BY Geeta Dayal in Profiles | 12 APR 16

Tony Conrad: 1940–2016

The experimental filmmaker and musician has died, aged 76

BY Geeta Dayal in Profiles | 12 APR 16

'History is like music completely in the present'
Tony Conrad

It seemed unfathomable that Tony Conrad could ever die. He was the forever drone, the eternal project in long duration. It was believable that he would continue to age and evolve over time, but it seemed impossible that he would entirely disappear. Conrad was a towering artist, composer, musician, professor, and filmmaker; an avant-garde New York fixture since the early 1960s; a friend, collaborator, and mentor to several generations of artists and musicians. He was astoundingly prolific in a wide array of mediums over six decades, and much of his massive body of work has yet to surface. Conrad died on 9 April in a hospice near Buffalo, New York, and the impact of his loss will reverberate for years to come.

Conrad was 76 years old when he passed away, but he was so rich in youthful energy that his younger friends thought of him as a peer. ‘I think that’s what was really making me sad,’ the musician C. Spencer Yeh said. ‘I feel like someone my own age died.’ The musician M.V. Carbon echoed that. ‘Tony Conrad was a great friend and a huge inspiration... Life was musical around Tony. He lived and shared at a volume that resonates deeply with many.’

Conrad was phenomenally productive, continuing to perform and produce new work up until shortly before his death. ‘He had already checked off the typical boxes that artists are supposed to check off — make some amazing singular work, have a place in history, all that,’ Yeh said. ‘He had that all sorted out already. He interacted in the present, with the people around him. He continued being and living and thinking as an artist and human being.’

Conrad – a member of the legendary Theatre of Eternal Music in the 1960s, a structural filmmaker, minimalist, drone musician, theorist, sound artist, video artist, collaborator with the legendary Krautrock group Faust, and so much more – counted legions of younger artists and musicians as friends and collaborators. It was not uncommon to see the septuagenarian Conrad at a noise show in Brooklyn, riding his bicycle, or dragging a heavy suitcase down a subway platform at 2 a.m.

‘The first time I met Tony, I had an idea of what he would be like – I thought he would be this serious minimalist guy dressed all in black,’ said Brandon Stosuy, one of Conrad’s former students at Buffalo. ‘He showed up on his bike wearing this lime green combo, and said “Hey!”’

‘He was anything but “business as usual”,’ said Carol Greene, owner of Conrad’s New York gallery, Greene Naftali, ‘and his disruptive spirit brought such joy and pleasure to our workplace. He also got so much pleasure from it, constantly throwing us curveballs with a sparkle in eye and a barely concealed mischievous grin all in the service of an artistic brilliance. He questioned everything and was always turning the tables to try to break through to new grounds and unexplored possibilities.’

 It was not uncommon to see the septuagenarian Conrad at a noise show in Brooklyn, riding his bicycle, or dragging a heavy suitcase down a subway platform at 2 a.m.

Conrad was never one to be neatly categorized or pinned down by large institutions, or the mainstream art world. ‘He fought against careerists, or legibility in that kind of way,’ said Jay Sanders, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a good friend of Conrad’s.

‘Earlier on, he was drawn to work in the least institutionalized context – downtown New York music, underground cinema,’ Sanders continued. ‘There was... no apparatus for success. These were really underground forms. Later he got interested in power and institutions and roles, working with people like Mike Kelley... I don’t know another artist who was that prescient in how he could see the position of things in real time. Even later in his career when he was more celebrated as a visual artist, he was kind of in his life undercutting the stability of that. He was an artist at the highest level.’

Conrad was rigorous in his thinking without being rigid or formalist. ‘He was studiously different,’ said Andrew Lampert, his close friend and longtime archivist and curator at Anthology Film Archives, New York. ‘He was born with a different programming or wiring than a lot of the rest of us, but he was also hyper-aware of the cultural, aesthetic and philosophical trends that underpin all these areas, and he was in a mode of constant rejection of these things. His work was humorous at times – often austere and in other moments personal, but also an intellectual critique of culture as we know it... He had vivid, well researched, deeply held beliefs that music as well as art as well as film could be something else. He was always investigating these things at their absolute structural and material level.’

