by Miloš Vojtěchovský
“No melodies, no harmonies, no rhythm. No bullshit.”
– Tom Johnson about the music of Phill Niblock, Village Voice, 1975.
Within the western context, the genealogy of the drone music genre is not entirely clear. Although most sources cite La Monte Young as a pioneer of drone music, upon closer examination things turn out to be a bit more complicated. Marcus Boon, a well-informed music critic, pedagogue, and activist specializing in the cultural phenomenon of trance, believes that the source of drone music’s popularity stems not only from past and present (transitional) rites of passage in religions of both western and eastern traditions, but also from a very lively present. Noisy drones have become an inseparable part of industrial and postindustrial civilization, even if we often no longer notice their presence. They are almost everywhere, in apiaries, highways, kitchens, and bathrooms. The sound of the drone is the sound of air traffic, electrical transformers and the ocean on the horizon. This continuous murmur even comes out of atoms and the clamorous crowd on city streets. The postwar generations, surrounded by mass automobile production, probably initially heard the drone as an “imprint” signal while travelling in cars with their parents: alongside the regular rhythm of their mothers’ hearts, they heard the mechanical pulsing of combustion engines even before they were born. In the early 60s, La Monte Young tuned his beloved tamburas to a frequency of 60 Hz to connect with the tone of the subliminally audible buzz of electric networks in the US (in Europe they were 10 Hz lower).
The concept of “vibration” (or “resonance”) appeared in the 60s in the American avant-garde during a number of its phases and social contexts. The first of these was the research into new physics and “orgone energy” by Wilhelm Reich, an anarchist psychoanalyst. Zen Buddhism also favored the movement away from the visual towards an auditory experience. Notably, this was true in the work of the Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki, who had a profound influence on John Cage’s work and thought. Suzuki tried to connect western and eastern spiritual traditions, during which theosophy and esoterism provided a point of contact for both sides. (Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, was published in the U.S. in 1949 with a 30-page introduction from C.G. Jung.) After all, interest in vibrations and waves had already penetrated the West in the early 20th century. One example of this is the originally Islamic but heretical sect of Sufism, adapted for the West by the Indian musician and Sufi philosopher Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). In the book The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word (1911), Khan explains a theory of the world’s musical essence according to which basic elements such as sound, motion, and form come out of the primordial matter of silence, saying, “Every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations. Within one vibration many vibrations are created.” Khan was convinced that solid objects materialize the primordial force of vibration energy through resonance. Sound (and silence) precede matter. The universe is built from the “eternal” unison of vibrations and sonic frequency in time.
According to this paradigm, this is how the relationships among moments, place, and time, as well as the mode and nature of our existence as physical and spiritual beings, are determined. How we relate to the physical environment, including the perception of untraceable universal vibrations, is also determined in this way. The “iconoclastic” radicalism and anarchism of the American counterculture of conceptual art and early minimalism in music and the visual arts in the 60s and 70s drew from many various sources, only a few of which are mentioned here briefly. Western sources for the appropriation and “re-discovery” of monochromatic “drone music” held that substantial changes in ways of listening are more important than the production and consumption of music. The impulses behind innovative and integrative approaches appeared not only in the history of music (ambient, deep listening, rave), but also in the evolution of the culture of the second part of the 20th century in general (holotropic therapy, new physics, acoustic ecology, etc.).
In 2000 the label Table of the Elements (founded by Jeff Hunt in 1993) put out a CD entitled Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume 1: Day of Niagara. The album was made up of an archival “bootleg” recording from 1965 with La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Angus McLise, John Cale and Marian Zazeela performing together. (Better-sounding live performances from 60s are sometimes freely distributed online. The best sounding set includes music by the Theatre of Eternal Music recorded in 1964 and distributed under the title Day of the Holy Mountain.) The CD piqued the interest of the public and critics while renewing an age-old disagreement between Young and Conrad. After many years, along with John Cale, Conrad had tried to acquire the old tapes from Young made during the time they had performed together as The Dream Syndicate. Young had refused to share the archive with his ex-group members, claiming he was the exclusive author of The Dream Syndicate’s style and the composer of its music. After the group’s breakup in 1965, Conrad had temporarily ceased to be interested in music, dedicating himself instead to experimental film, his family, and lecturing at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
In the same year that Inside the Dream Syndicate was released, the British magazine The Wire published an open letter from Arnold Dreyblatt addressed to Young and Conrad. In it Dreyblatt outlines the history of how the archive tape came to the publisher, saying that it had been lent to a friend (the guitarist, musicologist and publisher Jim O’Rourke). Dreyblatt had studied composition with Young in the seventies and been a member of his group while working at the Dream House as an archivist. He also studied film and media arts at SUNI University in Buffalo with Conrad, with Woody and Steina Vasulka and Paul Sharitz among his teachers. In addition to structural film and his experiments with video, Conrad’s body of work in music fascinated Dreyblatt.
