Tony Conrad, an artist, experimental filmmaker, composer and influential figure in the world of avant-garde, minimalist and drone music, died Saturday. He was 76. The Buffalo News confirmed Conrad’s death – he taught at the University of Buffalo’s media study department since 1976 – adding that Conrad had been suffering from prostate cancer.
The immediate cause of death is believed to be pneumonia, the same ailment that forced Conrad to cancel his performance at the recent Big Ears Festival in Knoxville; Laurie Anderson performed in his place.
Born in Baltimore and a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in mathematics, Conrad moved to New York in the early Sixties and soon pushed the boundaries of film thanks to his work in the structural film movement, highlighted by his experimental film The Flicker. Around this time, the Karlheinz Stockhausen-inspired Conrad began a brief tenure as violinist with the Le Monte Young-founded Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate.
Tony Conrad- one of my first partners in noise.- an indelible mark made, that will forever be paid forward. yours forever @therealjohncale
Conrad and John Cale, another Theatre of Eternal Music member in an early lineup of the collective, joined with singer Lou Reed to briefly form a band called the Primitives. Although that group disbanded after their “The Ostrich”/”Sneaky Pete” single, Conrad forever left his mark on rock history: It was Conrad’s copy of the paraphilia guide The Velvet Underground that inspired Cale and Reed to name their band after the Michael Leigh book.
“Tony saw the world differently from others – the analytical sparkle of mathematics gave his vision substance,” Cale wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “I’d barely arrived stateside when we met – he was one of the very few with whom I felt an instant bond. Ours was a never ending feast of science, music and performing. I’d found my ‘nerd-brother’! In those early sessions with La Monte – If Tony hadn’t introduced the electronic pickup on his bowed acoustic guitar (and I hopped on the bandwagon with my viola) it would’ve taken much longer for the music to arrive at the just intonation system – it crystallized the direction of the drone in Dream Syndicate music thereafter and his contribution to that music will long be recognized as seminal – he IS an ARTist in the truest sense. Goodnight Tony.”
In 1973, Conrad and German experimental music troupe Faust collaborated on Outside the Dream Syndicate, two side-length sonic explorations that charted a course for the drone music, minimalism and Krautrock that would soon follow it. Conrad’s next album Slapping Pythagorean, wouldn’t arrive until 1995. Over the course of his career, Conrad would also collaborate with musicians like Jim O’ Rourke, David Grubbs, Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, Rhys Chatham, Kevin Drumm, Charlemagne Palestine, Angus MacLise and many more.
TONY CONRAD, FOREVER ALIVE ON THE INFINITE PLAIN
— David Grubbs (@blackfaurest) April 9, 2016
In addition to his role as professor, Conrad would frequently stage art exhibits, film screenings and sound installations at venues that varied from DIY spaces to music festivals to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Conrad had previously announced plans to step down from his role at the University of Buffalo on May 2nd, where the university planned an event celebrating Conrad’s career.