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Tony Conrad dies aged 76

Drone pioneer and Theatre Of Eternal Music member dies at 76. Read Richard Henderson's cover feature about Tony Conrad in The Wire 170 over at Exact Editions

Tony Conrad died on 9 April in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, after a battle with prostate cancer, reported The Buffalo News. He was 76 years old.

Conrad is often referred to as the pioneer of drone music in the West. But when he moved to New York City in the early 1960s, he also got heavily involved in film. The Flicker (1966), for example, is often cited as a central work in structuralist cinema. But Conrad was a composer and improvisor as much as he was a film maker. He was an early member of The Theatre Of Eternal Music alongside John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Also referred to as The Dream Syndicate, The Theatre Of Eternal Music carried out long duration experiments in sustained noise and just intonation. In 1976 Conrad became a faculty member of the Univeristy of Buffalo's media studies department, where he remained up to his death.

The team behind Tyler Hubby’s documentary film-in-progress Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present posted the following comment on Facebook on 9 April: “Dear Friends, We have learned that Tony passed away today. Although this news is not surprising it is nonetheless sad and unsettling. This is a post we never wanted to write. A world without Tony in it seems inconceivable. He was one of the great stars in the cosmos but sometimes only seen by those who knew where to look. [...] Tony always took us to the edge of reason and now he has expanded beyond that. He will be dearly missed but never, ever, ever forgotten.”

Conrad was born on 7 March 1940, in New Hampshire. He attended music school in Harvard, but ended up receiving a degree in higher mathematics because, as he told Richard Henderson in The Wire 170, “the place wasn’t suitable for anything else”. After graduating, he moved to New York. “I arrived in New York and began to hang out with La Monte Young,” he continued. “I came to find out what the scene was like. There were so many interesting people working there, so I had to be there and find out. I had met La Monte some time before, but I found out about Fluxus when I moved to the city.

Conrad on the cover of The Wire 170

“The people I encountered then were opposed to the institutions of high culture from the ground up. I mean, they were ready to tear the goddamn thing apart and throw it in the trash!

“On the other hand,” he added, “there were artists emerging from 1950s Abstract Expressionism who believed that the art gesture was what led to art in its most expressive and coherent form. [...] In that context, starting off to reinhabit the territory of sound was a way of entering into a cultural scene that had been swept clear in some respects, both by John Cage and by the efforts of diverse artists who were interested in music. [...] To revive the territory of sound took a lot of guts and directness and emotional investment.”

Richard’s feature goes on to explain that Conrad was ”instrumental in introducing [John] Cale to Lou Reed, to the extent of offering a name for the latter duo's new group, culled from the title of a pulp fiction paperback which Conrad had found on a New York sidewalk: The Velvet Underground”.

From 1965 onwards, after leaving The Dream Syndicate, Conrad focused on films. He worked as a technical advisor and sound engineer for the late Jack Smith on films like Flaming Creatures.

In 1973 Conrad collaborated with the German group Faust on Outside The Dream Syndicate. He went on to compose a series of pieces for amplified strings, which can be heard on his albums Early Minimalism Volume One (1997) and Slapping Pythagoras (1995). he has also collaborated with the likes of Charlemagne Palestine, Genesis P-Orridge, Keiji Haino, Jim O'Rourke and C Spencer Yeh, among others.

“By minimal music,” Conrad explained to Richard Henderson, “I'm talking about music that involved tonality and a sense of particular modes that turned up again and again; rhythm as a basis for repetitive metrical form in one of many ways; loops and extended durations; long pieces with middles, but no endings and no beginnings, conveying a sense in the overall structure of the piece that the onset and the climax had much less to do with the music than the conditions in the middle of the piece.”

You can read Richard Henderson’s cover feature about Tony Conrad over at Exact Editions.

Conrad is survived by his wife Paige Sarlin and son Ted Conrad.