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Tony Conrad: 10 Essential Recordings From the Drone Pioneer

Titan of American minimalism influenced Velvet Underground, more

Tony Conrad

Tony Conrad performing at the Knitting Factory.

Ebet Roberts/Getty

"You don't know who I am, but you've been affected by the things I did," Tony Conrad told The Guardian in what may well have been his last interview. Though not a household name, the pathbreaking experimental violinist and filmmaker, who passed away over the weekend at age 76, was one of rock music's most quietly influential figures.

He casually provided the Velvet Underground with their name, and gave them a few ideas about drone too, thanks to his early collaborations with original VU member John Cale. In fact all drone-influenced rock owes something to Conrad's pioneering investigation of sustained tones. Free improvisers have drawn inspiration from the variety of strategies this string-instrument player used to accompany other artists (while still sounding like himself). And the world of experimental classical composition was likewise forever changed by Conrad's experiments with alternate tunings and harmonic relationships, dating back to Conrad's participation in La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music.

When news of his death broke over the weekend, you could gauge the impact of this avant-garde icon merely by glancing at the range of artists moved to post on social media. He was mourned and celebrated by onetime colleagues such as Cale, as well as by a diverse range of cutting-edge sound explorers, like saxophonist-composer Matana Roberts, drone metal boundary-pusher Stephen O'Malley and contemporary-folk experimentalist Sam Amidon. Conrad never stopped investigating new music, either. He was a familiar presence in Brooklyn's most adventurous DIY venues, checking out feedback-drenched younger artists and interpreters of contemporary classical music.

Conrad's discography is deep, but also scattered. In some cases, key titles are out of print or tangled up in legal disputes. But investigating its variety is still a must for any fan of experimental sound. The following 10 albums, sorted (mostly) in chronological order, form the core of his reputation.

Tony Conrad Four Violins

‘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.

Tony Conrad


Seth Tisue/Flickr

‘Day of the Holy Mountain’ (bootleg, 1964)

In 2000, the Table of the Elements label released a vintage recording by the Theatre of Eternal Music without obtaining permission from La Monte Young. Lawsuits and a press battle between Young and Conrad followed. The one thing everyone tends to agree on is that Outside the Dream Syndicate 1: Day of Niagara suffers from being a suboptimal dub of original tapes that are likely still sequestered in Young's downtown New York living quarters. Anyone interested in early drone music and American minimalism should instead look for the better-sounding live performances that are often freely distributed online. The best sounding set includes music recorded in 1964 distributed under the title Day of the Holy Mountain.

Over its first 40 minutes, the fast-cycling string drones of Conrad and Cale carry the performance. You can really hear them improvising with each other — a key part of Conrad's understanding of the minimalist revolution. Young's post-jazz sopranino saxophone playing, fervent and inspired, dominates the second half of the marathon take. It's too bad this group fell out so badly they never managed to agree on the rights for the full archive. The best of what has leaked out makes for unmissable American experimental music.

Tony Conrad, 'Joan of Arc'

‘Joan of Arc’ (recorded 1968, released 2006)

This 1968 solo recording features Conrad teasing sustained drones from a pump organ. Originally intended as a soundtrack to a film by Piero Heliczer, it's more than absorbing on its own. Sometimes Conrad sustains a harmony he's enjoying for minutes, while at other points, there's a hint of Conrad the melodist, an occasional tuneful figure gradually emerging from the otherwise grave-sounding progressions.

"Dream Interpretation" (recorded 1969, released 2002)

08/11/98 - Slug: ST/Conrad Date: 8/11/98 DS Photog: Larry Morris TWP The Black Cat nightclub, 1831 14th Street, NW Musician Tony Conrad performs at The Black Cat on 14th Street. (Photo by Larry Morris/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The Washington Post/Getty

“Dream Interpretation” (recorded 1969, released 2002)

This 20-minute buzzsaw-timbre collaboration of amplified violin and viola was recorded by Conrad and Cale in 1969, finding its way onto the 2002 comp Dream Interpretation: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume 2. After completing their tenures in Young's Theatre of Eternal Music — and after Cale's departure from the Velvet Underground — the two reconvened to continue exploring a shared love of drone. Things start out bracing, but two-thirds of the way through, the pair lands on some more consonant, power-chord harmonies, creating a triumphal arc. On the same CD that contains this piece, you'll also find the acoustic, microtonally gorgeous "A Midnight Rain of Green Wrens at the World's Tallest Building," which the duo recorded in 1968.

