Still from Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

Maximal Minimal: The Legacy of Versatile Artist Tony Conrad

The former member of Lou Reed's The Primitives yearned to free himself of composition, to strive toward a new paradigm found in minimalism.

Few artists contained the sheer range of disciplines as Tony Conrad. In a career that spanned half a century, Conrad tried just about everything, with explorations in music, video, conceptual art, and even teaching. Conrad’s legacy put him among the rare breed of artists not content to stay boxed within a singular medium, working method, or subject matter. He was experimental in the truest sense of the word.

In Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present (Tyler Hubby, March 2016), a feature documentary about Conrad’s work, artist Tony Oursler points out that Conrad “has done a lot of stuff that no one even knows about. That’s the crazy thing.” Hubby seized upon the challenge to illuminate the remarkable artist’s vast oeuvre. He’s the right person for the job, having filmed Conrad for over two decades, starting in 1994. The documentary serves as the best entrance point about an artist who never seemed to remain still. Hubby’s unconventional nonlinear narrative provides a sense of fragmentation that suits his subject’s varied interests. As Conrad passed away only last year, the film is also a tasteful memorial that captures the vibrant spirit of a crucial member of the experimental music scene.

Conrad’s consistency was his sense of play, exhibited in his uncompleted Women in Jail film featuring men in drag; his whimsical conceptual Pickled Films, where he subjected film negatives to various kitchen preparations; or Homework Helpline, where he helped inner-city kids with their homework on public access television. His screeching violin music is easily the most difficult for the casual listener, but the grating sound never seemed to affect Conrad, whose face was utterly blissful as he swayed with his instrument on stage.

Conrad was a member of Lou Reed’s band The Primitives, setting the stage early on for his mythic status. When Conrad gave Michael Leigh’s book The Velvet Underground to members of the band, they adopted the name. But Conrad didn’t seem at home making rock music. Musically, he yearned to free himself of composition, to strive toward a new paradigm found in minimalism (though his commanding approach was sometimes deemed quite maximalist). “I wanted to end composing,” Conrad asserts in the film. “I wanted it to die out.” In 1964, he became a foundational member of the Theatre of Eternal Music with notables such as La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus Maclise, and Marian Zazeela. The group was key in exploring the language of early minimal and drone music.

Around the same time, Conrad created perhaps his most known work, paradoxically still a cult classic today: Outside the Dream Syndicate (Caroline Records, 1973), a collaboration with the art-rock band Faust. In the aforementioned film, Jeff Hunt, the Executive Director for Table of Elements, remarks that Faust “were infamous in experimental music and avant-garde circles, in part because they had this mystique… [they were] wild and antagonistic, suitably deranged for their era.” According to the film, even many of Faust’s fans found Outside the Dream Syndicate unlistenable. Surely part of this is due to the 27-minute durations of each of the album’s two tracks.

The first track, “The Side of Man and Womankind”, consists of an insistent, unmoving rhythm section led by Conrad’s whining, abrasive violin. But give the track a chance to envelop your senses. Over such a length, the improvisatory performance slowly reveals itself through minute variations, Conrad’s violin alternating between both resonant and dissonant frequencies to itself. This is the better known and more intense of the two tracks. The second track, “The Side of the Machine”, is not a drastic departure from the first, though the bass and drums are more involved, providing more of a groove compared to the insistent thrum of its first side.

Outside the Dream Syndicate was difficult to track down for collectors, which only added to its mystique. The album only found widespread release years later, and would take until 1994 for Conrad and Faust to perform live in New York City.

Music was only one of Conrad’s outlets. He experimented with film at its most elemental level, creating The Flicker, based on specific patterns of light flickering on the frame to affect the audience’s brainwaves. The film is an epileptic nightmare, and its premiere apparently induced vomiting and migraines. Still, Conrad thought he was on to something. He took the concept further with Straight and Narrow, consisting of flashing vertical and horizontal lines. Taking his penchant for long durations to its utter extreme, Conrad conceptualized Yellow Movies, involving slowly aging film emulsions.

Conrad’s clashes with La Monte Young persisted throughout his artistic life and played a central role in the film. Young comes across as the obvious antagonist, an unreasonable creative tyrant hoarding and refusing to release any Theatre of Eternal Music recordings, especially to members of the collective. Young would later write a 27-page denunciation when Conrad got ahold of one of the recordings and released it himself. It’s difficult to justify why any of the original musicians couldn’t listen to their own music, let alone distribute it, especially since there didn’t seem to be any sort of contractual agreement involved. One wonders what Young’s issue really was.

It’s an unfortunate relationship that soured Conrad over the years, one of the few moments in the film when Conrad becomes visibly angry, teeth clenched and brow furrowed in deep animosity. That Conrad succeeds in releasing some of his own work despite his collaborator is the film’s triumph over adversity, though Conrad remarks that there are many other obstacles that stand in the way of progress, suggesting other clashes in his past.

If Young is the film’s antagonist, Hunt is Conrad’s facilitator, organizing a festival in Atlanta where the artist performed while obscured behind a huge sheet. Lights were positioned at an angle that cast a 15-foot shadow of the musician, creating a monolithic presence amplified by his already extreme performance. Hunt also received the only cassette recording of “Four Violins”, a piece Conrad composed in 1964. Hunt realized that although the history books had focused on the achievements of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, that “this one shabby little cassette was Exhibit A — the smoking gun. The entire history of American minimalism was wrong. It was inaccurate. Tony Conrad had been written out of it.” This moment is one of the film’s several spine-shivering climaxes that takes advantage of Hubby’s nontraditional timeline.

Completely in the Present was released prior to one of Conrad’s momentous works. In April 2017, “Music and the Mind of the World” became available for streaming on Youtube and a dedicated site. The project consists of over 200 hours of piano music that Conrad composed between 1976 and 1982, ranging from piano exercises to more experimental works to a rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey”. The works have emerged with an exhaustive foreword from Conrad that reads like a transmission from beyond the grave. In it, Conrad discusses his first encounters with music and how he developed himself musically, providing a career coda on decades of artistic practice.

Filmmaker Tyler Hubby has gathered footage over decades to shed light upon a man that has been extremely influential due to his cross-pollination of disciplines. Conrad’s approach suggests that artists need not be bound by any medium at all, but that all creativity is fundamentally related. That Conrad was referred to as “the Bill Murray of the avant garde” will give newcomers a sense of Conrad’s demeanor; warm, approachable, forthcoming, but also determined to push against the status quo — a model for the rest of us.