PRINT Summer 1998


Tony Conrad

THE LONG, SLOWLY MODULATING drones on Tony Conrad’s box set Early Minimalism Volume One (Table of the Elements) are totally uncompromising, even if they do relax the listener over time; the electrified violins that produce the sounds attack tiny intervals across the audible spectrum with slightly wobbly intonation, never applicable to the equal temperament of the piano. There are four discs here, each filled with thirty minutes’ to an hour’s worth of this truculent process music; the result is occasionally reminiscent of the blues, like Little Walter inhaling one chord on an amped-up harmonica for minutes at a time.

Heard today, more than three decades after the impetus for its creation, the sound—especially given its relationship to La Monte Young, a major figure in minimalist music—carries a charge of historic importance. We appreciate the work nowadays as a bridge between John Cage’s and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s art music and the brooding rock ‘n’ roll of the Velvet Underground. But the greater theme throbbing behind Early Minimalism Volume One is a scrappy one that’s foreign to the crisp, clean world of formal minimalism. It’s a theme we’re more apt to associate with autobiographies of blues singers and rock stars: in the rip-off circus of popular music, musicians often lose control over their own history.

Chubby Checker, for example, made records early in his career that have been consigned to oblivion by a rights-holder (Allen Klein) who refuses to reissue the music. To retaliate, Checker recently rerecorded his old music; people like Let’s Do the Twist, he reasoned, and don’t really care whether the version’s the original.

Conrad’s story is not all that different. Along with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, John Cale, and Angus MacLise, he was part of the Theatre of Eternal Music (Conrad preferred to call it Dream Music); they made a work of joint decisions and intuition, struggling mightily against autocratic principles of composition. By the tone of his writings in the accompanying booklet, Conrad seems to feel all right about his minimalist fellow traveler Terry Riley. But he considers the other successful minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass to have abandoned the music’s premise for the creation of a collectible artwork, a notated product, rather than “addressing the turbulence of musical listening directly.” “As Glass turned to opera, Reich to the art gallery, and Young to the opium den as social models,” he opines, “minimal music appeared to have become a right-wing lapdog.”

Three of the Early Minimalism discs (“April 1965,” “May 1965,” and “June 1965”) are what Conrad calls a “re-presentation” of that music, recordings made between 1994 and 1996. Unlike Chubby Checker, Conrad isn’t reclaiming a fixed spot of musical ground. The Dream Music never had the chance to become a part of public memory, because La Monte Young, who owns the tapes, has never released them. According to the ninety-six-page CD booklet, Young won’t give Conrad access to them unless he signs an agreement declaring Young to be the sole composer.

There are two curious turns in this story. The first is that Conrad admits that the tapes aren’t so great. The studio mix was outrageously poor, as he explains in the album’s notes: “La Monte always turned himself up loudest; the group was frequently too stoned to play long enough with adequate focus; our heterogeneity as performers often overcame our ability to muster group discipline.” The other is that they’re not completely unknown; Young has played them over the radio on several occasions.

I won’t hazard a guess as to Conrad’s position relative to Young’s in the roll call of minimalist composers; their personal conflicts run so deep that you could write a book about it. With Early Minimalism, in fact, Conrad has created a kind of parallel version of that book, with his own name attached. It’s a brilliant, cagey exercise; despite the packaging (and composition titles), the box set isn’t a re-creation at all of the Dream Music. In taking away the droning vocals, Conrad is creating his own spin on the events that neatly snips Young and Zazeela out of the picture.

Conrad isn’t concise. Lecture fatigue is an unavoidable aspect of the Early Minimalism box: the booklet in particular is stuffed with personal rants, jeremiads, and parables. At a certain point, you want him to go away and let you listen. But the whole construct of the music always leads back to Conrad’s own anger; more than any other album I can think of, reading the notes is an absolute prerequisite to hearing the music.

Conrad’s filibustering, one senses, is an extension of his trance compositions, as well as the aggressive, let-the-audience-decide-what-art-is projects that emanated from the Cage-Young-Fluxus circle in the early ’60s. Conrad likes art to beat on you a little, to surround you and change your way of seeing things. His last album, 1995’s Slapping Pythagoras, was a similar kind of riposte to history: it assailed the figure Conrad feels is ultimately most responsible for the entrenchment of Western tonal harmony. Pythagoras created a numerical system that led over the centuries to twelve-tone equal temperament; he claimed it to be in tune with the workings of the universe. Conrad, loading his slingshot, wrote string-based drone compositions reliant on intervals that aren’t traceable back to Pythagoras’ model. This in itself isn’t so special, even for a Westerner. Harry Partch’s 1941 book Genesis of a Music was an elegant argument against Pythagoras. What is special is Conrad’s framing of his anti-Pythagorian gesture as a vendetta. In his liner notes, he uses the cheap language of domination, calling the Greek “a slimeball” and “a fucking asshole.” Like Slapping Pythagoras, the Early Minimalism box set is packaged protest.

The best piece in the set is ironically the one needing the least critical apparatus. “Four Violins,” recorded in 1964, is a multitracked marvel of Conrad himself on violin times four, the instrument’s tones distorted and screaming: the piece can’t help but make a strong impact. But the art is overwhelmed by the argument, and the box (the first in a projected multivolume series) leaves one curious about Conrad’s motives. For a subversive who doesn’t like pedestals, he’s still intensely preoccupied with them.

Ben Ratliff writes on music for The New York Times.