The Theater of Eternal Music performing in 1965. From left, Mr. Conrad, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and John Cale.
FRED W. MCDARRAH / GETTY IMAGES
Tony Conrad Was Such a Good Minimalist, He Was Almost Forgotten
By WILLIAM ROBIN
MARCH 24, 2017
In February 1963, a 22-year-old experimental violinist named Tony Conrad stood outside Philharmonic (now David Geffen) Hall in New York wearing a signboard that read “Demolish Lincoln Center!” With the composer Henry Flynt and the filmmaker Jack Smith, Mr. Conrad formed a three-man picket line that spent a day marching at the center, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were protesting, Mr. Conrad later recalled, “the imperialist influences of European high culture” and gesturing toward “the dismantling and dispersion of any and all organized cultural forms.”
Anti-authoritarian actions soon became typical for Mr. Conrad, whose significant legacy in music, film and performance remained relatively unknown when he died last April at 76.
“Tony Conrad is as punk rock as anyone who ever had the audacity to call themselves punk rock,” said the writer and musician Henry Rollins, formerly of Black Flag, who moderated a post-screening conversation for the new documentary “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” in Los Angeles earlier this month. On Friday, March 31, the film has its American theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.
At the time of the Lincoln Center protest, Mr. Conrad was playing a formative role in the sound of Minimalism as a performer in the improvising ensemble Theater of Eternal Music. The next year, he and his roommate, John Cale, were recruited to join a rock group with Lou Reed known as the Primitives, the precursor to the Velvet Underground. Rather than joining that band, Mr. Conrad moved on to other art forms, becoming a pioneer in structural film with “The Flicker” (1966), a trippy juxtaposition of black-and-white frames that reportedly caused some audience members to become physically ill.
“It seemed to be the thing that drove almost everything: There was just an incredible resistance to authority,” the new documentary’s director, Tyler Hubby, said in a recent interview. “It got very deep, the idea of resisting these established institutionalized ideas. Why does it have to be that way? Why can’t we do something different? Why can’t we make something new or see something in a different way?”
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