PRINT September 2016


Tony Conrad

Tony Conrad, Pickled E.K. 7302–244–0502 #11, 2006, 16-mm film, glass jar, vinegar, vegetables, spices, 6 3/4 × 4 × 4". © Tony Conrad Estate.

BEFORE I KNEW Tony Conrad, I knew his work: I was introduced to his films by my professor Ken Jacobs at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, in 1975. The Flicker, 1966, was a crowning achievement of the kind of structural filmmaking that was being explored in American avant-garde film. In spite of its austerity, it was also wild and psychedelic in concept—the stroboscopic visual effects that the sequences of black-and-white frames created during projection seemed magical. At that time, I had no idea about his history with La Monte Young or, later, John Cale and Lou Reed—collaborations that proved seminal to many different cultural streams that emanated from those days, from rock to Conceptual music to Minimalism, and that continue to resonate as an inspiration to aspects of my own approach to music and certainly to younger musicians looking to expand their horizons.

Tony and I met in 1980 when I performed at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo with Glenn Branca’s group, and our paths crossed many times since. I always found him brilliant and inspiring but also funny as hell. What a curious, marvelous mind he had! I was around for some of his first shows when he returned to performing in the mid-1990s, resurrecting the spirit of the Theatre of Eternal Music, his ecstatic trance/drone sessions with Young and company from the mid-’60s, and was blown away by the music I heard. His bowed violin sounded so up-to-date, sawing away, creating dancing overtones in our ears. During that period, he was performing behind a screen or sheet, lit from behind. Those performances were enthralling, and they seemed to reflect on his activities in film, especially his evocation of early cinema as represented by the black-and-white shadow play he was creating onstage—his own fedoraed, pajamaed silhouette. The music was uncompromising, circular and seemingly endless, testing the patience of listeners even as others found that it approached the sublime. And Tony knew the science and mathematics behind the drones and overtones he was stretching the boundaries of, playfully naming his 1995 album Slapping Pythagoras. His activities suddenly engaged the contemporary underground music community, which he quickly became part of (again), and he began showing his art again as well, with new exhibitions of his “Yellow Movies,” 1972–73, and his jars of pickled films.

We’re entering a sad and sobering period when many of the icons of our time are leaving us. Tony is certainly one I’m going to miss in ways I’m sure I haven’t even discovered just yet.

Lee Ranaldo is a musician, visual artist, and writer, and a cofounder of Sonic Youth.