Conrad moved confidently between kinds and disciplines, pushed by concepts and a way of ongoing experimentation, and what comes via in Fully within the Current is his vitality and enthusiasm. He was an instance of that elusive character within the artwork world: an artist graced with good humor and a lightness of contact whose work can be severe and affecting. Movies assembled in his sequence Yellow Motion pictures are good examples. Begun in 1972, they had been conceived as durational movies in a tongue-in-cheek response to Andy Warhol’s notoriously lengthy motion pictures, solely there was no movie or projector concerned. They had been in truth painted rectangles of low cost home paint on canvas, which Conrad presumed would yellow over time. The work is humorous but profound, an end-game touch upon structural cinema.
Conrad as soon as ran a picket marketing campaign in protest of Younger’s stance on the Theatre of Everlasting Music’s recordings. Younger had tried to get Conrad and Cale to signal away composer rights to the music in alternate for launch, and Conrad’s central objection was that the challenge, in his thoughts, was about eliminating the very thought of the composer. “I held up a giant signal: ‘La Monte Younger doesn’t perceive his personal music,’ ” he cackles within the documentary. “I assumed picketing was an acceptable type of expression to cope with this. La Monte didn’t suppose so.”
It’s an ideal vignette: Conrad as a mischievous agitator but in addition a fiercely principled artist. At one level within the movie, describing the event of his follow, he says, in a form of mission assertion that lingers: “I assumed: screw summary artwork. I’m going to make summary artwork humorous, blissful, energetic, joyful.”