Tony Conrad, best known for playing violin with the Theatre of Eternal Music in the early sixties, and for his more recent violin-centred compositions, admits that his introduction to his instrument was mostly negative. It was only the influence of the young violinist Ronald Knudsen that changed things, urging Conrad to play slowly, and concentrate on the tuning, something he has been doing ever since.
Knudsen wasn't the only influence that set Conrad on the path that pioneered the minimalist drone. After hearing Heinrich Biber's 17th century Mystery Sonatas, Conrad noted: "Biber's music transformed me; for the first time, my violin sounded truly wonderful". Close behind Biber's polyphonic timbral invention came Indian classical music, which Conrad quickly came to value for the function of the drone and lack of conventional harmonic progression.
When Conrad left music school at the beginning of the sixties and moved to New York, he soon encountered La Monte Young's then group (featuring Billy Name, Marian Zazeela and Angus Maclise), playing a proto-minimalist jazz mutation. Soon, Billy Name left and Conrad joined, beginning by playing only an open fifth drone, and moving the small ensemble towards a "Dream Music" that would profoundly influence subsequent composers.
Conrad saw contemporary music as being at a crisis point. John Cage's radicalism, and Young's Fluxus verbal scores (listening to butterflies as a piece of music) indicated music being dismantled in an unsurpassably extreme manner - a limit that Rhys Chatham describes in more detail elsewhere in this issue. Conrad believed that the "Dream Music" offered three routes out of this quandary. Firstly, it dispensed with the "edifice of high culture" - it was music to participate in, anywhere, not just fodder for galleries and concert halls. Secondly, it dispensed with the musical score, offering a way for classical music to ditch compositional authoritarianism in favour of the improvisational collaboration already mapped out by jazz musicians. Fianlly, it focussed not on the act of composing at all, but, thanks to the minute harmonic intervals the group were now exploring, on the act of listening. According to Conrad: "This was a total displacement of the composer's role, from progenitor of the sound to groundskeeper at its gravesite".
With the addition of John Cale and his viola, the newly named Theatre of Eternal Music became dominated by the drones, and soon left Young's saxophone elaborations behind. They explored new harmonic intervals, dissonant but not discordant, and developed a sound that would ultimately become legendary.
However, as Tony Conrad points out below, "History is like music - completely in the present". About 100 recordings of the Dream Music were made, but after Cale and Conrad left the group in the middle of the decade, Young retained them all, and has since refused to release them to his former collaborators. Despite the scarcity of Young's own recorded output, most histories of minimalism describe the Dream Music as primarily Young's work, not as the radical collaborationt that Tony Conrad today recalls. Some of this "hidden history" is, however, beginning to resurface.
American label Table Of The Elements have recently reissued Outside The Dream Syndicate, an early-70s collaboration between Faust and Conrad (although it curiously disappoints compared to the shrill intensity of their 90s live performances). Since then, they've issued Slapping Pythagoras (see this issue's reviews), hard evidence that the penetrating drones of 60s minimalism remain relevant today, and perhaps an indication that the philosophy against which Conrad struggles dates back not just through this century, but for over two millennia. Coming later this year are Conrad's monumental attempt to resculpt musical history, Early Minimalism, and an excellent and previously unavailable recording dating from 1964, Four Violins. Judging by the latter, they should prove essential listening.
TC: You've heard my "new" record, Four Violins. It is going to be the gateway into my next set of CDs - a complete recording of Early Minimalism. I wrote the seven parts of Early Minimalism over the last ten years, but they all look back at Four Violins, and the "Dream Music" that I worked on during the early 1960s with John Cale, Angus MacLise, Marian Zazeela, and of course La Monte Young.
EST: You've picketed La Monte Young in the past, and La Monte Young is presumably well aware of your criticisms of his stance (most notably his unwillingness to unconditionally release recordings by the Theatre of Eternal Music). How has he responded to your picketing, handbills etc?
