Tony Conrad - Biography

“Tony Conrad is a pioneer, as seminal in his way to American music as Johnny Cash or Captain Beefheart or Ornette Coleman, one of those really savvy old guys whom all the kids want to emulate because their ideas, their style, are electric and new and somehow indivisible.”


            — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1998


Those words are even truer and more relevant a decade later. Tony Conrad is a giant in the American soundscape. Since the early 1960s, he has utilized intense amplification, long duration, and precise pitch to forge an aggressively mesmerizing "Dream Music." Conrad articulated the Big Bang of minimalism and played a pivotal role in the formation of the Velvet Underground; he continues to exert a primal influence over succeeding generations with his ecstatic oscillations and hypnotic drones. Violin in hand, Conrad is the inventor of loud, raw, ecstatic, New York minimalism, and his sound continues to radiate outward — from Rhys Chatham to Glenn Branca to Sonic Youth to My Bloody Valentine, and beyond.


Remarkably, while Conrad’s sound began blowing minds nearly a half-century ago, his entrance into the marketplace didn’t begin in earnest until 1993. Until then, there existed only a few hundred copies of a single release, a 1972 LP recorded in collaboration with German krautrock progenitors Faust. It is a testimony to Conrad’s ageless vitality that he now has nearly a dozen releases, all of which remain in print, and a legion of young fans for whom Conrad is the face of American minimalism, rather than Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, or La Monte Young. It’s been a fascinating journey.


Born in 1941 to professional artists, Conrad began playing the violin in his early teens. By his own admission, he disliked it, and lacked natural aptitude. And he despised vibrato. With insight, his teacher, Ronald Knudsen, introduced Conrad to the Mystery Sonatas of Baroque violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. These unusual pieces make extensive use of scordatura, i.e., unconventional tunings of open strings; they also afford a great deal of the interpretive decisions to the performer, and address issues such as duration. Furthermore, knowing that young Conrad was a math nerd, Knudsen introduced him to the science of sound, specifically, the naturally occurring harmonic cycle, and the fundamentals of just intonation. Conrad was hooked. By the time he left for Harvard at age 16, he was developing his own performance idiom. Standard, Western, equal temperament never stood a chance.


At Harvard, Conrad met the musician, conceptual artist, and Kentucky provocateur, Henry Flynt. Flynt introduced Conrad to an array of previously unheard sounds. On one side, there was the post-classical avant-garde ferment, represented on campus by Christian Wolff, who was in residency; on the other was something even more foreign to Conrad: pop music. Flynt hipped him to country & western, bluegrass, pop, world musics, and more. Conrad willingly acknowledges the High Lonesome sound of Bill Monroe as another formative influence. Conrad also joined Flynt in the latter’s notorious public “protests” against High Art.


On moving to New York, Conrad looked up La Monte Young, a young jazz musician he had met during a brief stint in California. Young and his artist girlfriend, Marian Zazeela, had begun a loose series of collaborations with a poet/percussionist named Angus MacLise, and Billy Name, a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Their initial efforts were wandering free-improvisations, although the focus would shift dramatically with the addition of Conrad.


Conrad introduced Young to his interest in just intonation and the harmonic cycle, and soon they were deep within a rigorous new performance idiom, in which first one carefully considered note, then two, then three, would be held for a very long time, generating rich fields of harmonic overtones and undertones. Next to join was a young Welsh composer, John Cale. A line-up solidified, consisting of Cale, Conrad, MacLise, Young, and Zazeela, with occasional appearances by Terry Riley and Terry Jennings on saxophones.


Zazeela held a vocal drone; Cale and Conrad drew glacial string lines on viola and violin, respectively; meanwhile Young played sopranino saxophone in the looping, cascading style he had perfected in California. To compete with Young’s volume and to coax out harmonics, Conrad contributed the final ingredient: He first added an electric guitar pick-up to the bridge of his instrument; he then did the same for Cale. Plugged into guitar amps, they created a colossal roar. Young then switched to vocals, and quit the saxophone forever. They continued in that configuration for nearly three years, rehearsing for hours on a constant, daily basis. Conrad, a hardcore documentarian with a two-track, Nigra tape deck, recorded everything. Both Cale and Conrad consider this post-saxophone period to be the group’s zenith.


The name of the group is a point of contention. Young and Zazeela called it the Theatre of Eternal Music; Cale and Conrad had their own term: the Dream Syndicate. Despite Young and Zazeela’s preference, the latter has since caught on with the public when referring to the version with Cale and Conrad. Either way, the group’s influence was combustible. Their performances in lofts and galleries in and around New York were unlike anything the Downtown art scene had heard, and artists such as Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, and a young Philip Glass took note.


Conrad stepped outside the Dream Syndicate on December 17, 1964. Alone in his Ludlow Street walk-up, he made a multi-track recording of himself, playing The Sound. The result was Four Violins (1996 Table of the Elements). It is Conrad’s epic, soaring masterpiece, although it would remain unreleased for 32 years. When prodded as to why it never saw the light of day, Conrad simply states that it was too personal. Its eventual release was a seismic event that initiated a critical re-evaluation of American minimalism.


