Tony Conrad: 10 Essential Recordings From the Drone Pioneer

Titan of American minimalism influenced Velvet Underground, more

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'Four Violins' (recorded 1964, released 1996)
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'Four Violins' (recorded 1964, released 1996)

Without Conrad's Four Violins, there would be no Velvet Underground's "Heroin." The seeds of John Cale's striking and discordant viola playing on that early VU classic are easy to identify in Conrad's first extant solo recording. Dating from late 1964, when Conrad and Cale were both still working with La Monte Young in the Theatre of Eternal Music, this half-hour landmark reveals the spitfire sonic activity that can be created when rigorously designed microtonal relationships are given enough time to scrape against one another in all their complexity: Conrad overdubbed himself four times to make the harmonies here. The overlaid tones create vibrating beats that leap out at the listener — showing just how "active" a drone can feel, when designed by an acoustician.

A dispute between members of the Theatre over whether to assign compositional authorship of the group's music to Young, has resulted in their mid-Sixties live recordings remaining officially off-market. In the 1990s, Conrad sought to "re-inscribe" his own place in 20th century music history by composing new works that reenacted certain aspects of the Theatre's aesthetic, while also pushing his own microtonal language ahead. A 4-CD set titled Early Minimalism contains both the original "Four Violins" as well as Conrad-led performances of his subsequent, postmodernist reenactments.