The age-old feud between Conrad and Young continued in 2000 when Young filed a lawsuit against Conrad for copyright infringement and his response to Dreyblatt’s letter in The Wire. In this way, the release of the CD jumbled the history of the American avant-garde of the 1960s. Day at Niagara has upset, to this day, the generally accepted myth (aided by machinations serving the interests of the Dia Foundation) of the predominance of Young’s share in the establishment of the aesthetics of drone music and American minimalist music in general. According to Conrad, Young betrayed the then radical ethos upon the departure of The Dream Syndicate’s original members. Conrad condemned the appropriation of Indian music as exoticism, as well as the essentialism of Young’s Pythagorean concept of music. The conflict concerned the program of free culture on one side and a conservative-business approach to art on the other.
In 2007, Table of the Elements released four CDs under the title Early Minimalism. The most famous of these is a re-mastered copyrighted version of Four Violins, which Conrad recorded himself in 1964. The recording is complemented with recordings of pieces Conrad recorded between 1994 and 1996 and mastered with Jim O’Rourke. The anthology shows what an adventurous landscape Conrad set out into in the early 60s, and just how much his music differed from the work of other musical minimalists and conceptualists. In the end, the revision of the history of the experimental music of the 60s also made it necessary to reconsider the status of certain personalities, such as Jerry Hunt, Maryann Armacher, Catherine Christer Hennix and, without a doubt, Tony Conrad.
Anthony Schmalz “Tony” Conrad (1940-2016) studied violin and mathematics at Harvard. Rejecting an academic career, Conrad set out for New York and began meeting with La Monte Young and other “radical” artists in the artistic community of the Lower Easter Side in the early 60s. Among these artists was the percussionist and occultist Angus McLise, the philosopher, anti-art activist and musician Henry Flynt, and the land artist and musician Walter De Maria. Through the filmmaker Jack Smith, Conrad met his future wife, the actress Beverly Grant. Supporters of the then anarchist-tinged criticisms of society and official art, these artists targeted the state, police, institution, and the Pentagon as well as the existing state of art itself. Conrad expressed doubt about the concept of the creator-artist-genius, favoring instead the “post-Cage, post-Fluxus” deconstruction of formalism, gravitating towards the ideal of freedom. He felt that congested concepts such as the Author, Composition, or Education would disintegrate in the new environment of the counterculture, falling apart under the pressure of expanded consciousness, improvisation exercises, and psychotropic substances.
Conrad likens the poetics of the canon of the original Dream Syndicate and the code of one’s own creation to a move toward enlightenment, illumination, epiphany, or “rupture.” These concepts have, of course, little to do with the escapism of their New Age supporters. Conrad welcomed the dawn of the era of composition and the end of the manipulation of the listener and composer through the entertainment industry and pop culture, hence diverging ideologically from Warhol's “factory” approach to art. On the contrary, Conrad expected the onset of an era of anti-elitist, anti-bourgeois, and truly folk music. He expected for space to sound with the vibration of sharing and shared “listening.” Away with the author! Away with mechanical writing and reading notes! Away with composing, repeating, playback, and interpreting! Long live the death of art!
If we listen to the Dream Syndicate’s music today, it may seem to us that its aesthetic is not only strange but fairly uncompromising toward the listener. Rather than create the soothing psychological effect of mainstream minimalism, “early minimalism” was directed at creating a hypnotizing and, at the same time, ascetic experience. Musical form was cut to the marrow, with no tried and true patterns. Instead, the compositional dynamic was reduced to timbre, harmonious surfaces on a sustained harmonious chord tuned to microtonal textures. Not even the gravitational force of technology could entice these musicians. Some of them refused the intellectual irony of Fluxus and the unusual harmonies, rhythms, and extravagant approaches of jazz and classical music.
The music of “early minimalism” was meant to connect everything into a single and steady “now,” offering the freedom to listen, fall asleep, or leave. It was supposed to be a tunnel into another space, a telescope of human experience. Continuous droning stands still in one place while simultaneously flowing like a stream of magma. Here, the shell of the cultural and social inequalities of the past and present surrounded the deprived player-listener. Nevertheless, at the end of the 60s, the vision and utopian ideas of the counterculture confronted a reality different from the one supported by the Dream Syndicate’s poetics.
