This dynamic, captivating 1972 performance featuring Rhys Chatham and Laurie Spiegel is the most important shot in the arm to the composer and violinist’s legacy in over a decade.
For half a century, Tony Conrad was anonymous by association. The composer, violinist, filmmaker, mathematician, teacher, and playful provocateur at large made essential contributions to half-dozen vital American art movements. Conrad, who died last year, helped organize the principals of the Velvet Underground, a band he named but then declined to join. He made experimental films that challenged the technical and textural boundaries of the form and inspired Andy Warhol, but his diverse enthusiasms and staunch anti-authoritarian ideals virtually sealed his status as a mere cinematic footnote. And as a musician and theorist, he made records and played in projects that helped to jumpstart American musical minimalism, harsh noise, and homespun drone, though his reputation still pales in comparison to those of contemporaries such as La Monte Young and Steve Reich or descendants like Thurston Moore. As many of Conrad’s interests moved from the edge toward the center, he remained for decades on the fringes, an avuncular professor with a wit as sharp as his violin tone and an intriguing past.
But during the last quarter-century, several batches of archival releases, reissues, and performances slowly pulled Conrad from the wings, putting him in front of new audiences and extending the influence of both his sound and spirit. In the early ’90s, Table of the Elements—a sorely missed bastion of avant garde Americana—made a case study of sorts with Conrad, releasing old and new recordings to help launch a revisionist history of experimental music. Table of the Elements smartly positioned Conrad at an intersection of classical music’s high-mindedness and indie rock’s DIY spirit.
This new currency established him as a countercultural antidote, an iconoclast who connected with a new generation in order to pull minimalism out of the concert hall or classroom and into the rock club. He opened for Sunn O))), palled around with Jim O’Rourke, and collaborated on the stage and in the studio with abandon and intensity. Since Conrad’s death after a prolonged battle with prostate cancer, his esteem has grown. He got a Rolling Stone listicle, a long-in-the-works documentary, and even the bold New York Times headline “Tony Conrad Was Such a Good Minimalist, He Was Almost Forgotten.” But the music isn’t finished just yet.
A newly unearthed recording of an audacious but somewhat overlooked Conrad masterwork for a small droning ensemble and black-and-white film, Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, is the most important shot in the arm to Conrad’s legacy to arrive in more than a decade. Recorded at the seminal New York art space the Kitchen in 1972, Ten Years Alive backs Conrad’s microtonal arcs of precise violin with a rhythm section of sorts. Laurie Spiegel plunks along on a bass, keeping a barely there beat, while Rhys Chatham plucks a one-stringed instrument Conrad built in a kind of countrified counterpoint. As they played for nearly 90 minutes, projections of vertical lines converged and diverged, creating a visual corollary to an entirely absorbing and rapturous listen. In 1972, Steve Reich had just finished Drumming, and Philip Glass was in the midst of composing Music in Twelve Parts. Ten Years Alive is another overdue reminder that Conrad’s music belongs in the canon. For someone who extolled prolificacy while occasionally sneering at publicity, its complete release is more meaningful than any newspaper’s breathless reappraisal.
With rare exceptions, Conrad’s most captivating music is at once magnetic and repellent. He privately lamented that his fabled recordings with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, were too soft, the dampened sound of hippies who didn’t quite get the ecstatic astringency of his tone. His brilliant Four Violins, an early document of his explorations with just intonation and layers of looped sound, unspools across a tormented, tantalizing half-hour. When it ends, you’re torn between feelings of relief and mercy and the masochism of instantly wanting to hear it again. His wobbly solo organ score for Joan of Arc is at once vertiginous and comforting. Likewise, his canonical strobe-like experimental film, the Flicker, is devilishly disorienting and yet somehow hard to turn off.
Ten Years Alive, though, is oddly accessible, with moments of Conrad’s razor-sharp playing sheathed in more gentle passages. The tiny harmonies of his tuning system are clear, so you can trace the lines of thought much more readily than on the more aggressive Four Violins. Together, Chatham and Spiegel provide simpatico support, their barely prepared accompaniment adding a touch of exotica to Conrad’s fixed aesthetic. They listen closely but play casually, their every move emboldening the violin without distracting from it. Ten Years Alive is academic, to an extent, but it feels deeply psychedelic, too, a cosmic vamp built around an eternal groove.
The presence of Chatham and Spiegel, who arguably achieved levels of attention Conrad is attaining only posthumously, is an obvious selling point, a built-in marketing hook for an esoteric archival release. Still, Conrad is clearly at the center of Ten Years Alive, his mesmerizing but sometimes hairsplitting violin bleat pulled taut from one end to the other, just as it animated and connected the ends of his fifty-year career.
To listen to it is to get lost in it, to enter a slipstream of sound where notes seem to self-replicate as if they were always there and will forever remain. It’s like watching an army of tossed stones create so many ripples on a pond that the commotion becomes the accepted state of being, or like meeting a new friend who instantly feels as if he or she has been a lifelong companion. Twenty minutes in, you stop caring about personnel or context or even revisionist histories and simply notice the minuscule variations in sound, the way a fraction of a musical interval can make your hair stand on end. Conrad, then, becomes anonymous yet again—this time, by design of his art, not association of his friends.