TC: What kind of conversation are we having here? I think anybody reading this expects us to be having a very informal kind of exchange. Okay. But picketing - picketing for or against something, and handing out literature - these are conspicuously formal actions. They have to be understood as indirect communication. Yes, I am "in communication" with La Monte Young, of course, when I picket and he is there to perform his public action - but by clearly shaping my own action as "picketing," even though there is only me there, I am making my action interprable only as a public or political action, not as a private communication.
What I'm trying to say is that both the message conveyed through my picketing, and the picketing itself, were not communications primarily intended for La Monte Young personally. They were communications which took place on the public level, which is the level of culture, of symbolic statement. These were symbolic or formal statements, which are as much a part of "Music" as this interview is - even though this interview is actually silent, and we aren't even speaking out loud.
People aren't used to thinking of cultural forms spreading out across the full range of formal interactions - or what is called the "text" in literary terms. Even though we have heard all sorts of political expressions in music, as song, when a musical expression takes the form of politics, it still seems musically inaudible.
Let me get back to Young. La Monte Young's early works, you know, were involved with the neo-Dada movement in New York that spawned Fluxus, conceptual art, and happenings. In some of his pieces, he calls for what might be termed "extra-musical" events: leading a bucket around by a string, feeding a piano some hay, releasing a butterfly, and so forth. That kind of piece, perhaps most recognizable because of Yoko Ono's similar work, built a bridge between performance art and music - and without raising any awkward social issues.
When I picket La Monte Young, I am not only making a cultural statement in the formal arena of political action, I am also consciously pressuring the societal isolationism that Young stands for as a figurehead of this earlier movement. His neo-Dada work was a key piece in the architecture of a 60s cultural understanding: that the institutions of art could be violated, the walls torn down between disciplines, and that this could be done as pure Art, without any involvement with "real" politics or social issues.
I have chosen to use a "real" political form to address a cultural conflict between two individual artists, in this instance, because the action of picketing in itself highlights the paradoxes that La Monte Young continues to represent - he is socially elitist and culturally absolutist, yet his cultural image is of a "radical".
Well, I guess I should get to your question - about how he responded. As soon as Young read my statements and saw clearly what I was saying, he stopped communicating with me. I have heard that he cut me out of the new edition of his book, but I haven't bought it so I'm not sure.
EST: This sort of "direct action" is an unusual step in most artistic communities. Do you feel comfortable with your approach, which seems to me to be almost courageous, it seems so unusual?
TC: Yes, somehow there has been a convention that in their work artists don't use each other's works, and they don't invoke one another personally. This is part of a more general depersonalization of consumerist culture in postmodernity. In the old "modern" art, Picasso painted his girl friend and Cezanne painted his neighborhood. But in postmodernity, there has to be impersonality, because the understanding of art is that it is only legible among a community with shared cultural interests. When Warhol painted Marilyn or Campbell's soup cans, it was only to display their objectification and depersonalization. Then about 1980 Sherrie Levine appropriated photographs by Walker Evans - but Evans was too much a person, too little a product - and Sherrie ran into lawsuits, even though Evans is dead.
This is a particularly insidious energy boundary in our corporation-based contemporary culture - it shuts down personal responsiveness and political interactivity, and rechannels expressions of diversity through polite conventions. Why is this taboo so strong? Because using another artist is first "impolite," second violates proper business methods and the proprieties of consumerism, and third is not cool and impersonal like Art is supposed to be.
For me, music and art just crap out when they don't step across into non-polite spaces and outlaw territory. The job of an artist is to discover laws to violate that haven't been made yet. I remember picketing a Stockhausen concert with Henry Flynt in 1964. A lot of artists were inside participating in the event.
Later, in the press, we were accused of stealing equipment. That was how far the "responsible" press was willing to go to discount our impolite action and divert attention from our message. I'm not going to go into that message right now; it's enough to say it was about cultural imperialism, and would have been clearly understood today by anyone interested in post-colonialism, but was about 25 years ahead of its time.
