Early Minimalism
and Beyond:
Tony Conrad in
Music, Film, and Video

(Note: these pages are still under construction!)


"History is like Music -- Completely in the Present."1

Tony Conrad has, throughout his activities, sought redefinition of the role of composer, of creator of works. In turn, writing an analytical project about his works might seem a little bit odd, even perverse: How does one assess carefully the works that systematically denies the status of creator? Tony Conrad, as a member of the Theatre of Eternal Music (1962-1965) as well as in other activity, has made music whose nature calls into question the traditional Western role of composer. Generally, this music is improvised on the spot (although dissimilar to "improvised music," especially that developed by musicians such as Derek Bailey), has no score, and needs no conductor. Although the Theatre of Eternal Music grew out of an opposition to the Western high-art music tradition, it shares with its early predecessors (especially, and ironically, Serialism) a certain extension of the project of Modernism, as Conrad writes:

Speaking generally, the modernist perspective . . . regards music as poised between (1) the phenomenological aspects of the sounds themselves in relation to the individual auditor, and (2) the work’s structural formalisms...2

That is, for the modernist music can be analyzed according to the physical elements which make a piece (or song, or concerto, or symphony, etc.) audible, and according to the fundamental elements which distinguish the piece from other pieces (most commonly delineated specifically by a score). The Theatre of Eternal Music most assuredly was preoccupied with the physical elements of sound as the ensemble created loud, dissonant music based upon drones. Also, the Dream Syndicate (as it was dubbed by Conrad and member John Cale) created its music within the tuning scales of just-intonation (as opposed to the equal temperament scale that European composers and musicians adopted by the late Nineteenth Century, still in use today). Although this use of just-intonation based itself within a preoccupation of the physical elements of sound, it also became a basis for the structural formalisms of their music. Indeed, Tony Conrad’s introduction of just-intonation to the Theatre of Eternal Music and specifically to its "leader" La Monte Young, has proven to be the distinguishing feature of both Conrad and Young’s later works.

However, the Theatre of Eternal Music also had three traits or characteristics which clearly discriminate their musical activity apart from any earlier music in the Twentieth Century:

There were three pathways that made sense to the performers of ‘Dream Music,’ or the ‘Theatre of Eternal Music,’ or ‘The Dream Syndicate,’ as I sometimes called it. Happily, what each of these solutions shared was a solid opposition to the North Atlantic [i.e. Western European and American] cultural tradition of composition.

The first was the dismantling of the whole edifice of ‘high’ culture. Also around this time, I picketed the New York museums and high-culture performance spaces with Henry Flynt, in opposition to the imperialist influences of European high culture. More than that, I had strong sympathies with the aims of Flynt’s program, which amounted to the dismantling and dispersion of any and all organized cultural forms. At the time I was also a part of the ‘Underground Movie’ scene, which (as I saw it) reconstructed the movies as a documentary form -- a merging of life-aims with movie production. Other counter-cultural components of the Dream Music picture were our anti-bourgeois lifestyles, our use of drugs, and the joy which John Cale and I took in common pop music. Down this pathway there were other fellow travelers, like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed; it led straight to the Velvet Underground, and the melting of art music into rock and roll.

The second solution was to dispense with the score, and thereby with the authoritarian trappings of composition, but to retain cultural production in music as an activity. The music was not to be a ‘conceptual’ activity . . . it would instead be structured around pragmatic activity, around direct gratification in the realization of the moment, and around discipline. . . .

In keeping with the technology of the early 1960s, the score was replaced by the tape recorder. This, then, was a total displacement of the composer’s role, from progenitor of the sound to groundskeeper at its gravesite. The recordings were our collective property, resident in their unique physical form at [La Monte] Young and [Marian] Zazeela’s loft, where we rehearsed, until such time as they might be copied for us.

The third route out of the modernist crisis was to move away from composing to listening, again working ‘on’ the sound from ‘inside’ the sound. Here I was to contribute powerful tools, including a nomenclature for rational frequency ratios, which ignited our subsequent development.3

These aspects, especially the final two, had been anticipated by a number of musical developments in the 1950s and 1960s, especially that of the work of John Cage. What distinguishes the Theatre of Eternal Music from works such as Cage’s 4’33" (in which the performer is instructed to be silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds) is that the Dream Syndicate operated within the realm of long-duration tonality, playing single notes or groups of notes for hours on end. Also, although many of Cage’s pieces certainly toy with anti-authoritarian trappings (especially his works composed by chance or aleatory methods), they are still works by Cage.

When inserting all of these musical activities within a historical narrative or framework, however, it is quite clear that the work of John Cage certainly challenged the "edifice of high culture" (although arguably from within it), and that this challenge led to a number of different yet similar attempts. Most notably, Fluxus (of which Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, and La Monte Young were onetime members) was a movement which was practically consumed with challenging high culture whether it be in the form of "anti-art" as practiced by Ben Vautier, or in the form of "conceptual music" pieces by La Monte Young (such as his Compositions 1960 series). Also, from a historical perspective, it is quite easy to see how the music of the Dream Syndicate worked itself into the heart of American music: because it influenced the Velvet Underground (of which Eternal Music member John Cale was viola player and bassist), certain tendencies in American popular music classified as "art-rock" can trace their lineage back to the Dream Syndicate. In addition, the positioning of the Theatre of Eternal Music within an oppositional, "downtown" music by way of its simplistic structure shows it to be the stylistic, immediate precursor to Minimalism, a music made commercially viable by Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Although Minimalism’s roots in the Theatre of Eternal Music were initially anti-"high art," it has been incorporated (although somewhat reluctantly) into the canon of Western Classical music. This is evidenced especially by Glass’ use of the Western opera form, and his subsequent success in opening "high art" institutions (such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York City) to his works.

