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Pigments of His Imagination

How Daniel Conrad Learned to "Play" Colors

By Lee Gardner | Posted 7/4/2001

Daniel Conrad parks his old Volvo station wagon in front of a Little Italy photography studio at 9 p.m., flawlessly punctual. Chatting on the sidewalk under the powdery orange light of a streetlamp, he looks like the vacationing, middle-aged high school science teacher he is, his graying hair, patrician face, neatly trimmed mustache, and teacherly spectacles offset by a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. He begins unloading the contents of the Volvo: a portable workbench, a couple of tote bags, and a pair of old red hard-shell suitcases hand-printed with the word chromaccord. The last item out of the car is a wooden box the size of a deluxe rec-room television, although much more shallow. Despite its ungainly size, he refuses help carrying it inside. "If someone's going to drop this one," he says, "I want it to be me."

Once in the studio, Conrad covers the bench with a black drape, places the box on top of it, and begins wiring together the box and the electronic contents of the bags and cases. He removes the wooden cover from the front of the box, revealing a blank white screen. He builds a pile out of a folded drop cloth, a thin mat, and a small pillow on the floor in front of the box and sits down on it, cross-legged. He pulls closer another smaller wooden box, bristling with fader levers and trailing a thick wire. As the Indian raga CD he brought with him begins to play over the sound system, he starts moving the levers and begins to play along.

The photographer starts setting up his shots, but the other onlookers are transfixed. Colors begin to shine and shift on the screen--scarlet and cyan, lilac and a springy green. The screen itself is divided into three areas: a circle in the middle of a rectangle bounded on each side by two thin borders. As Conrad moves the levers, a new and different color blooms and then ebbs in each area, so that a cyan circle vibrates inside an orange rectangle, which vibrates inside a brilliant red frame.

"Vibrate" is the only word to describe what the colors do when Conrad conjures them up on the screen. The light coming from the box is so low-intensity that it will take the photographer more than an hour to capture it. Yet the resulting photo (which accompanies this article) can't come close to evoking the vividness of the colors, or the almost psychedelic effect they have on the eye when you stare at the tiny yellow focal point at the center of the circle as the colors fade and shift with the music. Indeed, the overall feel of the light on the screen is very lyrical as it begins to dance with the raga's rhythms. Conrad most often sets up the box and his other equipment in music venues and art galleries to play along with musicians. The word "Chromaccord" is a neologism meaning "colors together," and the contraption that bears the name is Conrad's own invention.

It's hard to describe the Chromaccord--there really isn't anything else like it. Ian Nagoski, a local electronic musician who frequently performs with Conrad, puts it this way: "It's as if you've never heard of a flute before or what it does--'Well, it's this stick, it's got holes in it, you blow it, and sound comes out.' Well, the Chromaccord is this box with lights in it, and when you move the [faders], the lights change. It's what you do with it, and what Dan does with it can be really extraordinary."

The idea is not new. In 1999, Conrad wrote an article about what he then called the "Dichromaccord" for the arts-and-sciences journal Leonardo. The piece traced the idea of an instrument that would "play" colors all the way back to an 18th-century French Jesuit named Louis Bertrand Castel, who wrote, "Can anyone imagine anything in the arts that would surpass the visible rendering of sound, which would enable the eyes to partake of all the pleasures which music gives to the ears?" Since Castel's time, there have been several attempts to create "color organs" of various sorts and many artists who have used kinetic color to play around with visual perception via film, video, and other media. But Michael Schumacher, owner of Manhattan's Diaspon Gallery and an electronic musician who has collaborated with Conrad, says the Chromaccord is "completely unique. I've never seen anything like it. One big aspect is that he considers it an instrument and that he plays it; he's reacting to music when he plays."

Conrad can be reticent but he easily becomes engrossed when talking about his brainchild: its mechanism, the color theories that inspired it, the neurological properties of the retina that give the instrument its ineffable quality, the theories behind them, and the practical and intellectual issues involved in trying to create what amounts to a new medium. Most amazing of all, perhaps, is the fact that he has been pursing this line of inquiry for much of the past 33 years, handcrafting his equipment with whatever he can scrape together. The beautiful glow emanating from the Chromaccord, for example, comes from strand after strand of colored Christmas-tree lights crammed in behind the screen.

"He's working with sticks and mud," Nagoski marvels. "Christmas lights, for crying out loud! But that's when you know that [he's] for real."

