Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Invented Acoustical Tools by Tony Conrad


Arnold Dreyblatt, Jim O'Rourke and Tony Conrad performing their work at Tonic on Thursday

Tony Conrad’s Long String Drone is a musical instrument with a solitary purpose—the creation of a sustained drone chord.
Long String Drone 1972, wood, bass strings, electric pickup, tuning keys, tape, rubber band, metal hardware, 3 x 73 ⅝ x 3 ⅜ in. (7.62 x 187 x 8.6 cm). Collection Walker Art Center.

Despite their conception as practical instruments to be played, the ‘tools’ can be equally appreciated as sculptural objects and this immediately resonates with Conrad’s approach to art and especially film. He sees it not as a tool for conveying narrative but as a self-reflexive medium and physical material worthy of investigation in itself. During the 1960s Conrad declared his intention to ‘kill film’ and just as his approach to music broke with Western institutionalized traditions, his film works subverted all cinematic conventions.

Using this instrument as a point of departure, Walker fellow Liz Glass traces a path through Conrad’s musical experiments of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including his work with the Theatre of Eternal Music, his solo compositions, and his active engagement with New York’s musical and artistic avant-gardes.
Glass focuses on the artist’s ideological and conceptual positions seen through the lens of the drone, finding connections between his diverse experiments.

This unfettered, liberated approach to music would completely expand the boundaries of production with the intention of dismantling Western musical traditions and apprehending the supposed authority of serious composition. Through fiercely restricted content, this minimal approach to sound was meant to cause ‘pure sensory disruption’ in the listener, and an essential component to this expansion into the free terrain of improvised sound for Conrad was the invention of new instruments upon which to play ‘drones’ and explore the further reaches of music.
Assembled from discarded everyday materials, domestic items, scraps of wood, canvases, album covers, children’s toys and of course film stock, the Invented Acoustical Tools embody a spirit of improvisation within their very construction and can be understood as ‘meta-compositional interventions’. Over the last forty years, Conrad has effectively built up what could be considered as an orchestral ensemble of strings, brass, wind, percussion and electronic instruments from such unlikely materials: violins with strings hanging loose or substituted by metal beads, or else attached to simple wall brackets and rudimentary lengths of wood; wind instruments made from juice and milk cartons, a reclaimed fairground horn or even a supermarket carrier bag; whilst the rhythm section is formed of various drums whose skins have been pierced and cut through the middle, allowing them to be bowed rather than struck.

The sounds generated by these instruments range from the barely audible – exemplified by the Grommet Horns, which through rubberized grommets expel rushes of air, or the Ear Bow (ca. 2000) which resonates for the player alone – to the more resounding Two Violin Players’ (1998) motorized, automatic drone-generating mechanism or Bowstring’s (2005) juddering structure. Two compositions, one for strings and another for grommet horns can be heard playing in gallery one, taken from performances recorded by Conrad earlier this year – however the sound of other instruments such as Band Aid Box Stereo Oscillator and Plastic Oscillator (both ca.1969), whose mechanisms have failed over time, can only be imagined.
Despite their conception as practical instruments to be played, the ‘tools’ can be equally appreciated as sculptural objects and this immediately resonates with Conrad’s approach to art and especially film. He sees it not as a tool for conveying narrative but as a self-reflexive medium and physical material worthy of investigation in itself. During the 1960s Conrad declared his intention to ‘kill film’ and just as his approach to music broke with Western institutionalized traditions, his film works subverted all cinematic conventions.

Anthony Schmaltz "Tony" Conrad (March 7, 1940 – April 9, 2016) was an American avant-garde video artist, experimental filmmaker, musician, composer, sound artist, teacher and writer. Active in a variety of media since the early 1960s, he was a pioneer of both structural film and drone music (or, as he has qualified, "The first non-bagpipe western drone music").

Support for Conrad's work came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the State University of New York, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Conrad was born in Concord, New Hampshire to Mary Elizabeth Parfitt and Arthur Emil Conrad. but raised in Baltimore, Maryland and Northern Virginia. His father worked with Everett Warner during World War II in designing dazzle camouflage for the US Navy.Conrad graduated from Harvard University in 1962 with a degree in Mathematics. While studying at Harvard, Conrad was exposed to the ideas of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

After graduating, Conrad went to Copenhagen to see his friend who was a research mathematician and was working on a computer project at Physics Chemist Institute there. That computer was the only computer at the time in Denmark with a memory of 8 Kilobyte.

“L-Bracket with Three Strings”, 2002
bowed wire (hand stretched), L-bracket, electric pickup
35 x 40 x 26 cm

Conrad worked on it in machine language during the summer, which helped build his computer skills. He also did work as a computer programmer for a year when he came back to the United States.

The Theater of Eternal Music (a.k.a. the Dream Syndicate), New York, December 12, 1965. 
 Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Marion Zazeela, and John Cale. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah.

After working as a computer programmer, Conrad got into the experimental music

Charlemagne Palestine’s Alloy (Golden 1), CD, Alga Marghen, 2000.

