THE THEATER OF ETERNAL MUSIC PERFORMING IN 1965. FROM LEFT, TONY CONRAD, LAMONTE YOUNG,
MARIAN ZAZEELA, JOHN CALE. >FRED W. MCDARRAH/GETTY IMAGES
Long ignored avant-gardist gains recognition through doc biography
Tony Conrad was an avant-garde artist for five decades. He is most known for his minimalist music or drone music, mainly played on a violin. He taught university art ("media studies") for many years, especially at SUNY Buffalo. He died last April but is very much alive in this thoroughgoing (if ever so slightly repetitious) documentary, where he is frequently seen talking about his life and art, which began in the sixties and continued until just recently. The doc itself was filmed over two decades and provides an invaluable chronicle. Conrad is a pleasant and cheerful man. I can understand his dedication to avant-garde provocative art, his involvement in community TV, teaching, and music, even his paintings of the underwear of incontinent old people (he loved to provoke) - but not his contempt for museums and for symphony halls - unless that was tongue-in-cheek: humor is a part of his work. But his iconoclastic point of view can be understood from these statements he makes in the film: "Whereas people like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and La Monte Young, they studied composition and wanted to be big composers. I wanted to end composing, get rid of it. I wanted it to die out." He looked on Lincoln Center and MoMA and the Met as symbols of "the imperialist influences of European high culture" from which he sought to break free.
An hour of screechy drone violin played on a lousy instrument was as hard to play as it was to listen to. Some argued that it put one into a peaceful trance state; others simply left the room as fast as they could. Conrad and his fellow musicians even played in rock venues for a time and were recorded by a rock producer, and though his low profile kept him from being ranked with other key figures of minimal music like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass for many years, he is gaining increased recognition now, and two prominent museum directors from New York and Los Angeles speak admiringly of him in this film. See yesterday's informative NY Times
article by William Robin, "Tony Conrad Was Such a Good Minimalist, He Was Almost Forgotten," drawn on for this review, which provides additional information and other sources for information about Conrad and his minimal music. Note: he was also an avant-gard filmmaker of the most extreme kind. Some of his "films" are jars in which film has been pickled or otherwise processed. But an early one called "Flicker" that indeed was projected on a screen was revolutionary in presenting such jangly repetitious kinetic images they caused some viewers to get sick or fear mental damage. THE PRIMITIVES, A PRECURSOR TO THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, IN 1965. FROM
LEFT, TONY CONTRAY, LOU REED, ANGUS MACLISE, JOHN CALE. COURTESY OF
TYLER HUBBY (NYT)
Conrad, who studied mathematics at Harvard, played with John Cale, and they were encouraged to join a band including Lou Reed called the Primitives, which later became the Velvet Underground.
It emerges from the film that Lamonte Young sought to claim to be the Sole author and founding father of the music of the group he and Conrad jointly played in, the Theater of Eternal Music, or, as Conrad preferred to call it, the Dream Syndicate, refusing to release over a hundred recordings. Conrad argued that the very idea of authorship was inimical to the concept of minimal music. A recording finally found and brought out in 2000 by Table of the Elements made public the secret that Tony Conrad's droning screechy violin was essential to the minimal music sound Young claimed authorship to. If Conrad was a provocateur, LaMonte Young was a charlatan to claim exclusive copyright on a collective creation. Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present,
103 mins., debuted Jun. 2016 at Chicago Underground Film Festival; also premiered Tokyo Nov. 2016 and showed at Rotterdam Jan. 2017; US release according to IMDb 31 Mar. 2017 and will stream on MUBI from 8 Apr. The San Francisco Cinemateque is presenting this film Fri., 24 Mar. and Sun. 26 Mar. 2017 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. Tyler Hubby is a San Francisco Art Institute graduate in film and photography who has made a speciality of films on eccentric and unusual art figures. Screened for this review in connection with the Yerba Buena Center showing courtesy of Rico Brenner-Quiñonez, Matt Johnstone Publicity. Also to be shown in LA at Theatre at the Ace Hotel, Presented by the Broad 16 Mar.; and at Anthology Film Archives, NYC 31 Mar.-6 Apr.POSTER FOR THE FILM