Conrad was born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1940. He graduated from Harvard in 1962 with a degree in mathematics, and worked for a stint as a computer programmer before moving to New York City. He played violin with the Theatre of Eternal Music, a pioneering drone-based minimalism project with John Cale, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise, and others. At the end of 1964, shortly before the demise of the Theatre of Eternal Music, Conrad created the piece Four Violins, overdubbing four violin parts to create rough layers of drones in an apartment on Ludlow Street. He briefly joined The Primitives, a proto-Velvet Underground band (Conrad inadvertently gave the VU their name when Lou Reed discovered Michael Leigh’s 1962 book of the same name in Conrad’s apartment) with Reed, Cale, and Walter De Maria. Conrad was also roommates for a time with the filmmaker Jack Smith, and made music for some of Smith's films. Soon, thanks to a gift of film stock from Jonas Mekas, Conrad was making groundbreaking films of his own.

‘One day, Jonas [Mekas] gave Tony rolls of raw film stock, of 16mm film, and said “Now you are a filmmaker”, and Tony became a filmmaker,’ said Lampert. Conrad’s first film was the classic The Flicker (1966). ‘The patterns that I selected to use in The Flicker are an extension of the usual stroboscopic techniques into a much more complex system,’ Conrad explained to Mekas in a 1966 interview. ‘The Flicker employs harmonic relations, speeds, pulses and patterns different from those used until now.’ Fifty years later, The Flicker still feels startling and radical.

Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali Photograph: Bettina Herzner

One of the many people to be inspired by Conrad’s films was Lee Ranaldo, who was in college in the 1970s before co-founding Sonic Youth in 1981. ‘I was introduced firstly to his films at Binghamton University by Ken Jacobs, who was my cinema professor, and immediately I knew this was a guy to keep tabs on,’ said Ranaldo. ‘The Flicker was a crowning achievement of the kind of structuralist filmmaking that was revered in Binghamton back then. In spite of its austerity it was also pretty “far out” in concept and in the visual effects that the shifting black and white frames could create in front of the eyes during projection. That tied it vaguely to psychedelic art as well as structural film – I guess many of the folks in the American film avant-garde back then were also heads... As he recently told The Guardian, “People thought we were high on drugs, and we were!”’

Several other films followed The Flicker: Coming Attractions (1970), Straight and Narrow (1970), Four Square (1971). In 1973, Conrad premiered Yellow Movies, showing it for one night only at Millennium Film Workshop. It was advertised as 20 new films. There was no film, per se, but 20 large sheets of paper with rectangles of white house paint boxed in black, that would eventually change and yellow with time.

‘Obviously even in the realm of the avant-garde, it was an oddball move,’ Lampert said. ‘It’s Tony’s signature to always do the oddball move... showing how normative the avant garde actually behaves. Jonas [Mekas] came and wrote an article in the Village Voice declaring them the best movies of the year. Jonas is one of our greatest contrarians of all time, but so is Tony.’

In 2004, Sanders, Lampert, and Jim O’Rourke teamed up to help resuscitate Conrad’s earlier visual output, including Yellow Movies. ‘There was a certain point where myself and Jim O’Rourke and Andrew Lampert decided we’d go to Buffalo, and press Tony to reveal the non-musical side of his work – the visual, conceptual art side,’ Sanders said. ‘We went up there together in 2004 or so with a scanner and cameras and stuff and did this radical archiving of his house. That was when we were able to bring the Yellow Movies to light, and the pickled films...that was part of his career that was reintroduced to the visual art world.’

Listening to Conrad’s music, you can begin to see the myriad connections between his film work and his sonic experiments with extended drones, minimalism, tones of long duration, and the engagement and perception of the listener. The year 1973 also heralded the release of Tony Conrad’s dreamy, meditative collaboration with the German group Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate. The album, which was probably the most instantly accessible album Conrad was ever involved with, was massively influential.

Conrad’s range was wide, but he also had immense depth. ‘I knew him as a minimalist composer, and then to know him as a structuralist filmmaker and video artist and activist – the list goes on and on, but I think that’s the one of the key aspects of knowing Tony,’ said the musician and professor David Grubbs. ‘Just the amazement at the depth of the work and the diversity of it. The striking thing is actually how central to all these moments and scenes that he was. He wasn’t a Zelig phenomenon; he was absolutely at the heart of drone-based music in the 1960s, or structuralist filmmaking, or video used in community activist projects in the 1980s.’