In an interview with Tony Oursler, as part of Oursler's Synesthesia: Interviews on Rock & Art, Tony Conrad said he moved to New York in the early 1960s and entered into the art picture because of his interest in music, but went to film because it was "too boring" in music. At the time, film was institutionally unattached, which drew Conrad towards the community of New York filmmakers. In 1966, he made his first film, The Flicker, said to be a "landmark in structural filmmaking."

Film Culture, Issue 41, 1966. Walker Art Center Library.

Conrad said, "Since other filmmakers were making films at the time that dealt with structure as a foregrounded principle, and this seemed to be built around mathematical principles, it was adopted as a kind of flagship film for the structural film movement, where it dealt with abstract light-organizing ideas." The film consists of only completely black and completely white images, which, as the title suggests, produces a flicker when projected. When the film was first screened several viewers in the audience became physically ill. (Rapid flashes produce epileptic attacks in a small percentage of population.) Conrad wished to generalize the whole technology of film.

“Two Violin Players”, 1998
electric motor, wire, wood, violin
32,4 x 15,9 x 8,9 cm / 30,5 x 14,6 x 8,3 cm

He approached the film by considering the relationship between the subjective psychological conditions of the flicker, and its relation to narrative and storytelling. He says, "I had felt that my own experience with flicker was a transporting experience in the way that movies affect the imagination at their best by sweeping one away from reality into a completely different psychic environment."

“Bead Chain Monochord”, ca. 2000
wood, metal pull chain, electric pickups, nuts, bolts, rubber band, clamp
113 x 29 x 4,5 cm

Yellow Movies was a project of Conrad's in 1973. It consists of 20 "movies," which are square frames painted in black house paint onto large pieces of photographer's paper.

Conrad's concept came from a continued attempt at pushing the framework of film, and his interest in engaging the audience in long spaces of time. He wanted to make a film that would last 50 years, but knew that "normal materials" could not last that long, so he created a whole new conceptual stratagem for Yellow Movies. The "emulsion" is painted on, and the movies take their own course over time, changing very slowly.

“Limp String”, 1968
wood, metal pipe, wire, electric pickup, tuning keys, bungee cord
115,6 x 29,8 x 8,3 cm

Conrad began to work in video and performance in the 1970s as a professor at Antioch College in Ohio, where he overlapped with the filmmaker Paul Sharits. In 1976, Conrad joined the faculty at the Center for Media studies at the University at Buffalo. While in Buffalo, Conrad was part of a scene that included Sharits, as well as Hollis Frampton, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Peter Weibel, James Blue, and Gerald O'Grady. Their practices in film, video, performance, and other forms were documented in the 2008 book Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990, edited by Vasulka and Weibel.

Mirror Monochord
A single stringed instrument on which a small circular mirror is attached to the string. Upon playing, the mirror vibrates and turns creating flicker-like reflections. The work is accompanied by Conrad’s 2004 film Indirect Measurement 2004 (color, sound) 7:45 minutes.

In the mid-1970s, Conrad began performing film. With Sukiyaki Film he decided that the film should be prepared immediately before viewing. Sukiyaki was chosen as the paradigm for the work because it is a dish often cooked immediately before eating, in front of the diners. Conrad cooked sukiyaki in front of an audience: egg, meat, vegetables, and 16mm film; and literally "projected" onto the screen behind him.

“Bowstring”, 2005
violin, violin string, wood, clamps
ca. 122 x 56 x 41 cm

Conrad made a piece called Pickled Film.

    "Well, if you take a roll of film and instead of making pictures on it, you process it by pickling it in vinegar and putting it in a jar and presenting it for people to look at that way, projected through the lens of the fluid around it, this is so distorted and such a monstrous disfigurement of the normal way in which you are 'supposed to use' film, that it is a kind of pathology; it's a sickness in the sense of a virus being inserted in the system. I think wellness and change are measured by comparison to potential for extremes of illness or death. I was trying to kill film. I wanted to let it lay over and die."
    — Tony Conrad

Another of Conrad's early films was Coming Attractions, which was released in 1970. This film led indirectly to the founding of Syntonic Research and the Environments series of natural sound recordings.

Conrad's work has been shown at many museums including the Museum of Modern Art, P.S. 1, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Louvre in Paris; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; and many others.

“Hairstring”, ca. 2009
boomball paddle, wood, screws, tuning key, fiber string
66,5 x 22 x 4 cm

Specifically, his film The Flicker was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition, The American Century; he participated in the 2006 Whitney Biennial; and one of his Yellow Paintings was featured in the museum's 2015–2016 exhibition "Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner." In 1991, he had a video retrospective at The Kitchen, an artist-run-organization in New York City. In 2006, the full hour-long recording of Conrad's Joan of Arc was released, a 1968 recording for the soundtrack to Piero Heliczer's like-named short film.

Conrad's artwork is represented by Greene Naftali Gallery in New York City and by Galerie Buchholz in Germany. Conrad had been a faculty member in the State University of New York at Buffalo since 1976. He continued to teach there in the Department of Media Study as well as work on many notable B&W film image projects with Princess G. St. Mary until his death in 2016.

