Tony Conrad

born 1940 in Concord, New Hampshire, as Anthony Schmalz Conrad; died 2016 in Cheektowaga, New York

Biography

Birth name: Anthony Schmalz Conrad

Until 1962 studies in mathematics at Harvard University;

1962: Degree in mathematics from Harvard University

Mid-1960s: Joins the Theater of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate, 1963–1965); experiments with minimal music and develops drone music, together with La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and others

1970s: Teaches at Antioch College, Ohio; Center for Media Studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY

From 1976: Professor at the University at Buffalo, where he creates an interactive television project that assists children with their homework; introduces community discussions—long before the Internet became a collective form of communication

Visual Arts

Visual Arts

Conrad began as an experimental filmmaker in the 1960s. The Flicker (1964) was a milestone in structuralist cinema as well as a masterpiece of op art—in it he worked exclusively with the basic cinematic elements of light and dark, creating stroboscopic effects. These extreme flicker effects irritate the eye and can sometimes trigger epileptic seizures, which the film warns about in the opening credits.

In his series the Yellow Movies (from the 1970s), he also deals analytically with the basic conditions of film. Here, however, it is not about straining the eyes with too many stimuli occurring too fast, but rather the opposite: he thematizes the color changes produced by the effects of light on monochromatic, white surfaces (the size of amateur screens). This process is barely perceptible, only its long-term results.

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Conrad’s first film, The Flicker (premiered in 1966) has no action. The artist manipulates the film material as a pure abstraction. Intervals of different lengths of black are shown broken up by white frames at a frequency of 4:24 images per second over a period of 30 minutes. The eye perceives the strobe-like light effect. Tony Conrad is familiar with extreme stroboscopic effects as well as their psychedelic and hypnotic action from his research into the physiology of the nervous system. His film does not provide the senses with images but rather stimulates physiological processes by directly triggering neural reactions. It is not the eye that perceives the ready-made images—rather, they are generated by the brain (itself). The rhythmic flashing light effects trigger individual reactions in each viewer, producing color shapes, slowed forms, and afterimages.

Conrad’s series of Yellow Movies consists of large-format sheets of paper covered with white paint inside a black frame—like film frames the size of projection screens for amateur filmmakers. The »film« without camera, projector, or screen begins as soon as the papers are painted and the natural aging process begins, with the color turning yellow as a result of exposure to light in interaction with the paper substrate. »The Yellow Movies were a solution to the problem of how to produce films that could run for a lifetime.« (Conrad)

In contrast to the speed of the flashing film frame and the visual overload in the viewer in The Flicker, the Yellow Movies obey the exact opposite principle: the extreme slowing down of the optical effect causes an under-load in the viewer. It is impossible to see any change during an exhibition or even shorter viewings. In his music, Tony Conrad uses stretched-out time as an exuberant acoustic challenge to culmination.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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Music

Music

Tony Conrad, who plays the violin, is one of the pioneers of both minimal and drone music.

In 1962, he went to New York where he met people with similar preoccupations with whom he practiced minimally varied tones and individual intervals for hours. In the 1960s, he became a member of the Theater of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate, 1963–1965) and met John Cale, Angus MacLise, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Billy Name, Jon Hassell, and Alex Dea, among others. They experimented with accompanying tones and developed a special form of minimal music, called drone music. In this music, mostly low frequency tones are sustained for a very long time while the accompanying tones are increasingly made to sound.

Conrad insisted on »just intonation« (pure tuning) in his music. This is in opposition to the European tradition of »well-tempered tuning« in which multiple tonalities can be played on an instrument. However, it means that the distances between the individual notes on the scale cannot be exactly the same, but rather must be lightly offset up or down. In »just intonation,« by contrast, the distances between the notes related to a basic note are precise but no longer transferable to other basic notes. Thus, one particular basic note must be defined for one instrument or performance and can only be changed by retuning. This insistence on an equivalence of all tones, as well as the rejection of traditional compositional principles that operate with leading and subordinate elements, is also an expression of Conrad’s deeply political attitude to life, which fundamentally rejects hierarchies: »I wanted to get rid of composition. To free myself from it.«

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Conrad played for a short time with Lou Reed and John Cale in the studio band The Primitives, with Walter De Maria on drums and all bass guitars tuned to the same note. Conrad introduced them to the book The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh. The title became the name of their next band, which was soon picked up on and promoted by Andy Warhol: it would also be used to further his artistic goals. After the founding of the band in 1964, Conrad switched over to film and produced The Flicker.

While in The Flicker, the eye can hardly process the flickering effects, and the over-stimulation produces illusions, Conrad cultivates the exact opposite in his drone music: the radical extension of time during which the sound volume of an extremely long sustained note swells to a spatial power and develops a piercing intensity of acoustic overlays.

In 1973, Conrad worked with the German kraut-rock band Faust. For its album, Outside the Dream Syndicate, it created a mix of minimalistic cutting drone music with the monotonous beat of Faust.

Conrad’s studio album Slapping Pythagoras was released in 1995. He had six guitarists tune the strings on their horizontally placed instruments to the same basic note and then to strike them in drone style accompanied by a 60 Hz basic tone at deafening volumeusing six amplifiers.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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In the Exhibition

In the Exhibition

Tony Conrad

MOCA Los Angeles, March 12, 1998, with Tony Conrad, 14:28 min.

Film: Tyler Hubby

Conrad plays the strings of his violin, sometimes bowing two at a time and extending the notes as long as possible. By slightly changing the pressure and position of his left hand on the fingerboard of the violin, he manipulates the result to extreme amplification. Due to the long duration, the frequencies become superimposed and produce rhythmic oscillations.

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Conrad cites violinist Ronald Knudsen, the Mystery Sonatas (= Rosenkranz Sonaten) of the violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644–1704), and classical Indian music as influences for the pure tuning of the violin and the specific polyphonies resulting from it as well as for his slow playing.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

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Author:

Doris Leutgeb