By the way, I do know that La Monte Young's own social elitism makes it impossible for him to take my picketing for anything other than interpersonal bickering, but for me that has nothing to do with the message. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have picketed him if he had not broken the back of our long friendship by waiting for me to die without being able to hear my music.
EST: Do other former T.E.M. members share your view of the situation?
TC: Marian Zazeela is La Monte's wife, and Angus MacLise is dead.
I've talked with John Cale for two decades about what to do about La Monte, and how to get copies of our work. We consulted lawyers, negotiated with La Monte, and begged and pleaded. Nothing. But all of that helped me realize how special the status of these recordings had become. We were the people who first started making so-called "minimal" music, and these recordings are the residue of that influential conjunction. Why doesn't La Monte Young want these recordings heard, when their historical influence is stronger than their actual audibility?
Because they don't show him in as strong a light as he would wish. His approach to music is unashamedly founded in individualist romanticism, and the tapes can't bear the load of his overinflated personal myth. Young's personal peccadillo has set up a historiographic paradox; the cultural influence of this music is more legible than the music itself is audible. That made me see, in the 80s, that re-composed "images" of this music, by its originators, could throw new light on the relationship between cultural history and the practice of music composition.
EST: You've said that the members of the first TEM were painfully aware that they were making the most interesting avant-garde music of the period. Is this still your opinion?
TC: Yes, for sure. In my notes on Four Violins I go into this in greater detail than I can here, but the key elements were social. By improvising, we eliminated the role of composer. But more, this was the turning point from a regime of writing music to a regime of listening. Many things at the time pushed this change, even though there has been very little comment on, or understanding of, the core paradigm shift that this represented for music.
The principal convergence was among three forces. In terms of the symbolic cultural order of the West it was John Cage, in the 50s, who turned music composition most forcefully toward listening. And as it happened, the 50s also saw the eruption of rock n roll consumerism. Whatever else it was, rock'n'roll elbowed itself to the front of pop music because of its sound - a much simplified, listenable music. In another universe, rock'n'roll might have been called "minimal pop." Then, perhaps most important, the technology of recording, and the economics of the music industry, began to make it practical and possible to listen to more sounds, and music, than ever before. It was only in the 1950s that we began to see LP records of music from other times and cultures, weird jazz, and even avant-garde music, all accessibe by any consumer with enough appetite.
Our "Dream Music" was an effort to freeze the sound in action, to listen around inside the innermost architecture of the sound itself. It had something to do with composition, since it became a commentary on the temporal site of the composer, in relation to the sound itself. We were announcing that the composer could sit within the sound, so to speak, and work with it as a plastic continuum extended in time along the same course, and at the same pace, as the listener. That is quite different from improvising on a tune, or using improvisational variation to elaborate sound patterns. The message here was not about indeterminacy, nor about immediacy, but about the control of sounds right there in your environment, and the process of composition as long-term growth of interests within that sound complex.
When I picketed La Monte Young in 1990, it was principally because he had insisted that before making copies of our music for us - which all of the collaborators had agreed originally would be done - that we each would have to sign an agreement that he, Young, was the "composer" of the music. My picket sign said:
COMPOSER LA MONTE YOUNG DOES NOT UNDERSTAND "HIS" WORK ...
1. The "Theater of Eternal Music" ("TEM") of 1964 was collaboratively founded - and was so named to deny the Eurocentric historical/progressive teleology then represented by the designation, composer.
2. Young is suppressing the recordings of "TEM," which do not flatter him. He has specifically denied access by members of the collaboration (Tony Conrad, John Cale) to the collection of recordings for 25 years. Two members are already dead (Maclise, Jennings).
3. Young himself now ignorantly insists on the artistic demolition of this body of work by claiming that it is a series of "compositions" (by him).
4. The "TEM" introduced an influential preoccupation with just intonation. "TEM" was anti-rationalist and non-electronic, but did focus on perceptual and conceptual aspects of small intervals. Young himself misunderstands this development as neo-Pythagorean rationalism (after the scientific idealism of Helmholtz).
