A drone supreme: Tony Conrad was minimal to the max.
A drone supreme: Tony Conrad was minimal to the max.

One of the most galvanic minds in the worlds of minimalist composition and experimental filmmaking, Tony Conrad died April 9 at age 76. The cause of death has been reported as pneumonia, but Conrad had been suffering from prostate cancer, as well. Conrad made a powerful impact on the underground cinematic and music scenes of New York in the ’60s and ’70s. His 1966 film Flicker consisted of stroboscoping black and white frames that mirrored the strident yet mesmerizing effect of his violin-fueled drones. In the mid '60s, Conrad became involved with the Theatre of Eternal Music (aka the Dream Syndicate) with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, Terry Riley, Angus MacLise, and others, whose long-form, minimalist-drone concerts and recordings have influenced several decades of the world’s most highly evolved musicians. Conrad also composed the soundtrack to Jack Smith’s 1963 cult classic Flaming Creatures. Oh, and he also played in the Primitives, the mid-’60s rock band featuring Cale and some upstart named Lou Reed. You can hear Conrad’s impact on Velvet Underground songs like “Venus in Furs” and "The Black Angel's Death Song."

Conrad’s list of collaborators encompasses some of the cream of the avant-garde and rock worlds, including Faust (with whom he cut the indomitable Outside the Dream Syndicate, which Superior Viaduct just reissued on vinyl), Rhys Chatham, MacLise, Charlemagne Palestine, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and C. Spencer Yeh. On works like Four Violins and Slapping Pythagoras, Conrad mapped out his pitiless assault on classical-music decorum and melody über alles. His rigorous, rasping drone epics tested the fortitude of the hardiest avant-gardist, but the rewards for enduring Conrad’s laser-focused violin violence were a kind of flayed satori. In an interview with Film Culture from 1966, Conrad explained his sonic approach:

Our music is, like Indian music, droningly monotonal, not even being built on a scale at all, but out of a single chord or cluster of more or less tonically related partials. This does not only commute dissonance, but introduces a synchronous pulse-beat that is the first coherent usage of rhythm-pitches or microtonal intervals outside of isolated electronic pieces.

In 1996, I had the good fortune to interview Conrad for Alternative Press magazine in Chicago before he performed in the Table of the Elements Festival there. In my 33 years of music journalism, I don’t think I ever encountered a more thoughtful, interesting, and generous interview subject than Tony Conrad. He was a professor of media studies at SUNY-Buffalo and his answers had the tenor of a lecture—but a lecture by a witty, endlessly fascinating professor whom you never wanted to stop talking. I foolishly loaned the cassette recording of our talk to a young musician who was in thrall to Conrad; apparently he was doing a thesis paper about the composer and wanted some background info. That musician never returned the cassette. (If you’re reading this, Mike, I want that tape back.)

Close friend and collaborator John Cale told Rolling Stone:

Tony saw the world differently from others - the analytical sparkle of mathematics gave his vision substance. I'd barely arrived stateside when we met - he was one of the very few with whom I felt an instant bond. Ours was a never ending feast of science, music and performing. I'd found my 'nerd-brother'! In those early sessions with La Monte - If Tony hadn't introduced the electronic pickup on his bowed acoustic guitar (and I hopped on the bandwagon with my viola) it would've taken much longer for the music to arrive at the just intonation system - it crystallized the direction of the drone in Dream Syndicate music thereafter and his contribution to that music will long be recognized as seminal - he IS an ARTist in the truest sense. Goodnight Tony.