An Evening for Tony Conrad review tribute toexperimental music legend

A moving memorial concert and screening at the MoMA in New York gives a look into how the avant garde music pioneers legacy will be preserved

The composer, violinist and film-maker Tony Conrad was supposed to perform in New York this week, alongside the String Orchestra of Brooklyn. As part of the Museum of Modern Arts Modern Mondays programming series, the idea was that the drone pioneer would present a version of a recent composition before giving the audience a chance to look at two of his early (and celebrated) experimental films: 1965s Flicker and 1970s Straight and Narrow. Then, shortly after pulling out of the Big Ears festival in Knoxville due to health complications, Conrad died at age 76. On Monday, the concert went ahead after being changed from an evening with Tony Conrad to an evening for Tony Conrad.

Once an appropriately solemn minute of silence had been observed at the evenings outset, the mood in the auditorium quickly turned ecstatic. And the concert showed why this particular composers work is going to outlive his own history as a performer. Originally conceived as a companion/response piece to Andy Warhols eight-hour film Empire, Conrads modular score for Empire for Strings can also be played in a reduced, 45-minute version (which is what the artist and MoMA had always intended to present at this date).

From its opening clutch of sustained tones, the piece offered a familiar hit of Conrads drone aesthetic but it also contained some surprises. With the String Orchestra of Brooklyn divided into three collections of six or seven players, musicians in the various sub-groupings played noticeably different harmonies and gestures. A quickly rising, silvery figure for violin escaped from the dreamy tone-cloud of the first ensemble, while bowed bass notes punctuated the more staccato writing for the second group.

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String Orchestra of Brooklyn play Tony Conrads Empire for Strings. Photograph: MoMA

Before each portion of the orchestra handed off drone duties, there were brief moments of overlapped playing and it was at these junctures that the subtle harmonic movement of Conrads piece was most evident. Over the course of the 45 minutes, listeners heard each sub-group alone, as well as in brief conversations with a partner ensemble. In the finale, all the members of the orchestra played together. Figures that had seemed like small bits of filigree expanded creating longer melodic lines snaking inside and around Conrads drones. I found the effect sublime, and I wanted to hear the piece again immediately. (If the String Orchestra of Brooklyn starts a Kickstarter to fund a studio recording, Im in.)

The back half of the program was just as rewarding, especially as it underlined the connections between Conrads putatively distinct artistic disciplines. Two early stroboscopic films, preserved by Anthology Film Archives and lent to MoMA, share with his early acoustic drone music the goal of scrambling perception. Just as Conrads difference tones exploit the ambiguity of a listeners understanding of the threshold relationship between pitch and rhythm (in Branden W Josephs words), the alternating, black-then-white frames of Flicker can likewise impact the moviegoers ability to distinguish between photography and editing.

During Flickers half-hour duration, the viewer also gets a sense of Conrad the composer at work. At one particular moment, when hes really ramping up the visual strobe effect, he lowers the soundtrack volume. Just before this change, I thought I might need to close my eyes for a second. But then the shift in the soundtrack helped me realize that I was equally influenced by the dynamic level of the sound. (A little less stressed out, I then continued to watch, and happily.)

A shorter, 10-minute companion piece, Straight and Narrow, introduces black-and-white horizontal and vertical lines to the strobing montage, creating an even woozier effect. The soundtrack here was a portion of the recording Ides of March performed by Conrad associates John Cale and Terry Riley (on their album Church of Anthrax) and it laid down a consistent pounding that was also suitably playful.

In a 1975 letter to a friend (quoted in Josephs book on Conrad), the composer/film-maker admitted to an occasional fear regarding the reception of his works, writing: Though I find my own oeuvre impeccably consistent and directed, its diversity (I realize) obscures the plane of this consistency from any but the most careful analyst.

He had every right to worry about proper documentation, but the connections seem quite clear (at least four decades on). By initially assaulting the audience with a feverish, persistent language, and then gradually expanding the listener or hearers perceptions often via canny use of superimpositions the unified Conrad style rang clear at MoMA. Give credit to the curators, to Anthology Film Archives, and to the musicians of the String Orchestra of Brooklyn for seeing the program through, and for making sure that Conrad doesnt have to be with us in order to reach us, still.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/19/an-evening-for-tony-conrad-memorial-concert-moma