5. Each "TEM" member had an interest in carefully structured improvisation and long durations. Young's early eurocentric compositional innovation - the use of long notes - appears in his String Trio. However, nowhere do his compositions show "TEM"'s crucial understanding that long durations are small intervals.
6. Young's neo-Futurist ("Fluxus") work aside, his Orientalism and romanticized personality-cult mark him among the most regressive of contemporary artists. His conservative gutting of "TEM" has paid off (for him) in a multimillion petro-dollar bonanza, which he uses to perpetuate his exploitative and artistically mindless enterprise.
7. Money paid to Young is valuable resources wasted on ignorance, false self-representation, service to Young's ego at others' expense, and a colonial image of American cultural expression. YOUNG - OUT OF BUFFALO NOW!
But enough of Young, and back to your question. In the group, all of us had a strong conviction that we were making the most interesting music of the time, and that it was continually growing. Personally, what I enjoy most is being stimulated by cultural experiences that change my way of thinking, and that is what had first drawn me into contemporary music. Yes! In fact, I would like to see the concept of "avant-garde" replaced with that as a criterion for art work. So it was painful to sit through the fifteen years after the first Dream Music without hearing anybody out there doing anything comparably interesting.
In a certain sense, our invention of "minimal" music had been a resultant in a flowing and ongoing cultural process. On the other side, there were qualities in our music that presented specific tough challenges for musical art, and for some years after our work, it was difficult to see anywhere to go but backwards into mannerism.
A moment ago I referred to the emergence of a "regime of listening" - a musical sea change that appeared in the wake of swelling access to music from other times and cultures, the tidal wave of rock'n'roll in pop music, and John Cage's summation of the Western symbolic cultural order. Ever since the Enlightenment in the 1700s, Western music had understood itself through the balance between the "universe" of music on the one hand, and the particular world of a single composition on the other. As Julia Kristeva puts it, in classical music "each musical text invented its own laws and did not obey those of the common 'language.' This is the famous loss of 'universality' that music history attributes principally to Beethoven." In earlier music, and in "primitive" societies, supposedly "musical 'creation' requires strict obedience to the rules of the musical code." [Julia Kristeva, Language the Unknown: An Initiation into Linguistics, 1989]
In "Dream Music" there was a complete loss of the particular, in this sense, since the musical work as a closed and internally structured system vanished with the composer. The structural elements with which we were occupied were not parts of an arbitrary system of signifying practices, even by extension, but rather were the physical constituents of tone. We, the performers of the sound, were also first and foremost the listeners. In the context of a single protracted sound, the listener's connection to musical language is cut off; the process of listening is silenced. In this emptiness, unexpectedly, there appears a legibility of rhythm and melody which rises to consciousness automatically, out of the unconscious level of perceptual processes, when the standing wall of sound paradoxically releases the listener's attentiveness.
EST: Why do you feel the strand of minimalism that TEM evolved has failed to reach far beyond a small minority of listeners, unlike other obvious strands of minimal music?
TC: I suppose you're thinking about Reich and Glass. Their "minimalism," though superficially similar to ours, arises quite differently, through process, rhythm, and design - all elements which are deliberately absent in Dream Music. Since their music retained rhythm and internal structure, it had a comfortable familiarity for the Western "classical" listener, and in its rhythmic directness made a bridge to rock music. The bridge to rock was foregrounded in the 70s, of course.
Let me say this more clearly, though. Dream Music had torn up the book of Western composition, whereas Reich and Glass reinscribed it. Nevertheless, there were certain linkages among the two approaches, right from the beginning.
The first composition of mine ever played in concert, Three Loops for Performers and Tape Recorders from 1961, used the same tape delay structure that Terry Riley discovered independently just a bit later. Tape delay was a technological system which had direct rhythmic and metrical implications. Steve Reich saw this during his early apprenticeship with Terry, and appropriated tape delay as the systemic foundation for his own later work. Perhaps it was my own good luck that I have never been very interested in rhythm, and so my piece, Three Loops, is primarily about timbre and process, not rhythm.
