Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Tony Conrad

The following appeared in the Sunday Star Times, Aug 3, 1997

Rage Against The Machine

Who is Tony Conrad and why isn't he in the rock history tomes? After years of obsession, GARY STEEL unravels the mystery of the man who was a founding father of minimalism and who applies ancient Greek theories to modern music.

I was 15 when I stumbled across one of the strangest records in the universe. The cover was unforgettable; a deadly grey and silver sleeve and this solarised face staring right out at you with an ambiguity that held terrific promise.
Tony Conrad's one and only vinyl venture, Outside The Dream Syndicate, changed my life and the nature of my relationship with music. Just two long pieces - From The Side Of Man And Womankind and From The Side Of The Machine - and the music was like nothing on earth. Monstrous, heaving drones and textures weaved an astonishing, disturbing alien landscape built on electrified violin tones and textures, pushed along by a relentless, superhuman percussive plod.
As the album attached itself to different functions in my life - moments of rumination and meditation through to its use as the perfect party clearer - the enigma of Tony Conrad grew. Who was this guy, why wasn't he in the rock history tomes, and why weren't there more records to be found?
These mysteries were addressed in 1994 when the ultra-hip independent record company Table Of The Elements reissued Outside The Dream Syndicate - which had become a long out-of-print collectors' item - on compact disc.
The label had prodded the 'Kraut rock' revival by releasing albums by German proto-industrial legends Faust, and now it turned its attention to Conrad, whose album was recorded in Germany with Faust's rhythm section and producer.
Suddenly, all was revealed. Outside The Dream Syndicate had simply been a three-day session in 1972 for a man who by that date should have already secured his place in the history of 20th Century music.
In the early 1960s, Conrad was a founding father of what later became the most commercially successful form of modern classical music: Minimalism. But by the late 60s, he had turned his back on music and become one of the most acclaimed experimental film-makers; The Flicker is an acknowledged classic.
And while I stewed in my teenage bedroom over the mystery of Conrad, he was making a substantial career for himself as a lecturer and professor of media studies at Buffalo State University, New York.
His initial qualifications in mathematics, Conrad fell in with La Monte Young, John Cale and others in the early 60s to explore what they called 'dream music'... music using repetition, strange pitches and tonalities, with influences drawn from Eastern scales.
Eventually, Conrad fell out with Young, but he was around at the formation of the band and scene that was the Velvet Underground.
"One of the players we worked with who was articulate musically was John Cale", says Conrad. "What he did was carry this directly over into pop without excuses, but set it in that context and allowed it to happen."
Cale and Conrad were flatmates and both ended up being picked up by an exploitative record company for a pop group called The Primitives; a folk singer by the name of Lou Reed was pulled into the picture, and the rest is history.
Conrad's interest in music, art and culture has always been serious, however, and he was more interested in following his dream music ideas. "I was interested in abandoning the Western egocentric idea of being a composer, and moving away from the Western tradition into something else, not something that emphasised the performer as a surrogate emotional figure; this music ain't the blues, you don't destroy Western culture by feeling 'blue'; you break it up with rage, power and good aim!" he says.
"That's what I was up to. I felt that it was important to get into the sound, to convey the energy directly into the sound, and let that have agency as a cultural phenomenon in itself, directly."
Subsequent disputes with La Monte Young over the ownership of recorded material from those legendary early 60s experiments in minimalism (both Conrad and Cale have made representations and protestations to Young, to no avail) helped to obscure Conrad's importance. Young, to this day, refuses to release any of this material.
However, it played its part in developing Conrad's ideas, and led circuitously to both of his recent projects, Slapping Pythagorus and Early Minimalism.
"The music was consciously repressed by Young, who retains the particular recordings that we made at the time, vaulted in some industrial safe, so most of the music that was made at the time can't be heard... The aristocratic sensibility of emphasising ownership and domination is something I've fought against."
His 1994 album, Slapping Pythagorus, is a diatribe against accepted notions of music form, having far-reaching ramifications to the fabric of society, while the show he's touring New Zealand (and the four-CD box set due later this year) is a kind of veiled recreation of those suppressed early works.
Conrad will perform with his partner, cellist Alexandria Gelenscer. They will present "a composition occasioned by an interest that I had in exploring the relationship between cultural history and personal history, so I went back and started working again with the style of music that I had been performing in the early 60s.
"A lot of the cultural impact of the music from that time has already been felt; people know something about what minimalism is, and yet not in this form... I was looking for a way to incorporate history into music through reasserting the values of history into an environment which is more contemporary."
Slapping Pythagoras explored issues that invade all of Conrad's work.
"The Western tradition was founded on the power of music to represent the orderliness of the social space... I was taught that there were absolute values that were profoundly unalterable and permanent, and it's easy to see how people buy into this.
"What we're dealing with her is usage of theory as an instrument of authority. The way it functioned for Pythagoras was to establish a model for a universe which he called the 'harmonious cosmos' which was supposed to be a system.
"You could tell that this system existed because when you sing a tune, you don't even know it, but you're participating in the harmonious cosmos, which not only includes the song that you sing, but includes your place in the world - and you'd better stay in your place!
"This was the reason why his work was so impactful at a time when the Greeks were being threatened by democracy."
As a continuation of this remarkable theory, Conrad has made it his duty to deconstruct this musical harmonious cosmos. "There can be different sounds from the ones you've heard already. There can be sounds which have different relationships within the texture of the sound. You know how they say that a minor scale is 'sad', and a major scale is 'happy'? Well, why is that? If there's just two, you can't learn anything. It's like if you only have two sexes you can't learn much about gender, but if you have gay and transsexual and problems like impotency... then you learn a lot about sexuality."
Conrad says the problems of tone, pitch and scale (which he investigates through his music) are compounded by musical instruments which are built to be played the Pythagorean way, although he delights in the pitch-bending and blending potential of modern electronic instruments.
This unassuming but endlessly provocative legend - at the ripe old age of 57 - feels turned on to the current alternative music scene, which has embraced him in a way that the 60s and 70s failed to. Slapping Pythagoras was produced by Steve Albini (of Nirvana fame), and featured cutting-edge avant-rockers like Jim O'Rourke. There's already a Kiwi connection. Conrad has toured and worked with New Zealander Michael Morley of the Dead C, a group which - while barely known at home - has an avid following in America and rabid press notices.
"Music has in the past few years, with the possibility that people have to make their own cds, created a completely different environment, where there are plentiful releases, and a viable decentralised culture. So this is quite a different environment. I've been astonished to find that there's a ready audience out there for music that's not being presented as some culturally necessary object, or the product of a dominant culture, or some advertising gimmick. It's really something that people are willing to listen to and are interested in because it's different and unexpected.
"When you go and look at a category of music in a record store, it's very difficult to identify because there's such diversity. It's not classical or pop or experimental any more... things have sort of melted."
*Tony Conrad and Alexandria Gelenscer: Hopetoun Alpha, Auckland, August 9; Wellington City Art Gallery, August 11; Dunedin Public Art Gallery, August 14; Lumiere, Christchurch, August 16; Hopetoun Alpha, August 20.

