The canon of musical minimalism tends to be set in stone, carved like Mount Rushmore: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young. It’s solid, immovable, but the lineup has long lacked for figures who are under-acknowledged or under-appreciated—most notably Tony Conrad.
Before his death in April 2016, Conrad was a musician and multimedia artist whose career effectively began in the Theatre of Eternal Music, with Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and Angus MacLise (and others in an evolving cast). As a violinist in the group, beginning in the early 1960s, Conrad developed a technique for playing long-durational drones built around a select few microtones. The ensemble played concerts that were notoriously lengthy and loud, developing a vast sound with expansive tones that moved slowly, like shifting sands. With Cale, Conrad was instrumental in the embryonic early stages of the Velvet Underground; he was a member of the pre-VU group the Primitives, and a paperback book he owned, on the subject of sexual deviancy, is said to have been the source of “The Velvet Underground” as a name. He was also an important figure in the history of experimental film—most significantly for The Flicker (1966)—and, for decades, a deeply committed teacher.
Last fall, shortly after his death, Tate Modern in London presented the UK premiere of a new documentary about the artist, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, directed by Tyler Hubby. A few weeks ago, it followed that up with a presentation of Conrad’s film/performance piece Fifty-Five Years on the Infinite Plain in its concrete bunker space, the Tate Tanks. While 16mm films projected stroboscopic vertical lines on a loop, former Conrad collaborators performed the music of the piece: Angharad Davies on violin, Dominic Lash on electric bass, and Rhys Chatham on a custom instrument called the “long string drone” developed and designed by Conrad himself. The work was first performed in 1972 as Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain at the Kitchen in New York (the “ten years” in the original title referring to time Conrad had by then been working on drone pieces).
The music in performance was overwhelming. There was no score, with the players working instead from previous recordings and their own memories of Conrad’s verbal instructions. Davies performed the same piece with Conrad in 2006 and, in an email to me shortly after, described it as an “intimate exploration of the timbral quality of each individual string” that works around “infinitesimal small tuning adjustments, the pulling and pushing of sound.”
Conrad’s own violin playing had a very particular tone, marked by a slight abrasiveness and tonal density, and Davies’s playing was on the mark: fierce, solid, nuanced. The “long string drone” played by Chatham looked like a primitive lap steel, with just one industrially clanging string hit repeatedly for the full performance accompanied by a single repeating note on bass. In sound and effect, the music fell somewhere between Conrad’s seminal minimalist recording Four Violins (1964) and his more rhythmic collaboration with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973), for which he is said to have issued the German krautrock band a simple command: “one note, one beat, one hour.”
The projections, organized by Conrad collaborator Andrew Lampert, comprised four 16mm films of black and white vertical lines shifting in and out of focus and gradually moving together, blurring into one. The effect was hypnotic, mesmerizing, with a strobing effect. Many in the audience spent a lot of the performance with their eyes closed, the strobing still present while the sound roared. In Completely in The Present, Conrad describes his sound as “coming at you like a railroad train”—and there it was: powerful, compelling, loud.
Reasons abound for Conrad’s longtime presence on the musical periphery, among them the historical void left by the Theatre of Eternal Music existing mostly in the realm of myth. (Young recorded their legendary sessions but has refused ready access to the tapes.) In any case, Conrad held no truck with legacy-building. “I hate celebrity,” he told the Guardian last year. He actively resisted professionalization of his practice, and he didn’t want to be a composer. In the documentary, on the subject of his formative thoughts on the fate of composition, he says, “I wanted it to die out. I wasn’t interested in propagating the culture of musical composition as a professional undertaking.”
After his time in the Theatre of Eternal Music, he became increasingly drawn to underground filmmaking, working with Jack Smith on the soundtrack to Flaming Creatures (1963) and making movies of his own among others in a downtown New York milieu including Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton, and more. Part of the appeal of that scene, he says in Completely in the Present, was the “hopelessness” of it—“nobody knew who any of these people were.”
Conrad moved confidently between forms and disciplines, driven by ideas and a sense of ongoing experimentation, and what comes through in Completely in the Present is his energy and enthusiasm. He was an example of that elusive character in the art world: an artist graced with good humor and a lightness of touch whose work is also serious and affecting. Films assembled in his series Yellow Movies are good examples. Begun in 1972, they were conceived as durational films in a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Andy Warhol’s notoriously long movies, only there was no film or projector involved. They were in fact painted rectangles of cheap house paint on canvas, which Conrad presumed would yellow over time. The work is funny yet profound, an end-game comment on structural cinema.
Conrad once ran a picket campaign in protest of Young’s stance on the Theatre of Eternal Music’s recordings. Young had attempted to get Conrad and Cale to sign away composer rights to the music in exchange for release, and Conrad’s central objection was that the project, in his mind, was about eliminating the very idea of the composer. “I held up a big sign: ‘La Monte Young does not understand his own music,’ ” he cackles in the documentary. “I thought picketing was an appropriate form of expression to deal with this. La Monte didn’t think so.”
It’s a perfect vignette: Conrad as a mischievous agitator but also a fiercely principled artist. At one point in the film, describing the development of his practice, he says, in a kind of mission statement that lingers: “I thought: screw abstract art. I’m going to make abstract art funny, happy, energetic, joyful.”