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In Writing

Tony Conrad 1940–2016: Systems Of Oppression

April 2016

Tony Conrad’s radical tuning methods show the way to break free from the tyranny of pythagorean frequencies and other unjust intonations, says composer Mario Diaz de Leon

I didn’t study with Tony Conrad formally, but I knew him as a friend and tribal elder over an extended period of time. From 2006–10, I was involved in a live/work/show space in Brooklyn called Paris London West Nile. In 2007 Tony began renting a studio there and stayed with us until the end. Besides the joy of hanging out with him, seeing some aspects of how he worked and hearing him perform in our space, I also attended a series of lectures that he gave there in Spring 2008. The subject matter was vast and encompassed ideas regarding tuning, music history and the intersections of music, mathematics, physics, systems of power, musical perception, human evolution, and the social component of music making.

Regarding specific techniques, much of the lecture was devoted to procedures of just intonation, where the frequencies of intervals are calculated using ratios of small whole numbers, such as 2:1 (octave), 3:2 (perfect fifth), 5:4 (major third), 6:5 (minor third), and so on. He also lectured on the relationship of this system to the harmonic series, and slightly more complex procedures, such as using logarithms to convert fractions to cents. Along the way, it became clear that, rather than an indoctrination into a hallowed system, his teachings were intended to open us up to exploring new possibilities for ourselves. This became even more apparent when the discussion of tuning was placed in a historical context, where ideas such as functional harmony and equal temperament were critically considered in their social and political contexts. For example, Tony railed against what he saw as the tyranny of the Pythagorean worldview, whereby the proportions found in the intervals were elevated to a cosmic hierarchy, a divinely endowed ‘harmony of the spheres’, fixed for all time. While tuning systems have changed over the centuries, this philosophy has a long trajectory in Western classical music. It’s at the heart of Bach’s theology, through the cult of Beethoven, and we can even find it in Stockhausen – that music comes from a transcendent ‘spirit realm’ and reflects a pre-existing and eternal divine order, permeating the physical and metaphysical realms. For Tony, this type of thinking reeked of aristocratic oppression and entrenchment in such an elitist system left no role for the agency of the individual citizen. Tony said he wanted to “make the heavens crumble”. Going back to Ancient Greece, he pointed to the emergence of rhetoric in Greek culture as a way to defend democracy against aristocracy, against elitist systems of power, and how the downtrodden in Greek society (women included) would find release in Dionysian ritual (a nod to the hedonism and trance-inducing abandon possible with music of long duration). For him, the type of tuning you used was very much a political act, and the formalism of any dogmatic system was a force to be joyfully (playfully!) resisted.

Going back over the notes I took, one example that strikes me now is his mention of the “expressive potential in different types of minor third”. He shared with us three possibilities for precise tuning of the interval, derived from simple ratios – one 267 cents above the fundamental (a 7:6 ratio), one 297.5 (19:16, the 19th harmonic of the overtone series, near the equal tempered tuning of 300 cents), and one 316 (a just interval of 6:5). Why not combine these? Why not combine different types of all standard intervals? Why not experiment with combining different types of intervals into triads and so forth?

Tony had mastered these types of refinements early on in his career. In his violin playing, you can hear these miniscule changes in intonation, which combined with amplification and distortion, create all kinds of marvellous harmonic effects, not least among which are difference tones and sub-tones well below the range of his instrument. And the reconsideration of history was fundamental to his work, for example, one of his earliest touchstones is the Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Bieber, who calls for a different tuning of the violin in each of his Mystery Sonatas. I also came to see how artistic collaboration was very much a powerful form of deviation for him. His openness to share his ideas (rooted in a critical consideration of history, perception, and duration) with so many others came from a deep commitment to catalyse cultural deviations and, in his words, “to recapture art music to the social level of pop”. The same could be said for his choice to work and present lectures at our humble and unruly DIY abode. He was exactly where he wanted to be.

At the time I attended these lectures, I was 28 years old and working on finishing my debut album as composer for Tzadik, and regularly performing in free improvisation groups. I was also in my second year of doctoral studies at Columbia, preparing to become a music history instructor. I had tried my own experiments with tuning in my second string quartet (written in 2006), and had immersed myself in the work of other composers who dealt with tuning, such as Amacher, Radulescu, Dumitrescu, Murail and Scelsi. My interests in musical perception and mystical experience drew me to these composers and ideas, and I was inspired to hear Tony talk about “ideo-sensory experience” and the perceptual and social aspects of music in ritual – mantras, prayers and trance states. But my contact with Tony’s teachings forced me to consider the issue in a whole new way. For example, his lectures coincided with a TA position I had in a jazz history class by George Lewis, and I started drawing connections. If tuning is a political issue, and its earliest standardisation in the West also coincides with the emergence of democracy, then the splendour of intonation in early 20th century African American music takes on a whole new critical dimension. Today, his recent death has pushed me back into my notes, my consideration of history and technical possibilities, and I’m finding myself in awe of him as never before. Tony is working on me. He's working on me right now. Written in the corner of my notes is one of his sayings: “All history is in the present.”


This is a perceptive and eloquently worded article. It has given me much to reflect upon.

Thank you for publishing it.


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