'You Couldn't Help But Be The Student': Remembering Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad's violin was a suture on the soul. Using those droning strings, he conjured bracing and beautiful hues between colors, between notes, between worlds. The experimental musician, composer and filmmaker who was a key component of the '60s Lower Manhattan art scene — and who never really stopped innovating — died Saturday of prostate cancer at the age of 76.
Conrad's influence and discography goes wide. Playing alongside La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus MacLise and Marian Zazeela in the Theatre of Eternal Music (a.k.a. The Dream Syndicate), he introduced drone music to Western audiences. In the mid-'60s, Conrad and Cale were recruited to back a short-lived band called The Primitives featuring a young Lou Reed — Conrad left, but the remaining members would start The Velvet Underground. His 1973 album Outside The Dream Syndicate, recorded with the German band Faust, became a benchmark of minimalism, thudding with motorik rhythm and lost in Conrad's kaleidoscopic violin. From the '90s onward, his recorded works grew exponentially, including collaborations with the likes of Charlemagne Palestine, Jim O'Rourke, MV Carbon, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and David Grubbs, among others.
Over the weekend, while many praised Conrad's musical innovation and inspiration, those who knew him intimately, spoke of his natural gift to teach. Since 1976, he had been a faculty member at SUNY-Buffalo, where he taught media studies — writer Brandon Stosuy has a touching essay on his time as a student there that's worth reading. But Conrad was also open beyond his academic duties, freely sharing his knowledge and wisdom. Even in the briefest of moments, Conrad could turn an offhand comment into a meditation. Before a gig at the now-shuttered Brooklyn space New York Paris London West Nile, clarinetist and composer Jeremiah Cymerman told Conrad he could barely play a note on the bass clarinet. Tony's response was, "You only need one note, as long it's the right note."
"For somebody of his stature, he had no airs," guitarist Chris Forsyth says of his time taking a workshop with Tony Conrad.
Forsyth is one of six musicians and composers with whom I talked about Conrad's role as a teacher — not only a professor, but also a guide onstage and in practice rooms, often with people generations removed. "I think that he genuinely wanted to be around people who were not jaded," says David Grubbs, "and that generally meant younger people." Conrad built a community on which he not only imparted history and insight but that he also supported by constantly attending shows and improvising with its new breed of experimentalists. Grubbs, C. Spencer Yeh, Jennifer Walshe, Chris Forsyth, Mercury Rev's Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak and Ben Vida (Bird Show, Town and Country) all share their stories, which showcase Conrad's gently challenging methods. And in his own undefinable way, it also turns out that Tony Conrad was a helluva cut-up.
Grubbs met Conrad in 1994, as a member of the band Gastr Del Sol with Jim O'Rourke, and not long after found himself in Chicago, recording Slapping Pythagoras . Afterwards, the two remained colleagues and friends.
My first encounter with him was in the studio at Steve Albini's house, there were six guitar players and it was already a little bit like a classroom situation. You know, we were all in a row with our guitars horizontally in front of us — and Tony. The first thing that he said was, "Okay, who has the loudest ground hum from your guitar?" And somebody had a guitar with a single-coil pickup and Tony said, "Okay, turn the amp up to 10, and okay that's a 60-cycle hum, and we're going to use that as the root tone and we're all going to tune on whole-number fraction intervals related to that." So it was already like being in a class, or taking a workshop from Tony the second that you started playing music with him.
He was really one of the most Socratic and radically egalitarian people I've ever met, but he was just so f****** brilliant that he couldn't help but be the teacher, or you couldn't help but be the student. And it was always delivered with this incredible humor. Without fail, one of the consistently most hilarious people that you could ever hope to meet. You know, you'd just bust a gut laughing around him. If that's one of his qualities as a teacher, then that's an incredible quality to bring to that kind of pedagogical situation.
And also, let's go ahead and say it, he was the most brilliant, the smartest. I have a kid in grade school and people are very concerned like, "Who's the smartest?" As an adult, I never ever think things like, "Who's smarter than whom?" except maybe with reference to Tony, where I'm like, obviously, he was head and shoulders so much smarter than everybody around him. But he never seemed to hold it against people. [Laughs.] Everybody was dumber than he was.
