Sustained brilliance

Tony Conrad, wearing a red plaid shirt with a green t-shirt underneath, holding a coffee cup while sitting in his office.

Tony Conrad, UB professor of media study, will mark his 75th birthday with  shows in New York City in March.

University at Buffalo professor and music pioneer celebrates his 75th birthday with a pair of NYC performances

Release Date: February 25, 2015 This content is archived.

“In the avant-garde at a certain time, performers started opening up to the possibility of vocalists doing other sounds, which included screeches and hollers, and all kinds of vulgar noises, but with a lot of beautiful sounds as well.”
Tony Conrad, professor of media study
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Tony Conrad says he went to New York City in the early ’60s to “mess up the music world.” Now, some 50 years after beginning a career that contributed to the opening of a new musical tradition, Conrad, a professor in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Media Study, will be back in the city celebrating his 75th birthday with shows on Thursday, March 5, and Saturday, March 7, that serve as late career markers for this dynamic, multifaceted music and sound artist.

For the March 5 performance at the First Unitarian Congregational Society at 116 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn, Conrad plays his signature amplified violin, accompanying pipe organist and long-time friend, Charlemagne Palestine.

“We’re both perverted minimalists,” he said. “We’ve been pals since 1970. That means we’ve learned a lot from living with this tradition, but we don’t sanctify it. I do more than play one note. I did that for a while, but I like making noise, too.”

On March 7 at Greene Naftali, 508 W. 26th Street in New York City, Conrad joins David Grubbs and Eli Keszler, John Miller, his brother Dan, and Jennifer Walshe, “a miraculously talented multi-vocalist” who he first heard at a music festival a number of years ago.

“What she did in that performance was so striking,” he said.

Conrad says it took him a while to suggest to Walshe that they try playing together, but when they finally did, the result was unique.

“From the very first second, everything we did satisfied us completely, in a very strange way,” he said. “It was adventurous; it addressed the questions that interested us as musicians; and it sounded completely different than anything else.”

Walshe’s alternative vocal technique is an extension of conventional styles that doesn’t confine singers to a standard range of different voices, classical or country, for instance.

“In the avant-garde at a certain time, performers started opening up to the possibility of vocalists doing other sounds, which included screeches and hollers, and all kinds of vulgar noises, but with a lot of beautiful sounds as well,” he said.

The March 7 event is a fundraiser for ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn, where Conrad serves as a board member.

“This is a cause I’ve been dedicated to for a long time,” said Conrad. “It started out of the purse of the late Suzanne Fiol, a very inspired woman who was working for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Like many organizations its size, it has sometimes struggled, but it has emerged as a premiere alternative arts organization.”

Especially in areas such as music, the medium Conrad began disrupting after graduating from Harvard with a degree in mathematics.

Conrad says changing music culture in the 1960s meant working with the most adventurous people he knew. He says these were individuals connected in one way or another to Fluxus, a network of interdisciplinary artists who challenged the boundaries of arts culture at the time through work that was largely text and image derived. But Conrad wanted to work with improvisation, in the absence of scores and composers, using harmonic tones and sustained sounds that could be manipulated by a performer in real time.

It was the beginning of minimal music.

Two creative streams developed almost simultaneously from the moment artists began considering the form’s possibilities.

“One kind of minimal music that was put together by friends of ours like Steve Reich, Phil Glass and Terry Riley used rhythm and repetition in a sustained way,” he said. “I was working with a group of people who performed music that had a sustained quality – very long notes. We loved long notes. And we loved putting things together that became long chords – long, long sustained chords.”

That approach to sustained sound became socially influential in rock and roll when the emerging tradition was brought into the context of the Velvet Underground, which in turn influenced bands like Sonic Youth.

With decades of creative output, Conrad’s entire career has a sustained quality similar to those long notes. And though he works in film, video, paint and sculpture, he’s recognized mostly for his music.

“Because I’m good,” he said.

He is. And technology has helped more people realize that.

“In the early ’60s, when we started to get the ball rolling, it was quite amazing for any of us to release a record,” said Conrad. “There were only a handful of places you could go and buy them, like a particular store in New York that actually sold records made by weirdos.”

By the 1990s, the rekindled curiosity of many young composers and performers inspired their discovery of these early adventures.

“I’ll never forget when I flew to Dunedin, New Zealand. Look at the globe. The next farthest place away from us is in Antarctica. I got off the plane and there’s a guy who says, ‘I love your music!’ ‘What the…What’s going on?’ I asked.  ‘How does this happen?  It’s first exchanging CDs and next the Internet.  It’s cultural proliferation. And a cosmopolitan awareness of alternatives that is much bigger today than it used to be.”

Aside from his upcoming 75th birthday performances, Conrad has a number of other projects underway including a series of paintings. He wants to publish some of his essays and he says that he’s challenged to put together a couple of books, as well, including a project funded by a grant from the UB Humanities Institute on the history of music theory and Western culture.

“It all adds up to artist,” he said.

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