'Outside the Dream Syndicate' with Faust

‘Outside the Dream Syndicate’ with Faust (1973)

On his first commercially released recording (and last commercially released recording for more than 20 years), Conrad brings the art-rock innovators of Faust into his minimal universe. On Side A's iconic "From the Side of Man and Womankind," Jean-Hervé Peron's mostly one-note bass part is pegged to the tonal center of Conrad's keening, expressive drone. The plodding percussion of Werner Diermaier is also tuned in sympathy with Conrad, resulting in a single-minded thrum that quickly turns transcendent. Side B opens up a bit, with Faust's members contributing more seductive beats, swaying figures and synthesizer chords, in turn showing off the variety of emotional effects that Conrad's drone system can support. Over the decades, Conrad reunited with members of Faust in concert (often focusing on this album's Side A). But the original recording, newly reissued, remains the final word.

'Slapping Pythagoras' (1995)

‘Slapping Pythagoras’ (1995)

After the new recordings for the Early Minimalism box set got Conrad back in the game, he partnered up again with the box's co-violinist Jim O'Rourke, who contributed bowed guitar for this release. Here, the musician-mathematician Pythagoras, who comes in for some abuse, is an obvious stand in for Young, who gets thrashed in Conrad's liner notes. The suite-like second track — full title: "The Heterophony of the Avenging Democrats, Outside, Cheers the Incineration of the Pythagorean Elite, Whose Shrill Harmonic Agonies Merge and Shimmer Inside Their Torched Meeting House" — begins in a mode suggesting Conrad's interest in non-Western drone music. Three minutes in, some of the guitar noise recedes, giving us a clearer look at Conrad's scraping tone. Later on, the crispness of the bowed guitar interjections create a slashing contrast with Conrad's infinity drone.

'Transit of Venus' with Hangedup (recorded circa 2004, released 2012)

‘Transit of Venus’ with Hangedup (recorded circa 2004, released 2012)

In his final decades, Conrad showed a willingness to experiment with a wide selection of younger collaborators, including the Canadian post-punks Hangedup. Distilled from a series of mid-2000s studio rehearsals and live gigs, this 2012 release on Constellation Records is far and away the hardest-rocking album in Conrad's discography, as he responds to the band's simpatico viola and driving percussion with outbursts from his uniquely modified violin and single-string "monochord.'

'An Aural Symbiotic Mystery' with Charlemagne Palestine (2006)

‘An Aural Symbiotic Mystery’ with Charlemagne Palestine (2006)

After first collaborating together in the early 1970s, Conrad found his way back to working alongside fellow early New York minimalist Charlemagne Palestine. As with their memorable celebration of Conrad's 75th birthday in a 2015 Brooklyn performance, this recording finds the string player responding to Palestine's pipe organ drones and repeated piano figures. The first section is noticeable for its restraint — with timbres coming as close to "gentle" as they ever do in Conrad's music. After Palestine constructs an ascending-pitch melody, Conrad flips the electronic switch, which leads to a half-hour meditation of grand-piano chordal wash and distorted violin.

'Musculus Trapezius' with C. Spencer Yeh and Michael F. Dutch (2008)

‘Musculus Trapezius’ with C. Spencer Yeh and Michael F. Duch (2008)

During this collaboration piece, Conrad begins by tinkering with harpsichord: It sounds like he's playing the inside of the instrument. At other points, Yeh's piano and Duch's bass inspire some of Conrad's most lush and romantic-sounding harmonic accompaniment.

"Minor" with the Mivos Quartet (2009)

MINEHEAD, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 15: Tony Conrad performs on stage during the final day of ATP Festival curated by Animal Collective at Butlins Holiday Centre on May 15, 2011 in Minehead, United Kingdom. (Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns)

“Minor” with the Mivos Quartet (2009)

Downloadable from the Free Music Archive, this 2009 live performance finds the new-classical Mivos Quartet collaborating with Conrad on his 1995 composition featuring a microtonal system with 31 pitches to the octave. It both recalls the strange chordal progressions of Cale's viola (think "Venus in Furs") while pushing forward into fresh realms of sound.

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