The first time that Tony Conrad was on my radar, my radar was blipping madly because he was standing directly in front of me, backstage at the Hothouse in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, just steps from the three-way intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee Avenues, in August 1994. But that isn’t entirely correct. Tony Conrad was first on my radar through a cameo appearance in Victor Bockris’s Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, which I had read in high school; then through intriguing, filed-away references to his 1973 album Outside the Dream Syndicate, a collaboration with the German rock group Faust that was released on Virgin Records and that disappeared more or less instantly; and finally through the excited recounting of Jim O’Rourke, with whom I was then playing in Gastr del Sol and, periodically, the Red Krayola. In May 1994 Jim returned from a festival in Frankfurt raving about one of the first live performances of Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism: April 1965 (a recording of this particular performance appears on the Early Minimalism Volume One boxed set), and with this encounter Tony vaulted to the top of Jim’s list of folks with whom he needed to work. Stars aligned in the form of Jeff Hunt’s Table of the Elements record label, which had recently reissued Outside the Dream Syndicate and which was desirous of having Tony once again enter a recording studio.
I really knew very little about Tony, and in retrospect this makes me laugh, given everywhere he’d been and everything he’d done. To this day I continue to be surprised—though I shouldn’t be surprised at being surprised—as I learn more about Tony’s activities, as are even those people who were closest to him. Occasionally one hears the term “Zelig” in reference to Tony, but it misses the point of his functioning as an unexpected and often ingenious engine at the many intersections between music, experimental film, visual art, performance, media activism, and education. A better epithet is that of Virgil, the role in which art historian Branden W. Joseph casts him in order to survey the Inferno of the New York underground of the 1960s in Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (2008). Regardless, on that evening in the summer of 1994 we were having a grand old get-to-know-ya backstage at the Hothouse during a show featuring Gastr del Sol and Tortoise. Lord knows what we were even talking about. I recall Tony’s fedora; his signature contagious laugh, which he might abruptly cut off for comic and/or pointedly critical effect; and also the way that he made most people feel smart and interesting with his unending and often oblique line of questioning—a Socratic way of being, but without the didactic leading questions. I recall that John Corbett had brought a bottle of single malt scotch that tasted like a delicious mossy rock. This was during the acoustic guitar duo phase of Gastr del Sol, and we most likely played a spare, focused set of echoing lines on twin instruments. The composed, rehearsed, comparably delicate music that Jim and I were performing at the time was one possible obverse to what we would be tackling later that week when we decamped to Steve Albini’s studio—a basement with two live rooms and a control room two flights up in the attic in a small house on North Francisco Avenue—to record Slapping Pythagoras, Tony’s first studio album in more than twenty years.
The first gathering of the half-dozen guitarists who play on Slapping Pythagoras was like the first day of class, but also an unfamiliar kind of home schooling. Tony explained just intonation to us—as well as the disastrous political consequences of Pythagoras’s conviction that harmony demonstrates a natural celestial order—and did so in a quirky but streamlined, highly condensed fashion. There was some nervous laughter, as on the first day of school, and this was welcomed by our brilliant, eccentric teacher who himself laughed all the time and wore an old hat and what looked like pajama pants. I should underscore that rather than taking place in rarefied laboratory conditions, this experiment unfolded in a concrete basement with half a dozen guitarists effectively deskilled (we wouldn’t have necessarily used the word) by having to bow the open strings of instruments placed horizontally, no fretting required nor permitted, all in the midst of an incessant, dispiriting massing of 60-cycle ground hum from our half dozen amplifiers. In order to ascertain a reference pitch with which to tune the guitars, Tony asked who had the noisiest rig—probably it was Kevin Drumm, at that time still using his brutalized, scraped-to-shit white Fender Mustang with its single-coil pickup. Tony cranked up the amp to full volume and used the resulting 60 Hz drone to assist in tuning up the ensemble of instruments. It truly was one of the funniest, most instructive moments I’ve ever had the delirious fortune to encounter and be a part of.
As a thrown-together group of allegedly competent musicians we were surprisingly hapless at reading the basic bowing rhythms from the six individual parts that Tony circulated on Xeroxed 8 ½” x 11” sheets. It took some time, but eventually we became proficient enough to make our way through the piece, all the while subject to small squalling interruptions of bowing noise, rhythmic looseness, and outright mistakes, and in the end I believe we did it as a complete take, with plenty of room for all manner of competence and consequence in this improvised classroom in Steve Albini’s basement. A roiling, riotous sound world, with space in which to drift and explore.
But it was only a single layer of Slapping Pythagoras. Given the fundamentally let-’er-rip quality to the recording of the ensemble of bowed guitars, I took note of the playful, spontaneous attitude Tony assumed toward the possibilities of multitrack recording. In retrospect it shared much with Cage’s attitude of making the best of being in a recording studio, namely approaching it as a means of producing something distinct from the unrepeatability and multiplicity of audience perspective in live performance—and why shouldn’t you explore the possibilities afforded by the situation? Before we knew it Jim was recording a solo using Steve Albini’s Weedeater and I was overdubbing a percussion track, the planning for which began with Tony saying that it needed to alternate between a low, thick sound and a higher, more brittle sound. In the end I played the percussion part using Steve’s first baseman’s mitt to smack a pillow and a rolled-up mic cable to ping an empty pint glass.