The Dream Syndicate disbanded in 1966, when Cale and MacLise left to join the Velvet Underground. There is little evidence of ill will in the initial breakup. Conrad, who also left, would perform with Young again in 1968; in a further sign of trust, the departing members agreed that Young’s loft was the logical place to store their collective archives, Conrad’s massive piles of tape reels. Conrad would continue with a prolific career as a musician, film- and video-maker, professor, author, and intellectual and social provocateur.


In 1972 while traveling in Europe, Conrad was introduced to Uwe Nettlebeck, the producer for avant-rock visionaries Faust. Nettlebeck offered Conrad an opportunity to record in the band’s studio, which was a professional set-up provided by a major label. Conrad jumped at the opportunity. Made over three days on a remote farm in northern Germany, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973 Virgin, 1993 Table of the Elements) is a gem. The Faust rhythm section keeps a ruthlessly steady beat for Conrad, and Rudolph Sosna’s swirling, mesmerizing keyboards are a wonderful additional — especially on the bonus tracks made available when the disk was re-released on CD.


Conrad has complained that the mix is soft and the deliberately rough edges — the gnashing and scraping of his violin — are smoothed over. Maybe so, but it’s still a great record. Issued only in Europe, it went quickly to the cut-out bins, yet today it’s acknowledged as a classic of both krautrock, and American minimalism. A 30th anniversary addition released in 2003 features a second disk of originally unreleased music from the sessions and restores Outside the Dream Syndicate to its rightful place in history: as the vital link between early minimalism and the rock avant-garde and a gripping testament to the power and beauty of the Drone.


In the early 1980s, both Tony Conrad and John Cale approached Young and requested listening copies of their collective recordings from the 1960s. Young refused — unless they would sign a document agreeing that he, Young, was the sole composer. Conrad and Cale both adamantly declined, and in the subsequent decades voiced, to the music media, their dissatisfaction with the situation. As a result, interest in these “lost” recordings increased dramatically, and a very public rift was visible between the two camps.


In 1995, Conrad returned to the studio and reasserted his relevance and influence for a new generation of listeners. Directing his own ensemble, which included Kevin Drumm, David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke, Conrad emerged with Slapping Pythagoras (1995 Table of the Elements). It is as thrilling, vigorous and downright antisocial as any great rock album (which it is); it reconfigures the lost dream music, addresses nearly thirty years of silence, and confirms Conrad as a giant of American music. It was recorded by Steve Albini (Bush, Nirvana, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page) and Jim O'Rourke (Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Wilco), and definitely has the rough edges that Conrad prefers.


In 2000, Conrad acquired (from a third party, and after a back-story worthy of a John le Carre novel) a copy of a Dream Syndicate recording from 1965 that he considered an accurate representation of the ensemble at the time. For fans, the potential discovery of a recording of this configuration of the group was akin to finding the Holy Grail. Maintaining his assertion that the group was an improvisational, collaborative effort, Conrad authorized its release.


Conrad and Cale issued a statement upon the release of Day of Niagara: Inside the Dream Syndicate (2000 Table of the Elements). In a single paragraph they contended that the five musicians appearing on the recording were co-authors, and as such, they were within their legal right to authorize the release. La Monte Young responded with a furious 17-page diatribe, in which he claimed he was the sole composer, and Conrad and Cale were simply following his instructions. He also leveled intense criticism at the sound quality and the packaging (in part for lacking Marian Zazeela’s art).


The CD is a modest item, with meager packaging, billed to neither the Dream Syndicate nor the Theatre of Eternal music, but simply to the five contributing artists, alphabetically listed: John Cale; Tony Conrad; Angus MacLise; La Monte Young; Marian Zazeela. There is a brief description, and a quote from John Cale: “Those recordings are [part of] a library that represented, for Tony and I at least, a labor of love. The power and majesty that was in that music is still on those tapes.”


He’s right. Day of Niagara is a revelation. Even with the poor quality (the percussion is low in the mix, but it’s there), it is an epic, soaring, exhilarating ride; brief, raw, and loud; the scrape of the strings; the implacable drone of the vocals; the fluttering wings of the percussion. It ends as abruptly as it begins, with the sound of the last of the tape running past the recording head to the take-up reel. Who knows how long they played after the tape ran out — possibly for hours. Of course, it’s the proper way to present an archival document, in its original state, but as an ending to this particular recording, it’s sublime.


As for Young’s critique of the release, it seems unlikely that either Tony Conrad or John Cale spent so many years performing with Young just for the privilege of being studio lackeys or a backing band — Cale lasted less than two years taking orders from Lou Reed. Furthermore, some of Young’s arguments seem baldly disingenuous. Whether or not he possesses a better master and more suitable art is a moot point when he’s made it clear he will never release the material.


Ironically, it’s Conrad himself who addresses the shortcomings of the original recordings — in the book that accompanies his Early Minimalism Vol. I (1996 Table of the Elements) released a full four years before the existence of the Niagara tapes was made known. He speculates what the response might be if Dream Music tapes were ever released. It’s probably the frankest assessment we’ll receive. Writes Conrad:


“Before leaving Dream Music behind, there is room for a final confession — it was indeed amateurish; our recordings, should anyone ever be able to hear them, are of poor quality, with outrageously poor balance in the mix; La Monte always turned himself up loudest; the group was frequently too stoned to play long enough with adequate focus; our heterogeneity as performers often overcame our ability to muster group discipline.”


