I first heard Tony Conrad in 2011. He was playing alongside his friend Charlemagne Palestine at the Melbourne Jazz Festival and it was a mesmirising hypnotic experience, long, warm, durational and droney. It felt like a throwback to a 60’s happening. For that tour I had the opportunity to interview Palestine and he said of Conrad “He’s very American and he does a lot of discussions and explanations and he does them very well, but I’m the total opposite, I hate all of that. But when we start to play there’s no barriers between us and no need to explain anything, it just all comes out the way it should.”
Palestine appears in this doco, as does Moby, David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s memorable line is “You here one second of Tony’s music and you know it’s him,” whilst Moby suggests that Conrad’s music makes “your metabolism slow down, but in a nice way.”
The film, directed by Tyler Hubby follows Conrad’s various projects chronologically as narrated in the present by Conrad himself. From jamming with La Monte Young and John Cale for hours each day as Theatre of Eternal Music in a New York apartment to touring with Lou Reed, collaborating with Jack Smith and the birth of Velvet Underground, Conrad has led a rich and varied life. Hubby mixes archival footage with current day interviews with his collaborators and also followed Conrad around during the last couple of years of his life.
“I wanted to end composing, I wanted to get rid of it, I wanted it to die out,” Conrad offers at one point, disgusted by bastions of high art. Across music, film and various art projects in between he wanted to make abstract art that was funny, energetic and joyful. And he was pretty successful.
His 1966 film Flicker caused a sensation, and either nausea or hallucinations depending upon you constitution. Other films really pushed the notions of what film could be such as ‘Yellow Movies’ where in direct competition with Warhol’s 24 hour film, he wanted his to last 24 years. In fact his concept of what film could be was pretty elastic. In the 70’s he began teaching, in his words ‘how not to do things.” It was here he began cooking film, substituting it for onion, currying, deep frying, and pickling it instead of exposing it. He even hosted a homework club for inner city students on public access tv in an attempt to shatter peoples concept of the media.
Many of those interviewed cite Conrad’s disdain for authority, and in fact it’s when people express distaste for his artistic endeavors that he appears more animated and encouraged. It’s also part of the beauty of having him narrate and guide the film, even abject failures, such as the mass walkabouts during his military films can be cast as successes. His intention he suggests now is to not connect with audiences.
Musically his rediscovery stems from the re release via Table of Elements of his 1972 album with mischievous German experimentalists Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate. From here he began releasing music again, even being sent off to record with Nirvana producer Steve Albini, David Grubb s and Jim O’Rourke amongst numerous other Chicago luminaries for 1995’s maximalist beat Slapping Pythagoras.
This film demonstrates a restless creative spirit always looking towards a new project regardless of medium. It ends with him on a busy city street joyfully composing traffic, requesting the cars and trucks that he wants to appear. All goes well for a while, before he gets frustrated, verbally castigating the wrong vehicles, or a bike that he doesn’t want in his composition. It’s a moment that feels metaphorical, but leaves you inspired by the sheer unabashed creativity of this truly unique individual.
Tony Conrad Completely In The Present is Screening at ACMI in Melbourne 3rd – 11th of June 2017 as Part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. You can find more information here.