“You hear one second of Tony’s music and you know it’s him.” So says Jim O’Rourke, who goes on to compare the singularity of Conrad's violin playing to that demonstrated by Miles Davis on trumpet and Cecil Taylor on piano. O'Rourke is one of several prominent musicians, artists, record label owners, museum curators, and filmmakers who testify to Tony Conrad's unique brilliance and iconoclasm in Tyler Hubby's excellent, incisive documentary, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.
Completely in the Present screens Sat. Nov. 19 at 8:45 pm at Grand Illusion.
Hubby zigzags through Conrad's influential 50-plus-year artistic and academic career, never dwelling too long on any one topic. He makes generous use of Conrad's monomaniacal music throughout the 95-minute film, especially his collaboration with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, which American label Table of the Elements reissued in 1993. TOTE owner Jeff Hunt—who also issued Conrad's galvanic 1995 album Slapping Pythagoras— provides some of the keenest insights into Conrad's work in Completely in the Present. For example, Hunt considers Conrad's music to be "maximal," not minimal, and heard live, it certainly possesses an overwhelming, enveloping quality that could be construed as a violinist's version of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. (Speaking of Reed, Conrad enjoyed a brief stint in his band the Primitives, who would perform their regional novelty-rock hit "The Ostrich" to teenagers in the New York City area.)
Hubby tries to devote equal time to Conrad's film, music, and teaching activities, with side trips to Tony's dalliance with public access TV and the bare essentials of his personal life. (Conrad studied computer science and math in college and married and divorced the actor Beverly Grant and had a son with her; he regrets he wasn't a better husband and father.) Hubby gets revealing quotes from former Theatre of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate band mate John Cale, composer Charlemagne Palestine, Gastr Del Sol member David Grubbs, artist Tony Oursler, and... Moby, among others. It's interesting to note that Conrad's 1966 film The Flicker caused a viewer to vomit and the projectionist to get a migraine with its stroboscoping black and white frames that served as a visual analogue to Conrad's often-abrasive oscillations on violin.
Ever the anti-authority provocateur, Conrad strove to dissolve what he called the "power relationships in music" and repudiate the very notion of composing in music and narrative in film. He stressed that his Slapping Pythagoras album rejects the ancient Greek philosopher/mathematician's concept of a sacred cosmos. As Conrad explains in the movie, "Using a mass of bowed guitars would make it possible to spread out the authority of that harmonic structure, to take it up to a new celestial range, where the heavens begin to crumble, the principles of the Pythagorean system begin to collapse."
Conrad applied his iconoclasm to all centers of high culture. Completely in the Present shows 1963 footage of him, Jack Smith (director of Flaming Creatures, for which Conrad composed the soundtrack), and Henry Flynt holding signs that read DEMOLISH LINCOLN CENTER. Much later in his life, Conrad returned to the venue and then told the camera, "I have to get out of here. It’s too depressing."
Of course, there are segments devoted to Conrad's long-running dispute with La Monte Young over the release of music they created with the Theatre of Eternal Music (Cale has Conrad's back on this one). The situation was never resolved, and Conrad surely went to his grave in April 2016 still bitter toward his old band mate.
At one point in the film, Conrad says, "I like the idea of making a lot out of a little," and that pretty much sums up his artistic approach. He always packed a lot of intellectual heft into a few rigorous gestures, and the results were usually transcendent. Completely in the Present makes that abundantly clear.