C. Spencer Yeh
The Brooklyn-based musician would cross paths Conrad while touring through Buffalo, and would release an excellent album with him in 2010.
I knew Tony first as a distant legend, then as an astounding presence and curious personality, and finally as a friend, a fellow artist in the present. When I say "fellow artist," I mean less about how I perceive my work next to his, but rather as a compliment to how he was – that he didn't go the route of hiding himself away, rarefying himself, halting his achievement and living in the past. I don't know how else to put it other than he was always "present." He was one of the few idols of mine that I wanted to work and hang out with, and to talk to.
I first got to know Tony's work while in school in Chicago in the '90s, both in film/video through class with my professor Tom Gunning, and in music/sound (the college radio station WNUR, being a spectator in the scene at the time through working with the record label, Skin Graft, and being around people like David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke). From there, touring and crossing paths with Tony, getting to know him and starting to work with him (both collaboratively as well as being in performances of his works), then by moving to New York, living in the same neighborhood, checking out the same shows or art events. He'd been there all along in my own development of whatever it is I'm trying to do, and my developing relationship with Tony was an evolving life lesson on how to be an artist – how to "be" an artist, as in to "be" in the world, and whatever thing you had done doesn't put you above (or below) others, and that you don't have to isolate yourself from the present to be taken seriously and deeply. Learning that being an artist extends beyond the objects or sounds or light you make – that it's how you think, how you carry yourself, how you "be" in the world.
There were two ways he could explain things. One was the "Tony" way, just a dazzle of theories and knowledge, provocation. Then, there was the way we are when we are all just trying to get by – warm and grounded. I thought I would be able to see Tony around NYC forever, to rely on the next time I get to see that smile and hear that chuckle, or the storm of frustrated curses when his mishmash of electronics would start feeding back.
The Irish vocalist, composer and improviser Jennifer Walshe met Conrad at the Electric Eclectics festival in 2008. Though she is now based in London, the two would meet weekly in each other's New York apartments to jam on whatever instruments were available. They were set to mix their duo album in May.
The one thing that I felt with Tony was that anything was up for grabs. You could just do whatever the hell you wanted and as long as you were focused, and as long as you were in it, that was good. He said to me, "I think you should use text. I don't understand why there's this disconnect." When I say text, I mean the text is completely linked with what the voice is doing. It's not slam poetry or something like that. It's just weird stories or weird snippets of text. He wrote this text that about a tiny puppy s****** on the street. He was like, "This is where we should begin!" I was like, "This is insane." But it made me push, and it made me think about why I never used text in improvisation before.
When we started playing together, he was 69. I would say, "I can't believe I'm playing with this 69-year-old guy and I feel more liberated than I do when I play with a 23-year-old noise kid." David [Grubbs] knew him in the '90s when he would have been in his 50s, but I only got to know Tony in his very late 60s and his 70s. What I saw was somebody who could tell me, "Here are the most important artistic moments in my life where I realized this is absolute s***. I want to develop the next 5-10 years." He could have easily said, "I'm the drone guy," and lived out the rest of his life. That's somebody who's always learning and that's going to be with me forever.
He wrote me a reference and I'm now a reader (which is the U.K. equivalent of a professor) at Brunel University in London. He would give me teaching advise, which he claimed he got from an in-flight magazine. [Laughs.] He said, "What you do is you ask them a question and you pretend to write something down. And nobody will answer. And you just keep pretending that you're writing something down until it becomes agonizing. Then one of them will eventually talk." he said, "That's what I read in an in-flight magazine." [Laughs.]
The Philadelphia-based guitarist has been releasing records with the Solar Motel Band since 2013, but around 2007, at the tail end of his time with the Brooklyn experimental rockers Peeesseye, Forsyth took a month-long workshop with Conrad who bashed the Pythagorean influence on Western music and opened Forsyth's ears and eyes.
He held a workshop every Sunday afternoon with maybe 30 people at each one — it was mostly experimental-music and noise people. In other words, not people who were virtuosos or trained — a lot of aesthetically ambitious but technically primitive players. He was teaching music theory to them. I felt like, looking around the room, I maybe had a little bit more grounding in that stuff than others, but my grounding in it was ultra conventional — it was the stuff that Tony was taking apart. Like, [Television guitarist] Richard Lloyd held Pythagoras in very high esteem. Tony Conrad did not. It was about undermining the authority of this figure that dominated Western music theory.
