Tony Conrad and Minimalism's Origins

Early Minimalism Volume 1: Table of the Elements Arsenic 4-CD


Imagine someone came along with proof that a friend of Schoenberg’s--neither Berg nor Webern--had come up with the theory of serial music and written several purely dodecaphonic works while Arnold himself was still in the expressionist death-throes of “Pierrot Lunaire,” and that moreover that the master had actively sought to suppress the evidence, hence depriving the student of any subsequent glory.

Well, the story Tony Conrad tells in the copious and truly fascinating booklet accompanying “Early Minimalism” is of similar myth-shattering significance: substitute La Monte Young for Schoenberg and minimalism for serialism, the friend being Conrad himself. In the brief history of minimalism, the oft-stated belief that Young was the “granddaddy,” the prime mover behind them all (influencing in his turn Terry Riley, and thence, indirectly, Steve Reich and Phil Glass) has gone unchallenged for so long that it has become accepted more or less as historical fact. Both reputable studies (Michael Nyman’s excellent “Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond”, Edward Strickland’s “Minimalism: Origins”) and lightweight pot-boilers (Wim Mertens’ “American Minimal Music”, Bob Schwarz’s “Minimalists”) perpetuate the myth; Conrad is mentioned only once in Nyman’s otherwise excellent book, as Young’s “violinist.” The long-awaited release of “Early Minimalism” on Jeff Hunt’s Table of the Elements label--and it’s thanks in no small part to O’Rourke that Conrad has been rediscovered--now gives us the other side of the story.

Conrad took violin lessons in high school but soon realized he had little interest in the standard Romantic repertoire, probably because he hated vibrato as much as he did practicing. His teacher, Ronald Knudsen, wisely drew his attention to classical and baroque music instead, and particularly to the discipline of intonation, through the slow practice of double-stops (“Whatever you can play slow, you can play fast”). By the time he met Young in 1959, Conrad had already heard Stockhausen lecture and was well-versed in the discourse of contemporary composition, through contacts with fellow grad students David Behrman, Fred Rzewski and Christian Wolff. Further research into the baroque violin repertoire led him to the “Mystery Sonatas” of Heinrich Biber, whose bold scordatura tunings had a marked effect on the young man: “I perceived Biber’s music as having been constructed according to timbre, not melody.... Biber had completely reformulated the basis for music composition, around timbre.” Add to this his meeting with Young, whose 1958 “String Trio” already calls for long durations, and his discovery later that year (1959) of Indian music (“it was electrifying; my recollection is vivid....”) and it’s clear to see that Conrad was already much more than a mere “violinist.”

By 1987, I realized that La Monte Young wanted me to die
without hearing my music.

On moving to New York he joined Young’s group, which at that time was playing “hysterical and overwrought... extremely ‘way out’” concerts of improvised music (Young’s saxophone playing--”somewhere between Bismillah Khan and Ornette Coleman”--accompanied by Angus Maclise on bongos, Billy Linich on folk guitar and Marian Zazeela singing drone). For the first month Conrad played only one note, adding a fifth above it “for the next month or so.” Conrad adds: “This made Young ecstatic, as he had already composed a piece, “Composition 1960 #7” which was nothing more than a perfect fifth, marked ‘to be held for a long time’; and the onus that the ensemble’s work might appear to resemble ‘jazz improvisation’ was lifted from him by the device of this nominal contiguity with his neo-dada composition period” (italics mine). The addition of John Cale’s viola to the group (Maclise stayed but Linich went to join up with Warhol at The Factory) further intensified the drone element: “Zazeela’s intonation (and the thrill of her vocal timbre) improved sharply over the next six months to a year.” Eventually, Conrad continues, Young abandoned his soprano sax--and with it, its “jazz” overtones--to concentrate on singing. “We lived inside the sound, for years... When John Cale’s viola and my violin began to fuse... I felt that the Dream Music had achieved its apogee.” On December 19th 1964, Conrad “stepped outside of the Dream Syndicate for the first and only time” to record “Four Violins” at home on his two-track stereo tape recorder. After a couple of hours his intonation was “slipping badly”, but there was enough music on tape to give a clear idea of Conrad’s superbly disciplined drone playing. “Four Violins” stands with Young’s long out-of-print Shandar album “Dream House 78’17”” as one of the epochal recordings of drone-based minimalism (even though the Young album dates from as late as 1973).