Through the mid-1970s and up until his death, Conrad spent much of his time teaching in Buffalo and cultivating new generations of artists. ‘Tony Conrad was one of the first who supported my early film work and was instrumental in finding a receptive audience for my work,’ said the filmmaker Ericka Beckman. ‘He helped me produce my film You The Better in 1983 by bringing me to Buffalo to shoot with his students. When I was broke after completing that film, he had me up to his department to co-teach with him. He had amazing, long sustaining optimism.’

He has reams and reams and reams of writing; he has made sculpture, drawings, musical scores, paintings. If there is a mode of artistic expression, he expressed in it.

Conrad’s musical career was revived in the 1990s. This was in a large part because of key reissues and releases on the label Table of the Elements, helmed by Jeff Hunt, and by performing and collaborating with contemporary musicians such as Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke. ‘I met [Conrad] in 1993 in Chicago, or ’94,’ said Grubbs. ‘Jim O’Rourke had just played in a festival in Frankfurt that one of the early minimalism pieces was played at, and Jim met Tony there and was quivering with excitement for weeks and months on end. I heard Outside the Dream Syndicate. Gastr del Sol, Tortoise, and John Freeman were playing a gig at the Hothouse. Tony was backstage – we were drinking scotch with him and having a grand old time. From the minute I met him, just laughing, I thought he was truly the funniest person I had met in my life.’

‘He could just roll with almost any situation you put him in,’ marvelled Grubbs. ‘I did tours with him in the ‘90s – we were sleeping on people’s floors that we met at the gig and he could totally roll with that. He had no problem rolling with that. I was usually the person who was like, ‘Maybe we could swing a motel,’ but...he had no problem just hopping in a car and doing a punk rock tour in ’97, ’98.’

Conrad’s record releases in the 1990s cemented his stature among a new generation of music fans. ‘When the Atlanta record label Table of the Elements put out Four Violins and then that Early Minimalism box set, that was a watershed moment for so many people,’ said Sanders. ‘It revealed this history that didn't come out in public... All of that was so fascinating. The record was amazing, and so were the liner notes.’

Conrad went full-on, back into live performance. ‘I learned a lot from watching him perform, about the interaction of sound and image,’ said Ranaldo. ‘I was around for some of the first shows that he did when he returned to performing, in the mid-‘90s, and was blown away by the drone music he was doing after such a long hiatus from performing. My wife Leah Singer and I do a piece involving projection and music performance, and in the period where he was performing behind a screen or sheet – either solo or with accompanists – we shared a few bills. We were both enthralled by those performances, which seemed to combine his activities in cinema – especially the idea of ‘early cinema’ as represented by the sort of ‘shadow play’ he was creating onstage – with these drone pieces which sounded so up-to-date with current music practice of that time. Of course he’d been tapping into the power of the drone since his early ‘60s days with the Theatre of Eternal Music. It felt like he was giving back some of the knowledge he’d learned back then, passing it on to the younger set. The music was uncompromising, and found its own (long) duration – certainly testing the patience of some listeners even as others found ecstasy within it. We counted ourselves among the latter.’

The 2000s were an intensely productive time for Conrad. He became an active supporter and board member of the New York-based non-profit Issue Project Room, and was involved for a time with Issue’s late founder, Suzanne Fiol. ‘He was an active member of Issue’s board, and he was very involved in Issue after Suzanne [Fiol] passed in 2009,’ said Lawrence Kumpf, former artistic director of Issue and current director of Blank Forms. ‘He was really one of the main forces in keeping it alive over the years – both financially, and in an advisory role... He was always extremely supportive of the staff and organization when we needed help, especially after Suzanne’s passing. He deeply cared about Suzanne and the organization and the community around Issue, and that culture.’

