Moving Waves: Listening to Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism
How you experience music depends partly on history, partly on physics, and partly on your body and mind. History provides musical values against which you measure every sound you hear. Physics provides waveforms acting in certain ways. The body provides the ear that changes these waves from air-pressure patterns to signals that the mind experiences and interprets.
One way to check in on the whole process is to look at non-human animals, since they seem to have fewer hang-ups about tradition. There is a bird with whom I’m on close terms—an Amazonian parrot—whose listening practices I always take seriously when putting on a CD. He prefers modal music: early vocal blues, Bessie Smith, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. When he likes a sound his pupils pin and he sings along happily, in key but with his own take on which intervals to use, and how these intervals should be tuned. I recently put on a set of CDs that he reacted to positively: Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism. This music is a series of slowly shifting string drones tuned in just intonation—hardly the kind of quick, expressive phrasing one would associate with birds. But if you sped up the tectonic shifting of these drones, it might sound like the kind of modal music that this parrot would normally respond to. If he likes the tonal relations of a given piece, he might not be thrown off by dramatic differences in timescale. I also have a theory that he senses all the different pitches that actually reside in what humans hear as a single tone. When that single note is stretched out across time in a drone, these partials may be perceivable to him as a kind of melody. It may be that we also hear this, but that most music is played far too fast for us to register the perception.
Early Minimalism (Table of the Elements, 1997) is a four-CD box set, elaborately framed by Conrad in the liner notes as a reconstruction of the music created in the early sixties by the Dream Syndicate, which also included John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela. The group’s considerable influence can be traced, on one hand, to indie rock via the later injection of Cale and some of this drone sound into the Velvet Underground, and, on the other, through what became minimalism in classical music. There is a longstanding disagreement between Young and Conrad regarding how the compositional credits for the music should be handled, with Young claiming sole authorship credit and Conrad and Cale claiming it was collectively composed. Because of this dispute, the extensive tapes of the group have never been released by Young, and, with the exception of a leaked 1965 tape released in 2000 as Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume I: Day of Niagara, none of this material has ever been made available. It may be some of the most influential music never heard.
Day of Niagara is a slowly morphing mass of just-intoned drones for voice, violin, and saxophone, as well as some percussion by MacLise, the Velvet Underground’s original drummer. (Some listeners might recognize the mesmerizing, monotonous, commanding amplified-string sound as being close to that of John Cale’s electric viola in the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.”) If your normal expectations of chord changes, rhythm, melody, and tension/release are not suspended, the music can be experienced as a test of endurance. Some people may hear in these performances a spirit close to the slow, simultaneously calm and sharp opening moments of a raga played by the shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan. Some may just hear the expression of pure extremity in stasis. If your mind is capable of adjusting to it, this music, seemingly harsh at first, becomes undeniably beautiful and even soothing.
The first disc of Early Minimalism, “Four Violins,” was recorded by Conrad alone in 1964 using a multitrack tape recorder. It is fairly close to the sound of Day of Niagara, though he achieves it using only his own overdubbed violin. What seems to be almost no variation at all in the music is, when you commit yourself to its terms, more like a radical change in the scale or resolution of the sound’s viewpoint. It is as though we have zoomed in with a musical microscope to a molecular level of previously undetectable, glimmering activity inside of sound. The very close intervals can produce a buzzing sensation, as though one is being surrounded by a swarm of intelligent, metallic insects. The other three discs in the set feature recordings done in the nineties with different electric-string instrumentation, and, though following arrangements closely related to the original material, the newer recordings benefit greatly from higher fidelity of sound.
The high-pitched, closely tuned intervals in this music at first connote anxiety, but once your mind has adjusted to the scale of the compositions (a process that people often describe as taking ten or fifteen minutes) their connotations change, and the feeling of unrelieved tension becomes a peaceful, charged glassiness. This can inspire thought or its complete absence—an absorption in the moment of perception. If you let your thoughts race, their speed, by comparison to the slowness of the music, seems dizzying and even absurd. If you empty yourself in some kind of Zen concentration on the sound, the experience is shockingly refreshing. Listening to it on an iPod walking around the city, the world seems to be going by in a blazingly fast series of phenomenological flashes.
Listening to Conrad play a duo realization of some of this music at the Stone on Avenue C last year, and then following it up with a visit to the drone installation at La Monte Young’s Dream House on Church Street, it seemed obvious that, though these two musicians are at odds about how they frame and interpret their own music, they are still collaborating in spite of themselves. One of the freedoms one has as a listener is to ignore what the authors of the music say about their music. You can always just listen to it: It sounds great.
DREW GARDENER is the author of Sugar Pill (2002) and Petroleum Hat (2005)