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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.

'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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