He played numerous shows, garnering the respect of a new underground. ‘He was part of this De Stijl/Freedom From festival in Minneapolis St Paul in 2003 – one of those festivals that really brought a ton of people together and talking, that really set the scene for things to come,’ said Yeh. ‘In the front there were a number of record vendors. Someone observed Tony checking out records (as of course, many eyes were on Conrad), and saw that the only thing he bought was this Hanatarash/Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock LP. Everyone was like ‘Whaaaaaa? OH SHIIIIT.’

The Theater of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate), performing in a private loft, New York, 12 December, 1965. Left to right: Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Fred W. McDarrah

‘I have many fantastic memories,’ said the musician Jennifer Walshe. ‘Wilton’s Music Hall in London, a venue where an actor once jumped from the stage to stab a heckler. Tony in a green furry sack and me in a New Orleans prom dress at Sculpture Center with Loud Objects. Doing an epic Jack Smith tribute gig wearing props from the opera in Berlin surrounded by naked dancers. Playing Luciano Chessa’s intonarumori on Max Neuhaus’ Times Square installation. Grading our students’ work when we played All Tomorrow’s Parties before we went to catch Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry perform... In 2013 we played SPOR in Denmark. Somebody commented on Tony’s emerald green trousers. He said, ‘the secret to to my style is... Go to the thrift store, and go straight to the WOMEN’S SECTION!’

His old friends from the 1960s also found themselves rediscovering his earlier work, through new performances. ‘I first became aware of Tony Conrad in New York in the 1960s when I experienced the work of the composer and musician La Monte Young and the filmmaker and performer Jack Smith, both of whom Tony collaborated with at the time,’ said the artist Joan Jonas. ‘My most recent memorable experience of Tony's work was at the Kitchen in 2005 when I saw the performance Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plane. It was an amazing work. There were four adjacent projections of simple, vertical black and white patterns that occasionally seemed to morph into grey tones. This mesmerizing, optical experience affected one's vision and body in subtle ways. Accompanying this shimmering and shifting projection was Tony playing drone-like motifs on his violin, the sound of which always took me to different parts of the world where the violin is played. His work was important and uniquely beautiful.’

When it became clear that Conrad was ill, Lampert began boxing up Conrad’s voluminous archives in Buffalo. 150 boxes were packed in a week, but there is still a tremendous amount of packing to be done. ‘Tony worked in every media format and art genre of the 20th century,’ Lampert said. ‘In his collection, he has every media format – with the exception, because I haven’t found it yet, I could be wrong, of wire recordings,’ Lampert said. ‘And so there is work in every video format, since the introduction of half-inch videotape into the market in 1965, the commercial market. He has 16mm, Super 8 films, as well as works in other very fugitive film formats, such as films that he electrocuted, films that he curried, films that he pickled. He has reams and reams and reams of writing; he has made sculpture, drawings, musical scores, paintings. If there is a mode of artistic expression, he expressed in it. So the archive itself consists of all these works and all these formats. We’re talking about thousands of audio recordings, hundreds of film reels ... It’s a remarkable amount. There are hundreds of raw video tapes ... There is documentation as well as visuals and audio of music performances dating back to the early 1960s ... Plus he has an incredible archive of files – he kept files on individuals, on organizations, on subjects, copious notes on the development of his own work. 

‘One of the projects that he wants to happen first and foremost in his wake,’ Lampert continued, ‘is the publication of his magnum opus musicology research project, with the title What Music Did. This is his thesis, his anti-Pythagoras thesis that makes his claim for the musical structures that one finds in his work ... That is a project that might be as much as 700 pages of writing.’

While boxing up Conrad’s art in his house in Buffalo, Lampert found a pickled Bible. ‘When I was packing up, on his fireplace mantle, he had a pickled Bible – a bell jar with a Bible in brine in it,’ Lampert said, laughing. ‘There was stuff like that everywhere, and a lot of times you have to ask yourself, is that a work? Is that purposely arranged that way? There’s a thing I can’t tell what it is – I’m pretty sure it’s a sculpture. It’s crazy, it’s totally great, he wasn’t one to draw the line, you know? He worked in between so much. Tony really lived in the cracks. He had one foot solidly and deeply in the different areas that he occupied.’

A major documentary on Tony Conrad directed by Tyler Hubby, titled Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, will premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on June 1. A museum tour of the film is planned for later in the year.

Geeta Dayal is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.