To get back to Dream Music, though, perhaps the premise that our music has not reached beyond a small strand of people isn't as accurate as you think. Of course, La Monte Young has built a wall of elitism and privilege around the music we made, and it's easy to imagine that Dream Music has not had much influence, since ironically you can't listen to it. But we did play out at the time, and also privately, for a number of composers. For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen came to listen to us play. At that time we were frequently using a large gong that Robert Morris had made for La Monte. Immediately there was a great change in Stockhausen's music - which had been stalled in its serialist tracks. He started using "improvisation," and even wrote a piece for gong. What a dweeb. I had felt respect for him earlier, but that experience told me a lot about how he worked.
More importantly, of course, our particular approach to the structure of tone, and our departure from the Western compostion tradition, have each been profoundly influential. In fact, the use of "modal" tonality, with harmonic tunings, is a fetish which we installed, and which has popped up all over the musical map.
EST: Were there any other minimalist musicians who you felt any sense of commonality with at any stage?
TC: Yeah, certainly, and at many different times. Of course, Henry Flynt, my earliest friend, would never want to be called a "minimalist" - but his ideas about music were very important in my development. From my first years in New York, one of the most important was Walter DeMaria, who was and is a sculptor - and he would never want to be called a "musician." His use of natural sounds was particularly influential for me. None of his recordings are available anywhere.
There were repeated instances in which I played music with, or for, other musicians, and through this their work was strongly affected by having an awareness of Dream Music. Often, personal contact was the only way that even the most avid younger composers could become aware of our music, during the decade or so following 1965.
In 1971 I played a concert at The Kitchen, for which I devised Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain. Rhys Chatham was the musical director there - he was also a flautist with a passion for Indian music. I played the violin part, but I needed another stringed instrument and a bass pulse, so Rhys and Laurie Siegal played with me, and it was clear that this encounter had an impact on his thinking.
It was Rhys, of course, who fulfilled John Cale's initiative begun a decade earlier, by injecting the "minimal" sound into the heart of rock music in the 70s. His music for guitars was, in turn, appropriated by Glenn Branca. Of course, what I mean by John Cale's initiative was the incomparably important work he did with the Velvet Underground. Not only did he incorporate his Dream Music viola work within the Velvets, he also used the Velvet Underground to create huge and powerful continuous sound forms as rock music - in effect constructing the first industrial music.
Charlemagne Palestine and I met in January 1969 when I recorded him performing on the carillon at St. Thomas's Church in New York. He was a music student at that time, and only became involved in minimal music somewhat later. I'm excited that he has returned to music lately, because his work was among the best in the 70s.
When I moved out of New York in 1974 to teach at Antioch College in Ohio, David Hykes was a film student there. He was already aware of Young and my connection with Dream Music, through Paul Sharits. Everyone, like Paul, who had been involved with Fluxus was aware of the Dream Music. Hykes and I played music together occasionally, though the core of our enduring friendship was filmmaking.
And when I moved to Buffalo to teach video, Arnold Dreyblatt was a student here, working with the Vasulkas. Only after he moved to New York, became Young's archivist, and returned to Buffalo for a visit, did he accost me with his astonishment - "So you're the one who started the music!".
EST: Could you tell me something about Early Minimalism?
TC: Sure. Early Minimalism is a series of seven compositions that do two important things - aside from sounding excellent. First, they are comments on the function of history and a non-recoverable past in the archive of musical culture. I said something earlier about the impact of recording technology on access to musical materials. Recording, as a system for the storage of sounds, has always fascinated me - as in Three Loops. You make a record of a sound, it is "archived" for some period, and then it is reproduced. In notated music, written records might be said to "archive" the sound for "reproduction" by a later performer. In Early Minimalism the time frame of "archiving" is a historical interval - about twenty years. The "recording" was effected by and through the composite cultural processes of music history, and the "reproduction" is my act of composition, enabled by the authority of my participation at the originary site of minimalism.
