Tony Conrad_essay by Lasse Marhaug
Tony Conrad: All Music at Once
Essay by Lasse Marhaug
Tony Conrad died on April 9th this year. He was 76 years old and had done more before he was 30 than any artist can hope to do in a lifetime. Yet his passing felt painfully premature. Tony was still relevant, still doing things, not floating on past achievement. He was a living legend who thought being a legend and nurturing celebrity status was bullshit. He was not only accessible, he was actively seeking new challenges, hooking up with young people rather than resting in his ivory tower. Tony would rather play a basement than some fancy concert hall.
Like many others I first got to hear Tony’s music with the Table of Elements releases in the mid-90s. I had read his name before, in connection to Velvet Underground, La Monte Young, John Cale, Faust and avant garde cinema, but none of his works were available in any way, so the impact of hearing Four Violins and Outside The Dream Syndicate was life-changing. The music hit me in the guts. I knew about minimalist music from before, but this was a whole new level. Tony’s music didn’t seem minimal at all, it was maximal. At the time I was obsessed with electronic noise music, but the dissonant violins of Four Violins felt just as intense as any underground noise racket. It sounded absolute. Like there was no need for any other music. I later named an album of mine All Music At Once, and that was the feeling I got when I first heard Tony Conrad.
Tony was a mathematician with complex ideas about many things – including tuning. I couldn’t (and still can’t) tune anything to save my life, but I understood that he had a hatred for the Pythagorean musical tuning theory that has been a dominant force in Western music for centuries. Tony saw it as a control system, something constructed to control us. Tony had issues with authority. As someone making (obscure/subversive/underground) noise music I can relate to this. Here was a guy who seemed to have done everything, but didn’t bother to brag about it. He just did brilliant stuff and then moved on. For Tony it was about the pleasure and importance of doing the work, not the glory.
In the 90s I lived in Trondheim and together with my friend Tom Løberg (who had become equally obsessed with Tony’s music after hearing Four Violins), we started a duo called Two Limited in homage to Tony. Each of us had an old one-stringed violin, so we started a one year long research project of seeking out strange locations and playing those crappy violins as smoothly as we could for the duration of an hour. We played in the street; in an underpass near the train station; in a silent chamber; in a stairway; in the forest – and the final performance was late at night outdoor in December which we ended with dragging/scraping the violins on the frozen pavement. It wasn’t meant as a project for the public, but as an experiment to learn something, with Tony as our imaginary invisible teacher. I remember Tom announced that year as his year zero, when he denounced his degree in classic literature, and went on to become a filmmaker and artist.
In the early 2000s I started playing more festivals and eventually got to meet Tony. I remember he wore the weirdest clothes. Apparently his system of deciding what to wear was to go into a second-hand shop and pick the one piece of clothing he did not understand the intent of. This resulted in him wearing things like neon-coloured green shirts with big black dots. He stood out.
When I saw Tony at the Avanto festival in Helsinki he gave a brief talk and then showed the video piece Cycles of 3s and 7s from 1977, which is a continuous close-up of a calculator with Tony pushing digits for a good 45 minutes. The audience had turned up expecting a drone music concert, and then had to sit through this video that didn’t please aesthetically or intellectually. You could feel the waves of restlessness and distress going through the crowd as they realized that the film was only going to be the close-up of the calculator. Nobody was having a good time. When the video finally ended Tony smiled and said “Oh, I didn’t think we were going to screen the long version!” He then asked for comments and someone in the back in the packed hall yelled: “We hate you!” – Tony just grinned. Then he started to play his violin set, and the music turned everyone in the room into loving him. I’ve never seen someone turn an audience around like that.
In 2008 Tony was booked by Dans For Voksne for two performances in Oslo. This was the first time I got to hang out with him for several days and it was an absolute joy. He wanted to see as much of Oslo as possible, and had the habit of running up stairs instead of walking them. In the Sofienberg Church he played a trio with C. Spencer Yeh and Michael F. Duch. The recording turned out really good and I later released it as a CD on my Pica Disk label. In the process of preparing the CD, Tony quickly and graciously said yes to the release but then didn’t seem too concerned with the proceedings. When I offered him royalty money and artist copies he simply didn’t respond. It makes me wonder how much great music he left behind unreleased (Four Violins took 32 years to see the light of day), because he was known to be something of an archivist (a box-set of John Cale’s experimental music from the 60s came out only because Tony had kept the tapes). I hope as much as possible of Tony’s work becomes available to the public in the years to come. This especially goes out to La Monte Young, who has been sitting on the Theatre of Eternal Music recordings since the 60s. While I greatly appreciate La Monte Young’s work, it is very hard to empathize with how he has treated his past musical collaborators.
Between 2008 and 2015 I worked at the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo, curating and producing the art center’s music program together with Lars Mørch Finborud. Working there was a really good experience with many memorable events, and one of the absolute highlights was when we had Tony there for two days of talks, screening videos and a solo performance in 2012. Tony’s back was hurting like hell, being in such pain that most other people would’ve cancelled, but not only did he do the talk and performance, he also had me take him around Oslo looking for a harding fiddle, made me translate any Norwegian writing he saw, insisted to hang out when I suggested he get some rest, and held classes with his students in Buffalo via Skype. Spending time with him was an absolute blast, and meeting him in a more leisure setting outside the usual context of busy festivals I got five days of great stories and conversations. For example I remember we had a discussion about the similarities between death metal and Wagner. Tony’s first day of talk and videos wasn’t well attended (shame on you Oslo), but he really didn’t seem to mind and talked with great enthusiasm for hours to a small group of lucky attendees. The second day’s live performance was incredible, although his back pain was obviously a factor throughout, adding a frailty to his playing that made me think that even the great Tony Conrad won’t last forever. It was the last time I saw him.
Tony also said something that has stuck with me: That how we who choose to work in this field of music are rich, just not in money, and that he himself felt like a millionaire. It may be an obvious metaphor, but hearing it from him just made it stick to my mind. So when Tony died the world certainly felt like a much poorer place, but we should be thankful he was around to enrich us like he did.
Lasse Marhaug, June 2016