Perhaps Conrad is subtly taking advantage of his current “hip” status as père spirituel of one of the darlings of today’s avant-garde.

But what of the other tapes of the Dream Syndicate? Hundreds of hours of material were recorded, including many performances on which Conrad feels he and Cale sounded best, but these have remained in the possession of Young and Zazeela. Over a quarter of a century later, Young agreed to make copies of the tapes, but only on condition that Conrad (and presumably Cale) sign over the “authorship” of the music to Young. “At their core, the hundred or so recordings of Dream Music emblematically deny “composition” its authoritarian function as a modern activity,” writes Conrad. He rejected Young’s conditions. “By 1987, I realized that La Monte Young wanted me to die without hearing my music. I was fascinated by the peculiar cultural discontinuity which the Dream Music had come to represent: on the one hand, it had entered the American musical tradition, somewhere near its core, and influenced many people in many ways. On the other hand, it existed privately, for me, as a unique performance capability, one which years of rehearsal had worn to my fit like an old shoe. But most particularly, as it had emerged, the music at the heart of this was unheard and unhearable.”

Conrad’s “Early Minimalism”, a series of pieces written since 1994 but named after the months of 1965 (April, May and June are included here), represents his attempt to rechart the distant remembered territory of the lost Dream Music. At a casual listening these three works don’t sound all that different from “Four Violins”: all of them use Conrad’s solo violin, accompanied by other stringed instruments--either on tape or live--and all explore the inner surfaces of the drone with unswerving attention and maximal intensity. This is NOT easy listening: no question of drifting off and letting the music become ambient wallpaper (which you can do even with hardcore minimalists such as Palestine or Riley); the sound is gritty, visceral, and undeniably present. Conrad refers later in his essay to the next generation of “young minimalists”--Reich and Glass, making the telling point that, “far from combating the autocratic tradition of the Western score, (they) carefully inscribed themselves within careerist authorial postures. These Composers reverted to traditional manipulations of rhythm and melodic form; rather than reaching over the top of these structures and addressing the turbulence of musical listening directly, as we had done, they retreated in the face of these challenges into rhetorical formalism, into ‘style.’“ Conrad’s comments on the speed with which minimalist art and music were subsumed into American corporate culture (“minimal music appeared to have become a right-wing lapdog”) led me, out of curiosity, to relisten to Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi”, and I found myself retching within minutes. For where Glass’s sleek, polished arpeggios have all the appeal of the entrance lobby of a corporate headquarters complete with potted plants and imitation leather armchairs, Conrad’s work stands alone, weather-beaten in a field, a menhir, a dolmen. “Four Violins” is not only music, but also cultural artifact, archaeological discovery, a Rosetta Stone to help us decipher great lost texts of the past, even though those texts are not really lost, but rather locked up in La Monte Young’s archives.

It’s all too easy to see Young as the villain of the piece, however. Even though we are invited to condemn his decision to withhold the tapes of the Conrad/Cale years, this very act of suppression has formed the basis, the raison d’être, of “Early Minimalism.” Perhaps Conrad is subtly taking advantage of his current “hip” status as père spirituel of one of the darlings of today’s avant-garde (Jim O’Rourke) to “out” La Monte into finally releasing the early recordings. Young’s mythical status in the history of minimalism is already enshrined in the books and is unlikely to suffer merely as a result of Conrad’s revelations. However, as his funding from the Dia Arts Foundation --”when he was pulling in millions in oil money, isolated himself and his Pythagorean coterie notoriously (and palatially) at 6 Harrison Street, the monstrous former Mercantile Building”--seems to have dried up, and his friends recently resorted to a tacky tribute concert in London to raise money to pay Zazeela’s hospital bills (Conrad and Cale were notably absent), perhaps Young will finally relent and release the tapes. I wouldn’t hold your breath, though. Just go out and buy “Early Minimalism” now before it becomes as scarce as Young’s Shandar album.

For more on minimalism, see our coverage of Morton Feldman's concerts in Paris, as well as a collection of hilarious quotations from Feldman himself.