In Early Minimalism I have established a place for the direct participation of history in the cultural process, with history operating through the instrumentality of the composer. The thing that provided me with an unusual opportunity to explore this approach was itself La Monte Young's closure of our taped archive. That closure insured that the cultural legibility of Dream Music would always be understood as indirect. However, by reason of our own participation in the music, I and the other Dream Music collaborators are singularly empowered with direct access to the music.
Early Minimalism invites an interrogation which, for music, has timely and cogent implications: How has "the music" been archived? How is it being reconstituted? What are the cultural processes entailed in storing or recovering musical information? And what reconstitutive processes comprise authenticity? Each of these questions demands attention to the non-congruence of personal memory (or experiential continuity) with cultural memory and influence - that is, attention to the double sites at which music history's power relations are transacted.
I have wished for an active intervention of the historical time scale into music before, but not until the popularity of Foucault's writings and the appearance of postmodernism have such ideas been legible as components of a work.
The secondary ambition which I have for Early Minimalism is simpler and more accessible. Early Minimalism is my way of taking up the Dream Music where I left it and moving it ahead, without the encumbrance of Young's arch-conservative imprint. More than that, in honesty the exquisite joy and painful energy of our high-voltage music began to slump, for me, under the sodden weight of the singing, just at the moment when my playing with John Cale - the two of us, on violin and viola - was reaching a dizzying azimuth. Early Minimalism picks up from that apex.
And further, it has launched some compositional developments in my music that are doing exciting new things with microtonal music. But that's another story.
EST: Given your strong interest in recovering what you've said is a missing personal history, do you feel comfortable with the way that listeners may start to perceive minimalist musical history through the filter not only of writings about Young, but also now through the sound of your "new" music?
TC: Sure. History is like music - completely in the present.
EST: I've received the impression that Early Minimalism, like Slapping Pythagoras and Four Violins, concentrates on the characteristics of stringed instruments. Do you think the absence of vocal/wind parts in any ways misrepresents minimalist musical history? Or is it just that their contributions were never of significant interest?
TC: Well, I'm not sure I want to be the one who tries to authenticate music history; I'm more interested in using it, as a material in my work. As for my choice of instruments, I want to write music that can be performed, and right now that requires me to do a lot of the performing myself. If I'm going to get the sounds I want. The instrumentation might become secondary, if I could be confident about the outcome!
EST: You've spoken almost admiringly (or, with interest, at least) of the way Young allows his personal mystique to create history around him. Are you also trying to consciously remake your own history?
TC: Yes. I have a site to occupy that has stood unannounced for too long. But my approach has nothing to do with personal mystique, and everything to do with ideas and works that aspire to authorize cultural adventurousness and diversity.
By the way, I do believe that La Monte Young wants me to die without hearing my music, just as Angus MacLise has died. I would like to think that Angus's son, Ossian, would contest Young's retention of the Dream Music recordings - but Ossian was raised in Nepal as a Buddhist monk. Young has now already taken control over the works and musical heritages of several dead composers: Terry Jennings and Richard Maxfield, as well as MacLise. That kind of necrological cooptation makes you feel like you'd better get your own words said before you go, if Young controls any part of your work.
EST: Young has acknowledged a debt to yourself in introducing him to the mathematics of just intonation.
TC: Well, among the Dream Music collaborators I provided the understanding of rational numbers as frequency ratios, Cale found Alain Danielou's Tableau Comparatif des Intervalles Musicaux, and Young suggested eliminating the prime factor 5 from our performance intervals. He also discovered Harry Partch's book.
EST: Do you acknowledge any particular debt to him, or the other TEM collaborators?
TC: I certainly do. The Theater of Eternal Music was a collaborative enterprise from the beginning, and I have never deviated from that understanding. Each of us brought an immense contribution to the table, and only Young has corrupted that premise. In particular, without La Monte's discipline, space, and idealism, there would have been no cohesive impulse sufficient to hold us together as long as we were.