In 1966 Conrad definitively left the Dream Syndicate. In 1971 he screened the film Coming Attractions, made with Beverly Grant, in the Whitney Museum. A year later Harald Szeemann invited a number of American avant-garde artists, including La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Walter de Maria and Tony Conrad, to Documenta 5 (Questioning Reality – Pictorial Worlds Today) in Kassel. This provided Conrad with the opportunity to screen Coming Attractions in Hamburg, Munich, and Vienna as well. In 1973 he returned to Hamburg on the invitation of Uwe Nettleback, the producer of the rock band Faust. Nettleback had invited Conrad to a country estate where the band had been living and working at the time. For three days Conrad and Faust played and recorded hours of improvisation, the result of which was released as an LP the following year in England. In 1993, a new edition was released as a CD, once again on the Table of Elements label. Outside the Dream Syndicate presents two half-hour improvisations entitled “From the Side of Man and Womankind” and “From the Side of the Machine.” To the microtonal snarling of Conrad’s violin sounding like a hurdy gurdy, Faust member “Zappy” Diermaier weaves a monotone rhythm while Jean-Hervé Peron provides a hypnotizing bassline. In a fragment of “From the Side of the Machine,” along with an electric bass guitar, the drone of a synthesizer joins the violin. At the same time, the dreamy psychedelic sound suggests echoes of the orient through the tones of a cymbal. Within “early minimalism,” critics recognize Outside of the Dream Syndicate as an opus where the European traditions of psychedelic rock and the conceptual landscape of American minimalism intersect. Nevertheless, the LP was more or less forgotten for 20 years.
Yellow Cinema and Others
Tony Conrad humorously conjectured about situations, concepts, and themes that hung in the air. He explored the possibilities of perception offered by using a film projector as a stroboscope (The Flicker, 1966) and created his own Dadaistic commentary to the aesthetics of an “enhanced expanded film” alongside the psychedelic, paracinematic work Coming Attractions. In 1972 he exhibited 20 pieces under the title Yellow Cinema. The pieces did not, however, make use of film, a camera, or a projector. Instead, Conrad utilized large format photographic paper covered with cheap white latex wall paint surrounded by a black frame, making it reminiscent of a projection screen. With time and the exposure to light, as expected, the latex began to yellow. With this work the “filmmaker” was commenting on various structural films dealing with duration. For example, Hollis Frampton had worked on experiments that lasted only one or perhaps two seconds. Warhol’s Sleep, on the other hand, ran for five hours while his Empire ran for eight. Yellow Cinema is incomparably more radical. The emulsion yellowed from the white shade of a “screen” over the course of around 50 years, most likely making it the longest film in history. In Sukiyaki Film, Conrad connected, in way similar to Gordon Matta-Clark, the media of food and art, in this case the cooking, consumption and “projection” of film “ingredients” on screen. Conrad also did this by cooking and pickling celluloid strips of film in jars like mushrooms or pickles (Pickled Films).
In his long-term project dedicated to jail (Women in Jail, 1981-2010), Conrad collaborated with artists Tony Ousler and Mike Kelley, thematizing the institution of jail as a metaphor for the 20th century. Conrad worked with video mainly in Buffalo, N.Y., where he taught for 40 years. Conrad images dealt with, for example, the power relations between the viewer and the author (In Line, 1986). In several videos Conrad is a convincing performer. In another video documentary he shows how life could have looked in America if Europeans had never discovered it.
Among Conrad’s essential films are Coming Attractions (1970), Straight and Narrow (1970), Four Square (1971), Yellow Movie (1973), 4-X Attack (1973), Film Feedback (1974), Articulation of Boolean Algebra for Film Opticals (1975), Phonograph and Cycles of 3’s and 7’s (1977), Hail the Fallen (1981), Combat Status Go (1981), Beholden to Victory (1983), In Line (1986), Birth of a Nation (1997), Grading Tips for Teachers (2001), Jonas at the Ocean (2002), Tony's Oscular Pets (2003), Conversation II (2005), and Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006). Of these Conrad was the director of Straight and Narrow, Jonas at the Ocean, and Grading Tips for Teachers. Along with students at Buffalo, Conrad dedicated himself to interventions in public space and electronic media. Squeaky Wheel Media Coalition (1990-1994) was a public television series filmed on the street.
In the last years of his life, not only music publishers, but also curators who exhibited his work in many prestigious galleries in the U.S. and Europe discovered him. He died in Cheektowaga on 9 April 2016 at the age of 76 of pneumonia. At the Big Ears Festival, Laurie Anderson took his place and performed with Faust.
Some artists who were or are directly related to Conrad in terms of artistic kinship include: Terry Fox, Henry Flint, Jack Smith, Angus McLise, Woody Vasulka, Charlemagne Palestine, Yoshi Wada, Walter De Maria, Paul Panhuysen, Arnold Dreyblatt and the Orchestra of Excited Strings, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Armacher, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, Ellen Fullman, Jim O’Rourke, Tony Ousler, Mike Kelley, Kathy High, Chris Hill, The Animal Collective and many others. The diversity of their approaches and poetics indicates the breadth of the spectrum in which Conrad moved.
The book Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (MIT Zone Books), by Branden W. Joseph, provides a good source of information about Conrad and his life. In 2016, after his death, Tyler Hubby completed the biographical film Completely in the Present.