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Present History

Tony Conrad's Multimedia Art Continues to Mine The Intersections Between Yesterday and Today

Bettina Herzner

By Marc Masters | Posted 9/3/2008

"History is like music . . . completely in the present,"musician

and filmmaker Tony Conrad wrote in 1997. In the 11 years since, Conrad's main concerns--art, sound, image, and history--have been radically altered by technology, making his dictum even more accurate. "The present has rolled along, and it's kept history right with it," Conrad says, speaking via phone from his Brooklyn, N.Y., residence. "Right now we're at the verge of some ambiguous point where people want to throw tradition out the window, but at the same time, people want to accept everything, and take advantage of being able to listen to and watch anything they want from the past."

Conrad's work deals with such intersections between past and present, image and sound, and reality and imagination. Often it deals with them all at once, as it might when he visits this year's High Zero Festival as one of its special 10th anniversary artists. He performs in a duo with his brother, Baltimore-based artist Dan Conrad. "It will be a kind of multimedia, light-sound-performance environment," Conrad says. "I use a continuous tone on my violin to establish a new relationship to listening, and he uses combinations of colored lights to address things that happen in the viewer's eye, such as afterimage and persistence of vision.

"We're both concerned with the ways in which noise and signal interfere and interact in forming a conscious image. Dan's light will have intermittent aspects, and my sound will be concerned not only with pitch and minimalism but with the kind of noise that has been so exciting in younger musicians' work in the last decade. When we combine these things we get a result that involves shadows of the performer and manipulations of light and mysterious aspects of sound--so that the total effect should be a little disorienting, but hopefully quite pleasant."

Conrad's own artistic history is so extensive that the past can hardly contain it. In the 1960s, he created a form of musical minimalism using long, sustained violin tones, made alone and in the Theater of Eternal Music alongside La Monte Young and future Velvet Underground founder John Cale. (Conrad even played in a pre-VU group with Cale and Lou Reed called the Primitives.) Echoes of this innovation can be heard in Cale's work with the VU, as well as in contemporary drone music, from the ambient drift of Stars of the Lid to the doom metal of Sunn 0))) to even the noisy hip-hop of Dälek.

"When I first began working with sustained tones, I drew from the instruction I got from an inspired teacher," Conrad says. The teacher "suggested that I play very slowly and very carefully in tune, and listen to the sounds of my instrument very closely. The fact that this revolutionized music is interesting, because it's sort of a going back to basics, much like rock 'n' roll did with the beat."

While he was pioneering minimalism, Conrad also became an innovator in avant-garde cinema. His most well-known film is 1965's The Flicker, in which he alternated black and white frames into patterns that "may induce epileptic seizures or produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in certain persons," as an opening title card warned. Since these early accomplishments, Conrad has continued to perform, record, and make films, while also teaching video at the University at Buffalo.

That's just a taste of his vast biography, which is explored in detail by Columbia's Branden Joseph in his recent book Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage. Conrad himself continually reassesses his past by compiling archival releases for the Table of the Elements label. "I still have a lot of music that hasn't found its way to daylight yet," he enthuses. "I want to release some of my experimental free jazz from the early '60s and some piano music from the '70s." But Joseph's book has impacted Conrad's view of personal history even more than this archival work.

"Reading this version of my artistic life made me realize that sometimes when you look back at the past you find that events and actions of an earlier time have assumed a completely different meaning and need to be seen in a different way," he says. "If they maintain their integrity and directness, they are completely relevant to things happening today. When I see that, I get very excited."

Conrad is similarly excited by a recent trend that dovetails nicely with his ongoing passion for sound and image. "Experimental musicians have begun doing concerts with experimental films, almost like the way musicians used to play along with silent movies. And holy smoke--it turns out it works!" he gushes. "I think that it's a fantastic way for people to access abstract film and get into experimental music. But for me, there's something much deeper that has to be brought into play, and that has to do with the links that music and film have to social and political understanding. That sounds pretty abstract, but once you see things on that level, it becomes fascinating to try to make them fit together in the act of performance."

For an example of such an attempt, Conrad cites one of his recent performing methods. He sometimes plays behind a screen, with a backlight casting his shadow forward onto it. He chose this setup to emphasize the distance between performer and audience, but also "because this was a way of doubling the performance, so the viewer could see both the real and the projected," he says. "The viewer would then think of this doubling in terms of time and space, and this could relate to memory, to the fact that my musical work had echoes in the past. Part of what you experience is in the here and now, and part of it is in the imagination. It also is about the power of illusion, because people see the shadow--the illusion--as much bigger and more impressive than the real thing."

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