BY David Grubbs in Interviews | 01 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

Always at the End

Artist, composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad in conversation

BY David Grubbs in Interviews | 01 JUN 09

Born in 1940 in Concord, New Hampshire, USA, Tony Conrad is an experimental filmmaker, artist, composer and musician who divides his time between Buffalo and Brooklyn, USA. A pioneer of drone-based minimalist music, he was a member of the Theatre of Eternal Music – also known as The Dream Syndicate – which included John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela, and has collaborated with numerous filmmakers, artists and musicians such as Jack Smith, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler and Jim O’Rourke. He played alongside Lou Reed, John Cale and Walter De Maria in the rock group The Primitives, which predated the formation of The Velvet Underground. In 1966 he made The Flicker, a visually intense film which is a landmark in structural filmmaking. In seeking to ‘dismantle the authoritarian boundaries of film culture’ during 1972–4 he ‘turned to extended duration as a conceptual armature’ with his ‘Yellow Movies’ series of paintings. In 1973 he collaborated with the band Faust; their album Outside the Dream Syndicate is a classic of minimal music. Over the last few decades Conrad has composed numerous audio works for amplified strings utilizing just intonation. His recordings include Four Violins (1964), Joan of Arc (1968), Fantastic Glissando (1969), Slapping Pythagoras (1995), Outside the Dream Syndicate – Alive (with Faust, 1995) and Early Minimalism Volume One (1997). In recent years, Conrad’s art and music has been informed by his research and writing about traditions in Western music and geometry from Pythagoras to the present. Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage, by Branden W. Joseph, was published by Zone Books in 2008.

David Grubbs Branden W. Joseph’s recent book, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (2008), has given people considerably more information than was previously available about your work in the 1960s. What are you working on at the moment, and how important is the back story to understanding your current projects?

Tony Conrad It’s a fascinating book but it’s not me. It’s a magisterial piece of art-historical writing that circulates around elements of my interests and activities at a certain time. When I revisit those periods, I sometimes find myself at a slightly different point than the one that Branden arrives at. When I lived in Buffalo, I was entrenched in concerns to do with the local community: questions of localism and culture-formation within a geographically restricted region. At the same time I was following what interests and responsibilities might ensue from the fact that I was the media person at the university and was also digging deeply into questions that had arisen because of a controversy that had gradually expanded between John Cale and me on one side, and La Monte Young and his supporters on the other, which centred philosophically on the question of cultural integrity and permanence – that is, the question of whether there is such a thing as ‘eternal music’, or even ‘eternal’ anything, contingency being the issue.

Beholden to Victory, 1980, production still, with Mike Kelley (left) and Tony Oursler (right). Courtesy: the artist

DG So just to clarify, you and John Cale took the side of contingency, materialism, and cultural and historical specificity, and La Monte Young and his supporters took the side of permanence, ‘the eternal’ and that which transcends culture and history.

TC Right. Which led me to become engaged in a reflection on the intersection between idealism in Western philosophical thought and in Western cultural tradition on the one hand, and on the other hand power relations – since our controversy was largely lodged in the context of a legalistic formulation. What about our Greek roots? What about Pythagoras? What about theories of music that had to do with numerology? This ensnared me in a set of concerns around the text of history. To answer your question more directly, the substratum of my current interests, and those that have held my attention most over the last few decades, has to do with the way in which the historical record can become the narrative. On the sound side, this process was really rich, and it branched out. I began to tell myself odd things, like modern physics had been generated as a branch of music. The power conditions in the Western orchestra had their roots in the same conditions as modern state bureaucracies and military drill practices. This gives rise to an analysis of how power is transacted that is not inconsistent with Foucault’s theories, but culturally modulated in a different way.

DG So to understand your work of the last few decades it’s important to grasp your ongoing concerns, what you call ‘the substratum of your interests’?

TC I started off by trying to suggest slippages that have taken place. It’s a layered set of strata where some of my concerns have risen or fallen, as they appear to in Branden’s book. This kind of labile mobility has continued, while, at the same time over the last several decades, there has been a surge of interest in thematic links between historical writing and cultural practice.

DG Does your back story ever seem like a burden? You sit down for an interview, and people expect you to begin at the beginning.

TC To start at the end and look back is a good way to do it. We’re always at the end. About a year and a half ago, I set myself a research agenda, which was to try to tackle some of the complications I saw in the story that’s propagated about the connection between perspective in Western painting and the conditions of power in the Renaissance. I wanted to look at the time when Alberti and Brunelleschi were active during the Quattrocento and to try and understand why a set of practices that appeared unprecedented in their linkage to geometry would have been attractive enough to power that they would sweep away a set of Western cultural practices that had existed for 500 years. This struck me as an intriguing problem because naively I understood it to be about asserting individualism — that the beholder was a surrogate for the artist, which seems ludicrous. I couldn’t understand why a system of control as articulate as the Church – which was also burning people alive and torturing them – would have taken a role in empowering the individual through art. And why would the merchants and princes also commissioning these paintings and sculptures be interested in empowering the individual?

Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective, 2008, performance documentation, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy: Greene Naftali, London; photograph: Sheila Burnett

DG Perhaps the princes and merchants imagined that only someone from their own class were the beholders of the artworks?

TC This is a theory, but it scarcely accounts for the fact that the individual was allowed to become the active element on the Western cultural stage; it seems to be rather more the product of private reflection and systemic narcissism on the part of these leaders. I saw something quite different in this scheme of things that had a direct analogue to what was happening around the same time and then later in music, and also in what was beginning in science, physics and astronomy – namely that this kind of representation, in which things looked ‘real’, was first linked to geometry by Leon Alberti, and then systematically by others to geometry. There’s no systematic acceptance of perspectival representation until after the identification with geometric practices and methods is promulgated. Euclid’s treatise on geometry was translated into Latin around this time. Geometry is the substance of intellectual contemplation; it was assumed to be latent within every image. The implication was that geometry is a presence that is virtually incipient in the real world – the manifestation of an ideal presence, which was consistent with the cosmic order, and the whole neo-Platonic scheme of things. I felt that this was an important link in the visual terrain to my understanding of sound and of tuning systems; this was a seductive line of inquiry. Now I’m trying to figure out how to build that into cultural expression in visual art. I feel very powerfully influenced by the stuff I’ve been working on in sound, and yet thrown into orbit in relation to what to do with visual expression.

DG What form do you think is appropriate to grapple with these ideas?

TC Producing culture in the form of art or – what do you call the thing that’s music, art, and theatre all together in one bundle? Culture. Let’s say that to find a visual form that reflects the problematic nature of this question – and that’s legible today – is an interesting question.

DG When I first met you in 1993, when you were working on Early Minimalism, you were engaged in a two-pronged approach that used both music and criticism in relation to the philosophical idealism manifested in tuning systems. The criticism that you were writing, especially the essays that later appeared in the Early Minimalism box set, seemed crucial to your musical practice. Are you still pursuing both approaches?

TC I’m still in that place. There’s a narrative that carries over into a written scheme. Living in Brooklyn is invigorating because there are a lot of active young musicians who are having a blast. People come here from all over, like you, for one. The contemporary vocabulary of people working with computers and noise, to name two forefronts of this whole system, is florid. There’s stuff bursting into bloom on every bush.

DG Where do you see yourself fitting in?

TC Where I fit in is that these are games that I’ve learned to play, and I can handle them well, and I enjoy showing up in such a context and having a complete ball. My performance practices, which were linked to something that, in a sense, froze in the early 1960s, can wobble and bend in a lot of different directions because the door to noise opens. The door into noise is one that I find really attractive, in particular because it leads away from the dictatorial condition of harmonic relationships among pitched tones in a way that leaves a transparency between these two realms. You can pass into noise, and pass back with a suppleness that’s wonderful. That’s one. Two is that I’m simply disgusted because everyone can play this game, and now everybody does. Noise is so easy. Laptops are like falling off a log. Who cares? I’m getting CDs all the time that are completely uninteresting to me because I want to learn something from what they do, and they aren’t telling me anything. For me, there’s another project, and that is to begin to try to create a structure of laws that can address the needs of 2010. From Futurism to Dogme, manifesto-like conditions can be productive. I’m interested in developing a rigour that will bootstrap music out of this smarmy pit where everyone plays laptops and noise.

The Theatre of Eternal Music, 1965, performance photograph at the New York Film-makers' Cinematheque, with, left to right: Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale. Courtesy: Zone Books, New York; photograph: Fred McDarrah

DG A rigour manifested in words or music?

TC In words. Something that intrigues me a lot – and which I still haven’t decided about – is the suggestion that music should not have audiences. Just to get the audience out of the picture entirely seems like an interesting challenge, because every time I tell myself that the audience is why I’m doing everything …

DG You tell yourself that the audience is why you’re doing everything?

TC Every time I find myself thinking that, I realize that I’m barking up the wrong tree, and that if I try to head in the opposite direction, there’s something like a multifarious void out there. There are a lot of different, dismembered pictures of what I’m doing that come to mind. That kind of prefiguring has always struck me as a good place to be.

DG I’ve always thought that you have a very ecological relationship to musical performance. You play violin today in a way that’s similar to how you played it in the early 1960s. It’s as if you decided to continue in this style of playing because it would be wasteful to dispose of it when it still brings you pleasure. I don’t think of your performance style as reaching back to an earlier era so much as it persisting.

TC That’s true. I love that way of working and of producing sound, and the place that it took me. Recently the burden has lifted to some degree, because there are a lot of young people who are making sound that fills the bill, and I’m still happy to be able to participate in this cultural, experiential space. In the 1970s there was almost nobody making sustained-tone, harmonically generated music. It was a real rarity. The kind of bracing change and the almost threatening tumultuousness of developing ideas, twists and turns in musical thought that drew me into music production during the late 1950s and early ’60s didn’t seem to be there any more. It made me really impatient. When punk emerged, the way it upended things was interesting; it was fascinating to hear punk spliced together with sustained sound, as happened in the case of Sonic Youth or Rhys Chatham or Glenn Branca. But generally during that period there was a frustrating stasis, and I felt bored. I wasn’t bored in the late 1950s or the early ’60s. It came in at the end of the 1960s, and then it didn’t really go away. Punk really shifted sensibilities in a way that was dramatic. Then we go into the 1990s, and it’s curious that minimalism comes to function then like punk did in the 1970s: it shifts sensibilities. That’s not so exciting for me, except that it reanimates a posture, a set of conditions and a practice that I know so well, and which is then recontextualized. The contextualization is what becomes interesting.

