Tony Conrad - the minimalist pioneer time forgot
Friday, October 21, 2011
The first law of music mythology states: every music scene throws up at least one disenchant who makes a case that their original contribution to whatever made their scene something special has been overlooked. If true, then Tony Conrad has more reason to feel aggrieved than most.
Conrad, who performs at Café Oto in Hackney, East London, next week is the minimalist pioneer time forgot. Born in New Hampshire in 1940, this composer, improviser, violinist and experimental filmmaker was a key ideas-man of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a mid-sixties troupe of young New York musicians dedicated to stretching musical structure with drone-based continuums tuned in just intonation. Of Conrad’s fellow musicians, John Cale jumped ship to join Lou Reed in The Velvet Underground, while La Monte Young, alongside his friend Terry Riley, and Steve Reich and Philip Glass, were all lauded as the founding fathers of minimalist composition, leaving Conrad out in the cold.
This mainstream neglect is partly personal, partly musical. Conrad’s eventual ideological bust-up with La Monte Young ignited a sour, sulky feud that persists to this day – but no one really knows how to categorise this composer/film-maker and his rambunctious, ugly-beautiful perspective on repetitive music.
But it’s worth taking a view on Conrad because the concept of allying repetitive structure to tuning was a flash of genius. Who actually brought just intonation to the Theatre of Eternal Music table first has been lost to history. Perhaps there was synchronous thinking going on between Young and Conrad, but using a tuning system richer in natural overtones, and less clean-cut in its ability to switch between keys than equal temperament, cut a round peg for a round hole. New structures opened up; tuning and structure went places Reich and Glass could only dream about. In 1997 Conrad released a box set of period recordings, Early Minimalism Volume One, in an attempt to put the record straight; his 1995 disc 'Slapping Pythagoras' turned out to be a thinly-veiled polemic against La Monte Young. Few people who wage tuning wars emerge unscathed.
At Café Oto, Conrad will generate 'incredible psychoactive tonal colours'; drones and just intonation; a direct link back to the hidden history of minimalism.
Tony Conrad plays Café Oto on October 26 - Details