I wouldn't want to be responsible for giving an explanation the way he broke down the flaws in Pythagorean musical theory, but he talked about it as the original sin of Western civilization. He said that when we stepped away from the natural ratios — because it was more convenient to have all the notes equally tempered — that's when things started to really go wrong. This really appealed to me as someone who has issues with authority.
But he also tied it into this whole outlook on one's place in the world and in our culture. He made it really present because it was about taking down the hierarchies exist that run our world and run our lives. He talked about music as the foundation of civilization. Because of the way that music is set up, it instills all these kinds of values, which dominate our culture today. It was empowering. It was a lens through which you could understand these complex systems both in music, which can be really arcane and mathematical, but he also put it into this real world context. He was an enthusiastic, authentic teacher — he was so invested in what we was telling everybody.
Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak
In autumn 1984, Mackowiak, a founding member of the band Mercury Rev, went to SUNY-Buffalo, but quickly became disillusioned with his mathematics and engineering major. Not long after he started auditing Tony Conrad's class, he switched to media studies and spent the next four years with him.
His brilliance and curiosity were infectious. He was a natural raconteur, telling stories, seamlessly connecting the history of classical music, avant-garde music, film, pop culture, video, performance art, cultural studies, mathematics, psychology, philosophy, alchemy, etc. in ways I had never imagined. The class was called "Electronic Image Analysis," but we would talk about Fluxus, The Situationists, the music of Harry Partch, the films of Harry Smith, anything and everything. All very enlightening stuff! There was no Internet then, you couldn't Google this stuff — he had it all in his head and shared it with us. He had encyclopedic knowledge of arts, culture, history, science, and alchemy from pre-Greek civilization to the present.
One of the first assignments he had the class do was to pick a film or piece of music that we personally strongly disliked, and write about it in a very positive way. Then the next week, we were to do the opposite, pick something we liked and totally trash it. That was an amazing exercise in opening the mind up to questioning: "What is high-brow? What is low-brow? What is good art and what is bad art?" One starts to realize that those questions are all somewhat subjective to the time and cultural circumstantial moment. The distinctions between Folk Art/Folk Music and the "Classics" were erased. Tony took Robert Creeley's statement that "Form is never more than an extension of content" and flipped it to "Content is never more than an extension of form."
He told me to be wary of being labeled. Be wary of being in a "movement." He said that whenever he was labeled something — a "minimalist" or "structural filmmaker" — he usually abandoned what he was doing and wiped the slate clean.
I sat next to him at a lecture that John Cage was giving in Buffalo at Hallwalls and he fell asleep during it. I don't know if he was faking it or really asleep, but it was perfect! His day to day life was like a giant performance art piece.
Tony Conrad and Vida's old band Town and Country toured together in 2004. Conrad showed Vida that art transcended medium.
My first memory has to do with going to see Tony present some of his films. This was perhaps 1997. It was at a venue in Chicago called the Lunar Cabaret. In the audience, if memory serves, was Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs, John Corbett and only a few others. Tony presented the films almost as a performance. His presence and storytelling was as illuminating as the work itself. So much humor, intelligence and generous energy — and always mischievous. For me it was a formative moment where I started to understand the porousness between artistic processes. That, in the right hands, mediums were mutable and that performance could be a more more expansive practice.
When I was back in school getting my MFA, Tony came in as a guest instructor. He stirred s*** up so effortlessly and with such intelligence. He brought a point of view that was, at once, in touch with the old avant-garde but also completely present and contemporary. I remember him saying to a group of students something like, "It's okay if I don't like your work. I shouldn't like it. We are from different generations." I took this to mean that the work of a young artist today shouldn't sit easily with an older artist — you're supposed to be pushing beyond what has come before, and in that, there should be distortions and disconnects. It shouldn't be easy.
As my own practice has continued to evolve, and I find myself oscillating between the music and art worlds, Tony's writing and lectures and music and art continue to inform how I see and listen and think about things. I don't think he ever stopped experimenting. And I don't think he ever stopped pushing.
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