So, in initiating a sort of music which transcends modernist tendencies, the Theatre of Eternal Music was quite successful at their own goal of producing something new. But what does one call something beyond the modern? Conrad situates the Theatre of Eternal Music within the term post-modern:

a postmodernist view of music [is] balanced between (1) its engagement with the social attentions of the listener and (2) its cultural appropriations and references. . . .

Appropriation is a general structural principle of postmodern culture, a relational principle that seemed for a time to give theory a toe-hold in the bulwark of the dissolving arts hierarchy. Appropriation functions to re-label an artifact which is already oriented within the cultural plane.4

Postmodern is a term which is certainly bandied about in the present age, although not many seem willing or able to define it. In the case of music, postmodern seems easier to define than with its literary counterpart. When using the criteria which Conrad cites as postmodern, it is quite easy to come up with a multitude of examples across many genres of musical activity.

Historically speaking, though, postmodern also refers to a development in theories of literature, specifically as developed by writers such as Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and others. However, every writer to tackle the issue of the postmodern, or to develop the postmodern idea by extension of their texts, has addressed it in completely different ways. Lyotard defines postmodern, for example, by its relationship to technological developments. He writes:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. . . . The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements -- narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on.5

When examining Lyotard’s "simple" definition in the introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, one can see a direct link to the music of the Dream Syndicate, music which was founded on an inherent distrust of the "metanarrative" of Western Classical or "high-art" music. The members of the Dream Syndicate were encouraged to take a step away from the Western tradition, and became interested in other music from around the world and in America (specifically Indian classical music and American "pop" music). Their interest in non-Western forms came straight out of the impact that recording technology had upon all music in the 1950s:

. . . music has inhabited a peculiarly postmodern corner of ‘culture’ ever since the late [19]50s, when the critical paradoxes of [John] Cage opened the ear of ‘serious’ music onto the world, when the machinery of international capitalism coalesced with the machinery of popular music, when both ethnomusicology and music history became participatory enterprises for the active listener. It was only in the 50s that it became possible to listen to records of weird jazz, avant-garde music, and music from other times and cultures.

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.6

As well, Tony Conrad’s Early Minimalism project is in a sense an "incredulity" towards the narrative of the Theatre of Eternal Music espoused by La Monte Young, and situated within the "metanarrative" of Minimalist music. However, Early Minimalism, unlike the seemingly spontaneous and concurrent musical developments of the 1950s and 1960s, grew out of the development of literary postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s. Conrad writes, "Why should this critical lineage, from modern to postmodern, be of any concern to Early Minimalism? Largely because postmodernism marks a sea change in cultural literacy during recent decades."7 Thus, Early Minimalism is a commentary not only on specific issues of earlier music and how that has been historicized, but also upon the critical framework by which most works (musical, non-musical, whatever) are now analyzed.

Returning to the question at the beginning of this introduction, it is clear that assessing Tony Conrad’s works is problematic at best because of their denial of the composer or creator function. However, just as Early Minimalism re-inserts the idea of the composer in an attempt to comment "on the status of history and a non-recoverable past in the archive of musical culture,"8 so too does this paper re-insert the idea of a metanarrative into a historical construct, all the while acknowledging the "non-recoverable" aspect of the past by its close examination of the "literature" of Minimalism. Occasionally this project -- Early Minimalism and Beyond: Tony Conrad in Music, Film, and Video -- indulges in the construction of narrative. Ultimately for convenience’s sake (for writing history without narrative is impossible), this project seeks not to destroy or disrupt the relationship between history and its subject. The subject of this project is Tony Conrad, or more specifically, the creative activities in which he has engaged. The narrative of these activities fall within larger narratives, namely those of "Twentieth Century Music" or "Minimalist Music" or "Avant-Garde Music" or "Structuralist Film" or "Underground Film" and so on. These narratives have been shaped within the metanarrative of this project through analysis. This project sees no need to stay strictly biographical: it does not begin "Tony Conrad was born in 1940 and spent his early years in rural Maryland" (although these things are true). This project’s "incredulity towards metanarratives" extends beyond its distrust for the previously written histories of Minimalism into a distrust for the corniness of the biographical form. That it does not dispense with the historical may not fit Lyotard’s criteria, but it seems obvious that one cannot dispense with the historical that easily. Postmodernity grows out of modernity, and while it questions modernity’s tenets, it cannot totally do away with them, either. As Tony Conrad says, "A cultural institution as firmly entrenched as music composition -- musical authorship -- can be accosted critically or even sidestepped dismissively, but it simply won’t go away."9 So too does the narrative, the historical persist. However, that does not mean that history, specifically that of Minimalism and of the Theatre of Eternal Music (and Conrad’s role in each), is permanent. This project attempts, and hopefully completes, a reconfiguration of these narratives in a new way which will illuminate these actions, and their participants, more clearly.

Chapter One:
Beginnings: A Tracing through Serialism, Cage, pre-Fluxus, and Early Fluxus, 1900-1963.

Last Updated on 10/18/01.

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