Yet Conrad goes on to propose that these shortcomings might have been essential to the aggregate accomplishments of the group, that their personal singularities were united in their radical denial of conventional ways of listening to, and composing, sound. It is impossible to listen to Day of Niagara in relation to Conrad’s body of work and not hear an overwhelmingly strong, consistent, and confident performance idiom. Again, the notion that Conrad and Cale were simply studio hacks is absurd.


Bootlegs do exist of the earlier, saxophone-based Dream Syndicate recordings. In the early 1980s, Young hosted a few marathon, 24-hour sessions on FM radio, in New York and Germany. He hand selected material from his archives; fans recorded the broadcasts, and circulated the material. Conrad and Cale are present on these, but appear very low in the mix. Not surprisingly, these selections flatter Young at the expense of his collaborators.


For Cale, Niagara opened the door to a cascade of early, pre-Velvet Underground recordings, all recorded and produced by Conrad, and released on his own Audio ArtKive imprint. Featuring Conrad, as well as fellow Velvets Angus MacLise and Sterling Morrison, these CDs solidly establish Cale’s reputation as a visionary experimental artist who built the crucial bridge between the avant garde and rock ‘n’ roll. Sun Blindness Music (2000 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements), Dream Interpretation (2001 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements), and Stainless Gamelan (2001 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements) are all revelatory; daring, bruising fistfights between textured drone and crushingly high volume. The title track of Dream Interpretation is especially vivid: a soaring viola/violin duet with Conrad, recorded in 1968, it leaves zero doubt as to either man’s claims for their role in the Dream Syndicate. It’s stunning.


For Conrad, Niagara is the keystone in an overarching 50-year career. With its release, one can follow a direct, coherent narrative, from Four Violins (1964) to Niagara (1965) to Dream Interpretation (1968) to Outside the Dream Syndicate to his epic masterpiece, Early Minimalism, Vol. I. Composed over a decade, that sprawling 4xCD set stakes out Conrad’s efforts to reclaim and re-imagine Dream Music, reinvigorating it while raising a welter of fascinating philosophical questions regarding the role of the composer — and even the nature and basic validity of composition itself.


Niagara was also the first of a number of archival releases on Audio ArtKive, that document Conrad’s prolific audio efforts that go beyond the violin. Fantastic Glissando (recorded 1969; 2002 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements) is a howling, jet-engine piece for electronics; Bryant Park Moratorium Rally (also recorded 1969; 2004 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements) is a subtle, conceptual field recording that observes the disconnect between reality and the media.


A rich, perverse dollop of recordings by the late Jack Smith have also seen the light of day, thanks to Conrad. Les Evening Gowns Damnees (1997 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements) and Silent Shadows on Cinemarok Island (1997 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements) are charmingly diverse; Conrad, Cale, and MacLise all appear. And then there’s the notorious Thuunderboy! (recorded 1973; 1999 Audio ArtKive/Table of the Elements), featuring Conrad’s then-two-year-old son Ted, scratching pop 45s (Donnie Osmond, Paul Anka) on a toy turntable. Step back, Christian Marclay. As always, Conrad deploys an arch sense of humor when he raises questions about the nature of composition and the role of the composer.


Conrad’s influence continues to sprawl, on a remarkably vast scale; and, as we push ahead into the new millennium, Tony Conrad himself continues to delight and confound, the Mad Hatter of American minimalism. Anyone with even the slightest interest in his milieu is urged to seek out Branden Joseph’s fascinating, Foucauldian exploration, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (2008 Zone Books).


Maybe it’s not so unlikely that Conrad is now a prime influence on rock bands. Consider this: Terry Riley’s In C (1968 Columbia) was written in 1964, the same year Conrad recorded Four Violins. What if Four Violins sat in the can for a couple of years, then came out on Sony in 1968, instead of In C? It’s completely plausible. Yoko Ono and the entire NYC crowd knew who Conrad was; he was connected just as well as Riley. Surely the epic, windswept roar of 4V would have appealed to Brian Jones, Pete Townsend, and Jimi Hendrix, the same folks who championed Riley. Maybe in an alternate universe, Who’s Next features an anthemic track titled “Baba O’Conrad,” and it’s Conrad who graces the pages of Rolling Stone in 1969. Or maybe he was just thirty years ahead of his time. Or maybe it’s like Conrad says: “History is like music — completely in the present.”


Anyway, Conrad certainly has the pugnacious, rebel spirit of a die-hard rock ‘n’ roller. The following passage from his Early Minimalism essay describes it best:


“What I had learned first about John Cale was that he had written a piece which pushed a piano down a mine shaft. We hungered for music almost seething beyond control — or even something just beyond music, a violent feeling of soaring unstoppably. Powered by immense angular machinery across abrupt and torrential seas of pounding blood.”


Wow. Indeed. Here’s to another fifty years of music from the unstoppable Tony Conrad.

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