2004 NOTES:
The piece above was originally published in a weekly newspaper in NZ. The Sunday Star Times is a rather trashy, populist publication with an uneasy combination of tabloid sensationalism, more considered news backgrounders, and arts coverage. I've always liked the challenge of writing a story about artists or subject matters which would seem to be outside the remit or tone of the the publication in question. I guess it's that old fashioned belief (or hope) that maybe you can prick the brains of those who would not normally know or care about someone like Conrad, or his ideas.
In this case, of course, the story had a personal spin. Those early 70s Faust albums are still amongst the best 'rock' albums ever made, and 'Outside The Dream Syndicate' still does it for me. By the same token, I have a hard time with Conrad's Table Of The Elements output. 'Outside The Dream Syndicate' had a 'sound' which was pure Ewe Nettelbeck, Faust's producer/engineer. 'Slapping Pythagoras' had, to these ears, a rather dull monochromatic sound that I found unappealing.
The interview sourced in this feature I conducted with Conrad by telephone shortly before his NZ tour in 1997. He talked in length, and was a gracious interviewee. When I get time, I will pick out some of the best unpublished (or edited) excerpts of the transcript.
At the time of his NZ tour, I was running an experimental record shop right next to the art gallery which brought Conrad to this side of the world, and got to get to know him a little, through informal meetings in my shop, and a memorable dinner in the home of arts patron William Somerville.
Conrad and Alexandria are both visually odd: tiny, bird-like creatures who have the demeanours of folks who rarely see the sun, they were often to be found in close conference. On the other hand, when Conrad speaks, its with the booming voice of a lecturer, and he's a spellbinding orator. Maybe I've just hung out with too many pop musicians, but in all my years of meeting and interviewing musicians, there are only four or five who stand out as superb communicators who ALSO have something of real merit to express. Robert Fripp, Frank Zappa, Tony Conrad... Gee, I'm sure there are more I just can't think of right now!
Anyway, sometime during a long meal, I did the very thing I've resisted doing all these years, and asked Tony Conrad to sign my copy of 'Outside The Dream Syndicate'. So... he made a great song and dance about finding a BLACK pen, and signed his name on the BLACKEST part of the cover he could find!
I've got copious diary notes about the Conrad show I attended. Somewhere. I know I went along with a crashing headache wondering whether the shrieking catgut would bring up my last meal. The duo performed behind a curtain, so only their outlines were visible. The drones were immense, and at times the acoustical phenomena were such that... well, it was the kind of gig that makes records redundant. Almost. So intense was the sound that it felt like some kind of exorcism, and by the end of the evening I was drained, and had not a trace of that migraine.


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