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Tony Conrad, a Prime Architect of Western Experimental Music, Has Passed

Friends and collaborators of the artist offer words of remembrance.
Photo courtesy of the artist's website

Reports are coming in that experimental musician, filmmaker, and professor Tony Conrad has passed following a battle with cancer complicated by pneumonia. He was 76 years old.

Conrad was a forefather of the electronic drone and noise genres, having made innovations to these forms after joining La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, and helping to develop what was then termed "dream music." Up until the present day, Conrad, a professor at the University of Buffalo, pushed the boundaries of acoustic instrumentation— experimenting with amplification, effectuation, and scale tuning — on the violin, his primary instrument. Conrad was also a luminary video artist, and was beloved figure in both the experimental music and film communities of New York.


Upon the eve of his death, Conrad had been scheduled to perform at last week's Big Ears Festival with the legendary krautrock band Faust, but was forced to step down over health issues. Laurie Anderson performed in his stead.

"It's been hardhitting," said fellow experimental violinist and video artist C Spencer Yeh to THUMP in a phone interview, and who collaborated with Conrad on the live album Musculus Trapezius. "I looked up to Tony and was enthralled by the work he had done. It was a great honor to have worked with him, not only because he was such a huge figure, but because he was so present and never rarified himself. He was really open to pushing his curiosity and trying new things. There really isn't a record that defines his sound — his catalog just gets richer the more you dig into it. And it made collaborating with him that much more exciting, just knowing that he never lost that passion for experimentation."

"Tony was such an inspiration to my generation," musician, visual artist, and Primary Information co-founder James Hoff told THUMP. "He was a gateway drug into the avant-garde and the world beyond." Primary Information released XXX Macarena (2010), a collaboration between Conrad, German artist and musician Jutta Koether, and percussionist John Miller.

Conrad, who was born in Baltimore in 1940, attended Harvard University, and afterward fell into the avant-garde art scene of early 60s New York. After Conrad and his friend John Cale performed with La Monte Young's ensemble, which later changed its name to The Dream Syndicate, the two musicians and fellow New York guitarist Lou Reed briefly performed as The Primitives. The latter two went on to form The Velvet Underground, a name they took from a book found in Conrad's possession. Conrad veered from music for many years to focus on film, only to return to the form in his golden years, arguably his most productive compositionally.

Conrad's recorded discography includes Four Violins (recorded in 1964 and released in 1996), Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973) a collaboration with the Krautrock band Faust, and Slapping Pythagoras (1995) the record that marked his grand return to music. Throughout his career, Conrad worked with a variety of artists, including Throbbing Gristle's and Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge, as well as celebrated experimental duo Gastr Del Sol, but as his friends and collaborators tell it, he never lost his enthusiasm for working with younger artists.

"Tony had a real openness toward new people," Eli Keszler, an experimental composer and artist, told THUMP. "He would go to shows, and be a part of all sorts of things that were going on. I was fortunate enough to have been able to collaborate with him, yet it felt like he was just as excited to work with me. He had no obligation to be that way. I think he made most people he worked with feel like this. He understood what a community could be."

Watch a live solo performance by Tony Conrad below.