Conrad, now 55, literally grew up in an artist's studio. His father, Arthur, was a portrait painter based in Baltimore County; one of his commissions, a painting of 19th-century statesman John C. Calhoun, hangs in the U.S. Senate reception room. Blessed with a knack for science and math, Conrad spent his first few years at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the mid-'60s as a physics major, but, as he says with a wry smile, "Physics got hard." Having taken art courses all along, he switched to a fine-art major, where his studies as a painter eventually led him to Interaction of Color, Josef Albers' 1963 treatise on color theory.

"Tending to reduce things, I tried to reduce it--what's the essential thread?" he recalls of Albers' effort. Pouring over the book's hand-silkscreened color plates, Conrad decided "that the whole family of visual effects [Albers] described in the book were all related to the [retina's] afterimage function."

Using the example of a bright red circle on a bright blue-green field, he tries to explain the primary neural mechanism inside the eye on which he has based most of his art. "Where two colors have similar value but opposite hues, they tend to clash," he says. "The reason that they do that is, as your eye shifts position, the afterimage of one color tends to superimpose on the other, [opposite] color." For example, he adds, "The afterimage of the red is green, and when that green superimposes on the real green, the green looks super bright."

Another key influence during this period came from his older brother Tony, a New York State-based minimalist composer who was also experimenting with visual perception. In 1966, Tony Conrad made a short film titled Flicker, which consisted entirely of clear and black frames and functioned as a celluloid stroboscope. "He showed me the effect one time [with an empty] 16-millimeter movie projector, which had a fan in front of the projection aperture," Daniel Conrad remembers. Holding his thumb against the fan to slow it down a little, Tony projected the resulting flickering light directly on his brother's face. It was a eureka moment: "The movie was designed specifically to be hallucinogenic, but there was no reason to [use] the movie, because it worked better with direct exposure."

After graduating from Amherst with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1968 (and making a narrow escape from the Vietnam draft), Conrad continued working out his color-mixing theories with slides and his own short experimental films. By 1971, he had fled the East Coast for San Francisco, where a young minimalist composer and artist named Jordan De La Sierra soon asked Conrad to create a "color sculpture" for a performance event.

A small cardboard box crammed in a corner of Conrad's crowded basement workshop in his North Baltimore home contains several of the lights from the original Chromaccord. He constructed an 11-foot-high, five-foot diameter seamless vinyl column that functioned as a 360-degree rear-projection screen. Lamps inside the column provided five ground colors while a spotlight projected a round area of color from the inside. Conrad cross-faded and shifted the ground and spot colors using a homemade electronic control panel.

Conrad soon began setting up the same apparatus behind a flat vinyl screen to accompany De La Sierra's electric piano in epic concerts of meditative music and shifting light. Despite the fact that all this activity took place during the last gasp of West Coast hippie wow, Conrad insists that from the very beginning he considered his work art, not trippy entertainment: "I'd tell people I worked with light, and they'd say, 'Oh, man, you do light shows?' And I'd say, 'Probably not what you're thinking of.' It just seemed tedious to me."

After a few more years on the West Coast he returned to Baltimore County in 1976, Chromaccord in tow. That year, he even mounted a production at the Towson Unitarian Church of a "color play" he had written linking biblical characters Cain and Abel with Hindu mythological figures Shiva and Pravati. It was performed by a host of dancers and musicians. The Chromaccord stood in for the Hindu third eye.

While in graduate school at the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) in the late '70s, Conrad learned that he "didn't really know what I was as an artist. The color thing was more akin to music than to art. It's totally nonconceptual . . . purely sensory. I'd look around me and see paintings with expression, and I'd say, 'Wait a minute, where's my expression?'"

By that time, Conrad and his wife had a child on the way. After earning his master's in fine arts from MICA in 1981, he assessed his prospects of making a living as an artist and made a decision. He augmented his dusty science credits at Towson State University and, in 1982, took a teaching position at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he works to this day. The Chromaccord got stashed in his attic, where it remained untouched for many years.

One day, in 1996, Conrad says he realized that the oldest of his three daughters, then 15, had never seen the Chromaccord. "I went up in the attic, set it up, and invited her up to take a look at it," he recalls. He had recently started drawing again at his desk while working, then painting at home. Before long, his interest in the Chromaccord rekindled. Through his friendship with George Figgs, the proprietor of the now shuttered Orpheum Cinema, Conrad started setting up the old Chromaccord mechanism behind the tiny Fells Point revival house's rear-projection screen every Saturday night for a half-hour show before the 7:30 film screening.

"I got my chops together," Conrad says now. "Half the time, there would be no apparent awareness [from the patrons] that something was going on. People would talk. I felt no commitment to the audience so I could try anything. Over that time, I feel like I learned to play the instrument fairly well."

