When Lou Reed died in 2013, we looked back on his early days on the Lower East Side. Reed began collaborating with John Cale at 56 Ludlow Street, in the $25-a-month apartment of Tony Conrad; the name of the band Reed and Cale formed, the Velvet Underground, came from an S&M novel Conrad found on the street. Unlike Nico, Warhol, and others associated with the Velvets, Conrad isn’t a household name, and wasn’t mentioned when The Velvet Underground & Nico turned 50 this month. But Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, opening at Anthology Film Archives this Friday, seeks to remedy that.
The debut documentary from Tyler Hubby (editor of The Devil and Daniel Johnston) begins with Conrad standing outside of his old Ludlow Street apartment, using a contraption of five microphones to capture the ambient sounds of the neighborhood. “It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful,” he crows.
If you don’t feel the way Conrad does about wailing sirens, then his music might not be for you. In the mid-1960s, when he was a Harvard mathematics student visiting New York, Conrad began jamming with La Monte Young, the “daddy” of minimalism, as well as John Cale. Conrad and Cale, along with Lou Reed and artist Walter De Maria, were briefly in a rock band called The Primitives, but Conrad wasn’t really interested in traditional rock n’ roll. Instead, he gravitated toward Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. During marathon sessions, Conrad played amplified violin and other bowed instruments, holding sustained tones, triads and intervals so as to bring out their microtones. Moby, one of the fans interviewed for the documentary, calls these drones “calming,” but they might remind others of fingernails on a blackboard.
Conrad says the Dream Syndicate was trying to make music “where you just engage with the sound directly. Hold the sound… What kind of things are there in there?” The result was the “inauguration of minimal sensibility in music,” Conrad claims. Cage agrees: “If Tony hadn’t introduced the electronic pickup on his bowed acoustic guitar (and I hopped on the bandwagon with my viola) it would’ve taken much longer for the music to arrive at the just intonation system,” he told Rolling Stone when Conrad died last year. “It crystallized the direction of the drone in Dream Syndicate music thereafter and his contribution to that music will long be recognized as seminal – he IS an ARTist in the truest sense.”
But while La Monte Young is acknowledged as one of the early masters of American minimalism, along with the recently celebrated Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Conrad never really got such props. The reason, the film argues, is because Young long refused to release any of the countless hours of Dream Syndicate droning that he recorded from 1963 to 1965; when he finally agreed to turn copies over, he asked Conrad to sign a letter acknowledging that Young was the sole composer. This was “endlessly, endlessly aggravating” to Conrad, and he went so far as to picket Young’s 1990 appearance in Buffalo, where Conrad had found a second life as a professor.
When the recordings finally did see the light of day in the 1990s, Young penned a 27-page essay explaining why Conrad had no right to release them or consider himself a co-composer. Young saw Conrad and Cage merely as musical contributors who were helping to execute a style with which Young had long been experimenting. In the documentary, Conrad disagrees, asserting that the very idea of sole authorship was contrary to what the Dream Syndicate was about: “I wanted to end composing, get rid of it.”
If that seems like a grandiose statement, it’s consistent with Conrad’s iconoclastic attitudes throughout his career. Unlike contemporaries like Glass, he “resisted all ideas of professionalization” and picketed Lincoln Center with signs reading “Demolish Serious Culture.” One of his experimental movies, Straight and Narrow, consists of a trippy pattern of black and white stripes. The motivation behind the movie, Conrad says, was: “Screw abstract art, I’m going to make abstract art happy, funny, energetic, joyful.”
That same whimsy dominated a mid-1970s film project wherein instead of making films he went about baking them—and pickling them, and currying them. Perhaps the documentary’s most memorable image is one of deep-fried celluloid.
If Conrad knew how to be playful, he also knew how to alienate an audience. Speaking of Beholden to Victory, his early-’80s film starring fellow artists Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, he imagines the ideal viewer considering the movie “just a bunch of junk.” He sums up his musical output during the ‘70s thusly: “I just banged on a piano for five years.”
But Conrad believed in playing the long game. He tried to outdo Warhol’s 24-hour film by making one that would take 50 years (Yellow Movies, 1973). When he ran out of money and couldn’t finish a film in which Kelley and Oursler dressed in drag to play female prisoners, he preserved the set for 30 years, with the idea of returning to the project Boyhood-style. Unfortunately, it went into limbo when Kelley killed himself in 2012. Last year, Conrad died at the age of 76 after a battle with cancer.
Completely in the Present, which is being released nearly a year to the day of Conrad’s death, gathers precious footage from his experimental films and performances, including his first live show with Faust, at the old Knitting Factory in 1994. We also get to see him venture into visual art. As he talks about his mixed-media work depicting stained underwear attached to corkboard, he tells the camera that friends who saw it were “completely abashed and horrified. And I thought, Damn, it must be pretty good.”