DG There had not been ‘early minimalism’ before then.

TC That’s right. Music isn’t just sound, it’s also the social context and the technology. The circulation of CDs and online music, and the function of that network in relation to musical culture, the explosion of musical globalism, and the introduction of computers meant there was a lot of new stuff available in the 1990s and now. Recently, for example, I came to know the work of Lau Nau, a woman who lives in the woods in Finland and makes folk music. And this music is just talkin’ to me. How can this happen? This is completely a product of the globalization of our culture. But, despite these positives, I want it to be thrilling again. It seems like it’s a little boring.

DG Starting in the 1960s, you were making music that couldn’t adequately be represented in the form of a recording – for instance, long-duration minimalist works. Did you have strong feelings about recording your own music?

TC LPs or 45s or whatever were so removed from my worldview in the early 1960s that they were almost irrelevant in some sense, although they provided a lot of contextualizing influence. It was almost a miracle to find an actual LP of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Ali Akbar Khan. Today that seems very quaint, but at the time it was fascinating. It was also startling to discover that a small number of musicians more affluent than I were able to produce small editions of LPs, like Mimi Johnson’s and Robert Ashley’s Lovely Music or Chatham Square Records.

The audience at a screening of The Flicker, Fourth New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, New York, 1966. Courtesy: Elliott Landy/

DG Who were the first people that you played music with who tried to distribute their music on records?

TC In 1965, I can’t even tell you who would have been making a record. At that time I wouldn’t have even had the money to buy them. But there were curious, small issues that play into this framework. I own, somewhere, a couple of records that were on the Dial label, which put out these limited editions of, say, a Schoenberg string quartet, that were really incredibly precious. You couldn’t hear this stuff anywhere; Source [a legendary avant-garde music magazine] was one of the first places. I think Robert Ashley’s The Wolfman [from 1964] was on a ten-inch disc, but this was among the first releases that I became aware of. Most of the recordings I cherished were pop music recordings of what was on the radio, which I initially found very hard to like. It was a big challenge to like easy listening – probably the hardest thing that I ever overcame. I set about to learn to like it in response to reading John Cage.

DG For Cage, interestingly, it seemed to have been more about defeating the mechanism of liking than learning to like.

TC It was probably a misreading! But a kinship. Cage’s work was consistently read as late modernist, which enabled the fracturing of limitations in composition as a systemic dismantling akin to what happened in conceptual art in the late 1960s. I received Cage from a completely different direction, not as a modernist at all, probably because I had never studied modernism at that time. I just found him playing a concert in front of me.

DG The last time I interviewed you was for the classical music section of Tower Records’ Pulse magazine, which no longer exists. Nor do Tower stores – except in Japan, Ireland, and Mexico – and classical music in recorded form isn’t far behind. Why am I interviewing you for an art magazine?

TC In technology, there’s this thing called convergence, a term that refers to the consequence of digitization, something that those of us who started working with computers long ago became aware of quite early. I started working with computers before 1960, so the idea that everything could be digitized and would finally wind up meeting in the context of instruction sets on a computer is pretty familiar. But there’s another kind of convergence that seems to be taking place – that alternative music and music as a culture has run into trouble, to the degree that it has begun to merge socially with art. So we begin to see music performances in art galleries and art exhibits in music spaces.

Yellow Movie 2/28/73, Yellow Movie 2/21-22/73, Yellow Movie, 1973, emulsion paint on paper. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin

DG Gigs are curated now.

TC Exactly. A similar thing has begun to happen in media – film and video spaces, of which there used to be many, have run into trouble. A lot have collapsed, while at the same time media occupies a larger place in museums and galleries. Now, for example, in Buffalo every week there’s a big music event and Albright-Knox Art Gallery is open to the public, and people come and dance and hang out. In the meantime, many of the shows include video and film. In the 1990s, in a local media magazine, I wrote a piece about how when people who are immersed in television and movies visit a museum, they’re baffled by having to engage intellectually and aesthetically with pictures. The same thing happens with sound. Museums and galleries have been pushed in the direction of inclusiveness, while these other social sites for alternative expression have contracted. That means that there’s a kind of cultural convergence that’s taking place that brings all these things together. I don’t think that’s unproductive. It reflects the conceptual initiative that was apparent last century with Happenings and all kind of things, basically going back to the Futurists. The Futurists actually predicted the future.

A musician and writer who lives in New York, USA. He recently released Hybrid Song Box.4 (Blue Chopsticks), the soundtrack to Angela Bulloch’s sculpture of the same name.