Conrad has almost always played with music or, preferably, live musicians. Finding suitable musical accompaniment for his Orpheum performances proved a problem. He had always favored meditative, minimalist music, "but in the time I was out of the scene, all that stuff became 'cosmic music'--I couldn't work with that crap." He soon connected with the group of local improvisers and musical experimentalists affiliated with the Red Room at Normals Books and Records. In the months before the Orpheum's eventual closing, performers such as saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist John Berndt, instrument inventor Neil Feather, and acoustic bassist John Hughes made the trip down to the theater to play along with Conrad's shifting, saturated tints.

In 1999, Conrad began work on the current version of the Chromaccord and found another musical avenue that could help him explore another long-time obsession. "I was interested in what the emotional interaction is [with Chromaccord] and I'm still interested in that," he says. "So I began to think very seriously about Indian music."

Conrad speaks rhapsodically of his series of collaborations at Louie's Café and the 14-Karat Cabaret with Catonsville-based sitarist and raga adept Jay Kishor. "He would play, and I would try to match the rasa [heart] of the music by picking out color combinations that would go with what I interpreted he was doing," Conrad says. "If you study the chakras"--the "energy points" in the human body--"scarlet and red is second chakra. Orange and yellow is third chakra--energetic fire. I began to realize that chakra association was really valid and began to try to tune [what I was doing] to what I perceived was the chakra that the music was moving to. It was the most amazing stuff, and, on some level, the most challenging stuff I've done."

Talk to Conrad about his light work for very long, and it becomes clear that no one is more ruthlessly critical of it than he is. He seems to never stop questioning whether it has any value, what it means, and how, assuming it's worth doing, it might be made to work better. His performances with Kishor threw many of the hurdles he faces with the Chromaccord into stark relief. As Conrad says, "This guy's sitting on top of a thousand-year tradition, and I'm sitting on top of nothing."

Since Conrad is pioneering a unique form with nothing but his own intellect and, as Nagoski says, "sticks and mud," the challenges and questions he poses for himself are endless. "The Chromaccord inherently demands the use of complementary colors," he notes at one point, "[but] you can't doodle around in scarlet and blue forever. You have to begin to invoke other phrasings and colors without losing the feeling. There's a rhythm to that sort of playing that's very difficult to do. And if you want to end it on a [certain] note, you've got to re-evolve it back." (Conrad always improvises when he plays the Chromaccord, in large part because the human brain doesn't remember sequences of colors as easily as it does sequences of tones. "I've composed stuff, but it's worthless," he says. "I can't even remember it.")

Nagoski, then based in Philadelphia, first saw the Chromaccord at 1999's Red Room-sponsored High Zero Festival of Experimental Music, where Conrad performed with musicians Toshi Makihara and Michael Johnsen. He soon invited Conrad to perform at a space he helped book in Philly. Afterward, Nagoski says, "I had people coming up to me saying, 'Whoever that guy is, he just destroyed my mind.'"

Meeting the young electronic musician meant good things for Conrad and the Chromaccord. Nagoski introduced Conrad to future collaborator and patron Schumacher. When Nagoski moved to Baltimore in the fall of last year, he and Conrad began to practice and perform together, merging Nagoski's layered drones with Conrad's lyrical colors. Their partnership continues to the present.

The two most implacable challenges Conrad faces in his work with the Chromaccord are time and money--finding ways to work on his art while balancing the demands of his family and his teaching career. But he seems committed to pressing forward. He has built several small Chromaccord-esque light boxes that automatically repeat a limited pattern of contrasting colors (one such box is expected to be part of the upcoming Artscape art exhibits); Schumacher says he recently asked Conrad to build a computer-controlled version that he can put in the window of his Manhattan gallery, hoping it will attract and hypnotize Sixth Avenue passers-by. Though Conrad just finished upgrading the current Chromaccord with new electronic components he built himself, he acknowledges that the concept's true future might lie in computer chips and software--when he finds the time and money to explore that option.

Nonetheless, Conrad still ponders whether or not the Chromaccord works as a stand-alone medium. "It's so subtle and so tenuous and so demanding of an audience," he says. "Tweaking the eye's afterimage doesn't engage the emotional centers [the way] sound does, and certainly not with the intensity. Yet it touches something. The light does something else."

When Conrad asks me for my reaction to a past Chromaccord performance with Nagoski, I come up with all sorts of descriptive terms--foreboding, elegiac, contemplative, wondrous--that, true to form, don't describe emotional states. But, I add, I remember smiling a lot.

He nods. "I think it takes a certain kind of person to just say 'cool' and go with it," he says. "Smiling is good."

Daniel Conrad performs with Ian Nagoski at the Red Room at Normals Books and Records on July 7.

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