In music, Conrad was an early member of the Theatre of Eternal Music, nicknamed The Dream Syndicate, which included John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela, and utilized just intonation and sustained sound (drones) to produce what the group called "dream music" (and is now called drone music).

The Theatre of Eternal Music gave performances on the East Coast of the United States as well as in Western Europe that consisted of long periods of sensory inundation with combinations of harmonic relationships, which moved slowly from one to the next by means of "laws" laid out by La Monte Young regarding "allowable" sequences and simultaneities.

In 1964 the ensemble contained Young and Marian Zazeela, voices; Tony Conrad and John Cale, strings; and sometimes Terry Riley, voice. The Theater of Eternal Music's discordant sustained notes and loud amplification influenced Cale's subsequent contribution to the Velvet Underground in his use of both discordance and feedback. Cale and Conrad have released noise music recordings they made during the mid-sixties, such as Cale's Inside the Dream Syndicate series (The Dream Syndicate being the alternative name given by Cale and Conrad to their collective work with Young).

Most of the pieces performed by the Theatre of Eternal Music have long titles, such as The Tortoise Recalling the Drone of the Holy Numbers as they were Revealed in the Dreams of the Whirlwind and the Obsidian Gong, Illuminated by the Sawmill, the Green Sawtooth Ocelot and the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. Likewise, the works are often of extreme length, many pieces having no beginning and no end, existing before and after a particular performance.

The Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble’s masterwork, begun in 1964, is titled The Tortoise His Dreams and Journeys and is divided into several sections, of which "Map of 49’s Dream: The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Light-Years Tracery," is the only one of which a fragment can be found on disc (forty minutes, with Jon Hassell on trumpet, Garrett List on trombone, Zazeela on voice and Young on electronics) The longest Dream House performance was that given at the Harrison Street gallery in New York, which lasted uninterruptedly for six years, from 1979 to 1985.

Conrad's first musical release, and only release for many years, was a 1972 collaboration with the German "Krautrock" group Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, published by Caroline (UK) in 1973. This remains his best known musical work and is considered a classic of minimalist music and drone music.

“Electric Bass”, ca. 1996
Wood, bass strings, electric pickup, tuning keys
ca. 190 x 32 x 22 cm

Later, Conrad composed more than a dozen audio works with special scales and tuning for solo amplified violin with amplified strings. Releases included Early Minimalism Volume 1, a four-CD set, Slapping Pythagoras in 1995, Four Violins (1964) in 1996, Outside the Dream Syndicate Alive with Faust, from London 1995, and Fantastic Glissando.

He also issued two archival CDs featuring the work of late New York filmmaker Jack Smith, with whom he was associated in the 1960s.He released the 1968 recording of Joan of Arc in 2006.

...it’s worth taking a view on Conrad because the concept of allying repetitive structure to tuning was a flash of genius. Who actually brought just intonation to the Theatre of Eternal Music table first has been lost to history. Perhaps there was synchronous thinking going on between Young and Conrad, but using a tuning system richer in natural overtones, and less clean-cut in its ability to switch between keys than equal temperament, cut a round peg for a round hole. New structures opened up; tuning and structure went places Reich and Glass could only dream about. In 1997 Conrad released a box set of period recordings, Early Minimalism Volume One, in an attempt to put the record straight; his 1995 disc 'Slapping Pythagoras' turned out to be a thinly-veiled polemic against La Monte Young. Few people who wage tuning wars emerge unscathed.

He also collaborated with artists such as Charlemagne Palestine, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Keiji Haino, Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs, C Spencer Yeh, Tovah Olson, MV Carbon, and numerous others. Conrad was chosen by Animal Collective to perform at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival that they curated in May 2011. In 2012 Conrad was part of the line-up of the touring avant garde festival Sonic Protest that took place in five cities in France. In 2013 Conrad visited Genoa to open his first solo exhibition in Italy.

“Tiny Zither with Matchstick Pegs (with short bow)”, 
ca. 2000 wood, strings, metal hook 4,5 x 30,5 x 7

In the early 1960s, Conrad and John Cale were recruited by Pickwick Records to play as a backing band for a new act, The Primitives, to perform the 1964 single "The Ostrich"/"Sneaky Pete." Conrad and Cale played guitar and bass, the artist Walter de Maria joined on drums, and the only pre-existing member of the band, Lou Reed, sang.


Conrad and Cale's instruments were tuned to "Ostrich" tuning — every string to the same pitch — to make them easier to play, but the uniformity also resonated with the drone music they were playing with the Theatre of Eternal Music. After a few shows, the group disbanded. Cale and Reed went on to form The Velvet Underground.

“Fair Ground Electric Horn)” 2003 
large funnel, hose clamps, copper tubing, metal mouthpiece

Conrad was indirectly responsible for the name of The Velvet Underground, although he was never a member of the group. After moving into Conrad's old apartment on Ludlow Street in New York City, Reed and Cale found a book entitled The Velvet Underground, which had belonged to Conrad, and took the book's name for their group.

Performance still from Tony Conrad’s Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain