Continuous Variable Harmonicsby MV Carbon
Tony Conrad has been an influential figure in the art and minimalist music scenes since the early 1960s. He graduated from Harvard University in 1962 with a degree in mathematics. While he was studying there, he experimented with tape manipulation, projection, electronics, and sonics. He was one of the earlier innovators to work with tape looping and phasing patterns.
Soon after graduation, he moved to New York City, where he connected with the underground art and music scene. “Underground Superstardom” was a fresh concept, and Tony was in the heart of it. He lived with the artist-filmmaker Jack Smith during the filming of Flaming Creatures (1963), and helped in the production of that film and soundtrack. He was a crucial contributor to the development of drone music and a member of the Theater of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate. Tony taught at Antioch College in the early ’70s and at the University of Buffalo’s Media Study Department from 1976 – 2016. He continued developing as an artist his entire life, cross-pollinating radical work in film, video, performance, conceptual art, installation, music composition, writing, and community-based media work.
While living in Chicago, I was introduced to Tony’s music and films. A friend gave me a copy of Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973), by Tony and Faust. The first of Tony’s films I watched was The Flicker (1966). It begins with a disclaimer stating that it “may induce epileptic seizures or produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in certain persons,” then continues with interchanging black and white film frames that produce a stroboscopic effect. The film invokes a sense of structure and nonconformity all at once. At its debut in the ’60s, audience members had reported feelings of nausea, temporary hypnosis, hallucinations, and colorful visualizations. After these introductions to his work, I dreamed of meeting Tony.
Months later, I gravitated to New York City to broaden my horizons. The concept of dreams and reality meshing was on the forefront of my perception and New York City intensified that.
I traveled to Minneapolis one weekend in 2003 for the Destijl/Freedom From Festival of Music, where I was scheduled to perform with Metalux. I met Tony backstage! We instantly hit it off. He headlined the expansive event with a more than hour-long performance. He sawed away continuously at his violin, while his silhouette billowed on a large white sheet in front of him. The heavy drones, his hat, the shadows, and the way he crouched over his sonic kill reminded me of a horror film. This was not a nightmare by any means, though.
We exchanged contact info and soon became close friends. He decided he wanted to move back to New York City and was on the lookout for a studio to work in. We had the perfect place for him, already partially built out. A group of us had just started a DIY space named West Nile. It was a spacious, raw warehouse near the river at 285 Kent Avenue. The place was packed every weekend with musicians, artists, and bystanders. It was hard to keep track of how many shows we actually had there.
Tony set up a studio on the second floor where he unloaded tons of his video gear, costumes, instruments, fog machines, Tesla coils, lights, and electronics. We spent endless hours jamming, ranting, and creating work. It seemed like no one slept. Tony was present much of the time, taking the train to and from Buffalo. He even taught several of his media courses via Skype from Brooklyn. We did many performances together including a two-week tour in Europe. Tony performed at West Nile on occasion and presented a memorable, three-week lecture series in March 2008 that filled the house with devotees. During the lecture series he illustrated his thoughts on three large, pastel, plastic tablecloths that were later displayed as art objects. The lecture covered a large spectrum on sonics and the role music played in history, math, physics, the cosmos, perception, society/elitism, evolution, and community. His intellect and wit encouraged people to experiment and to question history, institutionalism, and mainstream thought. He fit right in at West Nile.
After a span from 2006 – 10, we decided to close West Nile. Tony and I found a large, sunny, open studio together in Greenpoint, that we called Earl Slick. There he built a lot of his larger sculptures. Tony was full of more life and ambition than anyone I had known before.
After Tony passed away, on April 9, 2016, it became evident how many people loved him and were deeply affected by his personality, work, and approach to life. His distinct musical style has been adopted by many. Quite a few people have told me that Tony has appeared to them in lucid dreams. In my recent dream of Tony, I picked up a telephone receiver that I use as a microphone, and he spoke through the earpiece to let me know “you can just call people from here!” Tony’s close friend David Grubbs shared his recent dream “that as a group we agreed that one weekend out of every month we will get together to finish artworks of Tony’s that he left incomplete. At the end of a long, relaxed, kinda lazy day of ‘work,’ we understand that Tony, with his particular genius, has wrangled a deal where he gets to return once a month to finish these works but mainly it’s an excuse to be with friends.”
If anyone could configure a way to communicate with us after death, Tony could. Perhaps dreams are the key.
If you would like to learn more about Tony’s work, read Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage, by Branden W. Joseph. An online archive of Tony’s piano recordings from 1976 – 1982 is available for listening, “Tony Conrad: Music and the Mind of the World” (http://musicandthemindofthe.world). It was launched by the artist Cory Arcangel, who worked directly with Tony on the tape transfers.