EST: What are the most obvious common attributes that you see in your music, film and video work? I'm talking about your public access video work; you seem to have been most interested in community/participatory issues.
TC: Ok, I'll just talk about public access video for now. Usually public access is thought of as an open forum for idiosyncracy and ego fulfillment. However, public access also turns an entire urban municipality into a laboratory for exploring models of the circulation and development of cultural forms. For instance, I have used it to test the potential for triggering cultural participation among the people in my city. I have also tried to reach children in inner city families with messages that can help to authorize their participation in schooling.
This may seem far afield from the music am making, but an overarching concern of both is very close to me. I see the United States as the heartland of a corporatist de-development effort aimed at leveling the playing field for consumerist marketing. Any cultural differentiation on this landscape is antithetical to the structural needs of corporate consumerism. The single preeminent cultural objective that makes sense in the 90s is the development of mechanisms that can trigger and sustain differentiated cultural expression.
There is a scattering of recent developments in communications that appear to be promising in this regard. Some, like the "information superhighway" and the multimedia educational technologies, are fakes that are being oversold in the interest of commercial development. On the other hand, the "zine" scene, and the proliferation of small independent music labels, each seems like a powerful machine for running upstream against the corporate current of cultural diversity dismantling. Perhaps the biggest reason for my increased visibility today is my just being exhilirated by the great little labels like Artware, Barooni, Complacency, Distemper, Extreme, Review, Streamline, Tone, and the rest - and of course Table of the Elements.
EST: To what extent are similar concerns applicable to your music, particularly given its frequently fairly traditional performance context? Also, in discussing The Flicker, you've drawn attention to its hallucinatory qualities, and I'd be keen to hear to what extent you want your music to create similar experiences.
TC: When I made the film The Flicker in 1965-66 my principal motivation was to explore the possibilities for harmonic expression using a sensory mode other than sound. The experience of "flicker" - its peculiar entrapment of the central nervous system, by ocular driving - occurs over a frequency range of about 4 to 40 flashes per second (fps). I used film (at 24 fps) as a sort of "tonic," and devised patterns of frames which would represent combinations of frequencies - heterodyned, or rather multiplexed together. I was interested to see whether there might be combination-frequency effects that would occur with flicker, analogous to the combination-tone effects that are responsible for consonance in musical sound.
That was a sophisticated idea. Even though the frequency range of flicker is theoretically large enough - though barely - for harmonic modulation products to occur, The Flicker did not convincingly demonstrate the existence of any harmonic flicker structures. Nevertheless, the hypnotic phenomena and trance states that characterize flicker drew my attention again later, when I was working in the 70s and 80s on mind-altering, on attentional states, and on Music and the Mind of the World.
EST: Given that you evidently valued the collective semi- improvisatory approach to music-making of the TEM, do you forsee further collaborations with musicians like Faust or others? What interests you about the juncture between "your" music and theirs?
TC: Right now my music has moved so far in its own direction that I don't have any immediate collaborators. In the most recent compositions, there are a lot of new ideas that use tiny harmonic intervals in ways I haven't ever heard of. But that's the impulse for making things - if there's something you won't be able to hear otherwise, you have to play it yourself.
On the other hand, I have been completely inspired by the opportunities I've had to work together with Chicago musicians that I've met through my friend Jim O'Rourke. There is a lot of talent, openness, and adventureousness in the Chicago scene. For instance, Steve Albini, who is a celebrated rock producer, has contributed generously to my recording activities in Chi-town. Jim O'Rourke needs a book-length treatment of his own. Let me just say that I have especially enjoyed playing together with Jim and David Grubbs, and I could envision future collaborations with them very easily.
EST: Could you tell me something about your late 70s music, such as Music and the Mind of the World?