It seems infinitely easier at the present moment to understand the impact of fringe and extreme musics on actually popular pop music, but circa 1994 it was distinctly odd and excellent to see Tony’s music inserted into the context of underground rock. Jim O’Rourke and Jeff Hunt deserve much of the credit for this. Yes, a decade later Sonic Youth would collaborate onstage with the noise artist Merzbow in front of a gargantuan audience at the Roskilde Festival, but in the mid-1990s it something else to see Tony Conrad play in a rock club. Maybe it was only the youngsters who were taken aback. Rock clubs made perfect sense for Tony’s music, in that they had sound systems that were up to the task of his hugely amplified string music; there you were likely to find more informal and ideally more open-minded audiences; and it meant that you could take this music on the road to cities and towns of all sizes. In Records Ruin the Landscape—a book that owes as much to conversations with Tony as to any other resource—I have described the experience of grinning madly and busting a gut one afternoon when I arrived at the Chicago rock club Lounge Ax and Tony was soundchecking at a completely frightening volume. I soon got used to it, but my first encounter with two violins and a cello amplified to such an extreme was for me something qualitatively new. My instinct was that the PA was feeding back, billowing low-end feedback, and that the system sounded like it was about to explode. It seemed utterly out of control. I quickly came to understand that what seemed like speaker-destroying low-end feedback was in fact a series of difference tones produced by double-stopped notes on Tony’s violin—that these were a consequence of the extreme amplification, and that Tony manipulated these massively disruptive low frequencies with very slight changes in the pressure and position of the fingers of his left hand. Entering into this dark, smelly rock club out of a bright and busy afternoon on Lincoln Avenue, my response was visceral, and multiply so. My body was under attack, and I was laughing an unfamiliar kind of laughter.
As Tony crossed paths with the indie rock world of the 1990s, all of us younger folks took a step back and learned a lesson from his subversive relationship to publicity and promotion. I recall a group interview with various Table of the Elements artists for the magazine Alternative Press. Everyone else was eager to get in a word about their recent or upcoming albums, but Tony gabbed at length about what a drag it is to have to own a car in Buffalo, and that Chicago seems like a happening place for younger people, and if he were younger he would be thinking about selling his car and moving to Chicago because the public transportation is alright and bicycles are cheap and good exercise. The thing I remember Tony having to say about his own music on that occasion was that he played a music very similar to that which he had played three decades earlier—this was at the time of the release of the Early Minimalism box—because he wasn’t tired of it yet and didn’t believe in throwing something away and moving on while he was still getting something out of it. I began to think of Tony’s commitment to amplified, drone-based string music as fundamentally ecological.
One of my freelance writing gigs at the time was for Tower Records’ magazine Pulse!, and when I tried to get Tony to speak about his newest release, here’s how the conversation began:
DG: With Early Minimalism, to what extent are you looking backwards, looking forward, or enjoying the blind spot of the moment in which you’re sawing away at the violin?
TC: I’ve been digging through a bit of nautical terminology recently because I have an interest in a word which was almost nonexistent in ancient Greek: skantagio, which means “sounding lead,” the weight at the end of a string they used to drop in the ocean. All of this is a part of dredging the past up into the present and, like a sperm whale, taking in a huge mouthful of stuff and spitting out the water to leave the food behind. That idea of time as something that you see ahead or behind and then may not see at all straight ahead is an interesting metaphor. You can think of it that way, or you can think of time being visible in all of those aspects in the present.
After Tony’s passing, I’ve wanted to take more than a deep breath before writing about him. For this piece—even as I know that I will take up the task again in the future—I’m limiting my words to this first period in the 1990s in which I came to know him, and I’ll punctuate it with one final image. In March 1998, I spent the better part of a week in Buffalo, primarily for the purpose of premiering Pauline Oliveros’s Primordial / Lift at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center with an ensemble that included Pauline, Tony, Anne Bourne, Alexandria Gelencser, Andrew Deutsch, and myself. We had a lovely time playing Pauline’s piece, and I was struck by her singular and generous nature, and how she never second-guessed the musicians’ individual approaches to interpreting her score. We played together for two days, and just minutes before the public performance she gathered us as a group and asked, “Does anyone have any questions about the score?”
Once the performance of Primordial / Lift had taken place, Tony’s luck—and mine—took a turn for the worse. We had planned to do some recording at Tony’s home studio, but a late-March freak snowstorm slammed Buffalo, and I can still feel myself sliding around on an icy highway as Tony and I circumnavigated the city en route to the last remaining Radio Shack to stock 1/8” reel-to-reel tape. A search for additional equipment at the University of Buffalo was met with pointless intransigence and guff from a U.B. work-study student, and in spite of the various shitty sound engineers I had seen Tony work with at rock clubs around the U.S. I never saw him lose his patience as he did at that moment. When we finally got around to setting up the session in Tony’s studio, every manner of interruption—technical, personal—played itself out one after the next, until in a moment of frustration Tony kicked over a giant stack of boxes that he had been trying to work around. Suddenly he leaned over with a grin and picked up a box that had been near the bottom of the pile: “Ha ha! You should get a kick out of this. Ha!” The brown cardboard box was a little larger than a VHS tape and had John Cale’s return address. I opened it and found a severely desiccated copy of the paperback book The Velvet Underground that Tony had found on the street one day and brought home to the apartment on Ludlow Street that he shared in the mid-sixties with Cale—the copy of the book from which John Cale’s new band would soon take their name. It looked as old as a plank of wood from the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born.
“Geez!” said Tony, “I really ought to read this some day!” Then he hurled the fragile thing across the room, pages violently flapping, and we went back to work.
David Grubbs is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. At Brooklyn College he also teaches in the MFA programs in Performance and Interactive Media Arts (PIMA) and Creative Writing. He is the author of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press), and his most recent solo album is Prismrose (Blue Chopsticks).
Banner image: Tony Conrad discoursing from back seat, 1998 U.S. tour (photo credit: David Grubbs)