I ran into my old friend Al Niente at Tony Conrad’s January 18 gig at Tonic. Conrad was droning away raspily on his violin, seeking out obscure overtones above thick drones emanating from a compact disc. Al mentioned that Conrad’s music sounded much like it did back in the 1960s. Then he added, “I never trust these people who base their entire life’s work on one idea. It seems careerist, rather than artistic.” “I could never find an idea interesting enough to base my entire life on,” I joked. “That’s just my point,” he shot back. “Neither has anyone else.”
Al had me stumped. I admit to a prejudice that the composers who turn out to be truly great are those who transcend the trajectory of their early careers in their mid forties, and who take some left turn into new vistas. (Having recently turned 45, this is a matter of some urgent personal concern.) Like Robert Ashley leaving conceptualism behind at 48 and inventing the unprecedented continuity of Perfect Lives. Like John Cage abandoning modalism and rhythmic structure at age 40 to begin chance composition. Like a 44-year-old Morton Feldman beginning to write eccentrically notated works ranging from 90 minutes long to six hours.
And it’s not just American experimentalists. My hero Claudio Monteverdi jettisoned his Renaissance contrapuntal training at 40 to join the new Baroque “amateurs” with his Orfeo of 1607. Beethoven, at 42, stopped composing and eventually emerged with a new style so avant-garde no one’s caught up with it to this day. Wagner (b. 1813) transported himself from the stolid German forests of Lohengrin (1848) to the chromatic quicksands of Tristan und Isolde (1858). Coleman Hawkins switched from swing to bebop at around 40, and Miles Davis—having spearheaded cool jazz and hard bop in his 20s—made a critic-exasperating jump to fusion in his early 40s.
Counterexamples would be cruel to enumerate, but there are plenty of older composers around still making basically the same music they did in their youth, and wondering why no one makes a big deal about them anymore. It seems like there’s some psychological barrier an artist has to break through in his or her 40s in order to go beyond what is merely a product of one’s time into something bizarre, supremely personal, and, ultimately, unexpectedly universal.
But it’s not clear how this tenuous paradigm applies to Tony Conrad. After all, despite some early innovative conceptualist works, Conrad didn’t have much of an independent early career back in the 1960s, but was known for being part of the Theatre of Eternal Music alongside (or under, depending on whom you’re arguing with) La Monte Young. By 1966, the then 26-year-old Conrad had opened a separate career in underground film with his classic piece of stroboscopic minimalism, The Flicker. When he returned in the mid 1980s with his Early Minimalism series, a group of raucously droning violin pieces based on a rough, fluctuating approach to pure tunings, he had pretty much been forgotten by the music world for over a decade.
And now we have this unique career based on re-creating a music remembered from 35 years ago that never really existed. At Tonic, Conrad played a lusher, denser sound continuum than one hears in his single surviving solo recording from the ’60s, Four Violins. With a rough tone constantly in flux yet hitting precise points of crystallization, he played around a seventh harmonic over the drones, eventually moving to clearly defined 11th and 13th harmonics: phenomena made memorable by their rarity. Toward the end of the first hour, he was joined onstage by an ensemble including Arnold Dreyblatt on bass, Mark Stewart on cello, Jim O’Rourke on hurdy-gurdy, and others, magnifying the density of the drone texture. At last Conrad put down his violin and plucked deep glissandos on a large, horizontal stringed instrument, a new device but hardly a radical change.
So is Conrad a one-idea composer? Did that idea take a detour through other media before it could blossom into a full conception? Or is the new idea of his late career a remembrance of tone structures that never really existed? Such questions may be impossible to decide. But while superficially Conrad did about what I expected, he also led me through obscure regions of the harmonic spectrum I had never experienced before, feeling too pleasantly lost to care whether he had been there before or not.