TC: Well, that was twenty years ago, when certain currents in the art world began running more strongly against the stagnation of the late 60s and early 70s formalist hegemony. Some of the younger artists whose ideas were flowing through Buffalo then were David Salle, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Jack Goldstein. At the same time, women artists were forcefully questioning the closure of art under Greenbergian modernism. My own tactic was to break decisively with the use of formal structures, to explore psychological states and attitudes, and to adopt genre expressive forms as vehicles for constructing public art. I produced a "war" film and a "women's prison" film; in music, I spent five years playing the piano. Since I wanted to incorporate a variety of critical postures and attitudinal approaches within the boundaries of my work, I decided to include rehearsals, being yelled at for making mistakes, doodling, playing excellent music, recalling musical ideas from my past and trying to play them, and even using formally structured playing. Everything was taped; some of it was performed in public. I played at the first New Music America festival, for instance. That phase of my work was extremely important as groundwork for the emergence of Early Minimalism, which takes up certain of the same concerns but addresses them more concisely and within a more auditorily spectacular performance situation.
Conceptually, music presents a lot of opportunities at present, and Music and the Mind of the World continues to be my base camp for approaching the biggest questions.
One of the most profound questions for musical art is how sound and music can be shown to be radically different from language and visual art. All the recent talk about postmodernism has seemed to level the playing field for artists to move their projects ahead in any number of different directions - but then some of the central paradoxes of twentieth century modernism remain dead ahead in front of us, and don't seem to go away. Peter Burger has discussed this. He comments that modern art rebels against its status either by construing itself as political ... or by declaring that the void that it recognizes itself to be is the whole purpose ...
Politicisation or messianic over-inflation are the extremes into which modern art must throw itself as soon as it becomes conscious of the constraints dictated by autonomy. And once these positions have been passed through, all that remains is to attack the institution, a task undertaken by the movements of the historical avant-garde in the wake of World War I ... Since the historical avant-garde, art's self-sublation figures as one of its poles, the other being the self-contained work.
Then he confronts art with an apparent brick wall.
Aesthetic experience cannot get beyond the attack on the institution, because its failure seems only to reinforce the institution's boundary. The catastrophic scenarios of postmodernity with their declarations of the imminent end of art have evidently missed out on an aspect of aesthetic experience continually encountered by artists since the historical avant-garde; namely that once you're inside the place called Art there's no getting out again. As if you were King Midas, everything you touch turns to art. Even the blank refusal to produce anything at all is transformed into an aesthetic act ... What these days goes by the name of post-modernism could more accurately be termed 'post-avant- garde': in other words, an epoch marked by the failure of the historical avant-garde's attack on the artistic institution. [Peter Burger, Aporias of Modern Aesthetics, in Thinking Art: Beyond Traditional Aesthetics, ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne, 1991]
But Burger may be wrong where "art" concerns music, if music at its heart functions quite differently from the signifying practices of language and visual expression. And there are reasons to expect that it does. Sometimes, for instance, we just hum or whistle, and it does seem completely artless. Why do we do that? Tunes are for controlling people; otherwise, why would melodies stick in our heads? Perhaps music is not a cultural form so much as an endemic disorder, like a computer virus. Like endemic diseases, it has become a childhood disorder - and lullabies (or now television jingles) may tell us why music is so compelling in group socialization, why it has such a big part in the subject's participation in the social order - politically, religiously, and sexually. And yes, while we're talking about the music inside of our heads, why do humans have such a vast capacity for melody? Is that just a piece of evolutionary bric-a-brac, or does it mean something?
It's going to take a careful study of the full range of cultural diversification to explore these questions - everything from the one immense worldwide corporate hegemony to the numberless inscrutable private cultures or languages that Wittgenstein tried to write out of existence - but which have arguably appeared in Henry Flynt's development of concept art, would arguably eventuate from the infinite fragmentation of subject positions hinted at by queer theory, and arguably arm us with an atheoretic model for understanding hypnotic trance and attentional disorders.
This interview was conducted by eMail between Tony Conrad and Brian Duguid in June 1996. Contact Table of the Elements, Box 5524, Atlanta, Georgia 30307, USA. Special thanks to Jeff Hunt for assistance. Interview © Brian Duguid 1996.
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