Sound Arts, Sutures & Pseudopods: Interview with Tony Conrad

Published on the Liquid Architecture 5 website, archived here.

Tony Conrad is considered one of the first "minimal" composer/performers, associated in his early period with La Monte Young, John Cale, Henry Flynt and legendary New York underground filmmaker, Jack Smith. Conrad is also acknowleged as a pioneer of structuralist filmmaking (his 1960s film The Flicker is one of the key early works of the "structural" film movement), and in recent years he has presented and performed at festivals and events worldwide.

Conrad has worked in music composition, video, film, and performance and has taught video production and analysis in the Department of Media Study of the State University of New York at Buffalo since 1976. During the last ten years, Conrad has focused on music and performing recent works in new music venues, museums and clubs in the US and internationally. He has composed more than a dozen works, primarily for solo amplified violin with amplified strings, using special tunings and scales. 

Luke Jaaniste speaks with Tony Conrad about then and now.

What are the main similarities between sound arts and music in the 1960s and the 1970s and today? What are the main differences?

There is a big difference between nostalgia, on the one hand, and finding uses for the past, on the other hand. Because the 1960s were the first years in which it became possible for experimental artists on very small budgets to document their work at all accurately – with video and audio recorders, in particular – it is tempting to look back wistfully at these records and see them as offering a window onto a lost, romantic "reality." However, I prefer instead to see this "window" as a suggestion that cultural invention today is not unique; that marginal cultural production has probably been an unrecorded presence over a vast scope of time and space, while only that cultural production which has been linked to systems of power has been recorded, sustained, and mythologised.

It is significant today that quasi-urban "communities" of marginal arts and music can spring up in the global context of the internet, multiplying the ways opposition to hegemonic cultural systems can be configured. And if past cultural initiatives can stand in as models of remote and inviolable practices, as models for what alternative cultural formations are (or might be) possible, then the record of the 1960s (and other times) may prove in fact to be very useful.

What do you think are the most interesting directions in sound arts today, and why?

Sound arts is a vast landscape. Looking out there, you can see hordes of hustlers pushing their Sisyphian balls of "rock" up the money hill. And at the same time, you can still find other people trucking along the old pothole-filled highway of academic serialism and bleep-blop music. But as we wander toward these market-bound and tradition-bound people, coming at them as we do from every direction on the map, today we find that they seem a bit quaint, rather than heroic or portentous. I think this is because we're coming at them from a thousand interesting directions.

On the global charts, there are hybrid musics boiling up almost everywhere. People used to look at these weird spliced cultures with the attitude that cultural "purity" was disappearing, but now, today, there are new directions for approaching mixed musics, and I think this is an excellent development. One person might hear Kronkong as post-colonial music; another person could hear Hip Hop as a branch of Krautrock; someone else might hear cellphone ringers as electronic pop. The spew of recorded sound everywhere has jaded all of us, and we only hear stuff the way we want to, making our own decisions about it, because the "consumerist" idea of "choice" has backfired, exploded.Too much Top 40 has vaporised musical culture, blown it all over a worldwide, freeform, multidimensional perceptual map. In that space, a lot of the directions are sutures or pseudopods, and most of them are interesting.

Art critic Tony Godfrey has suggested that much contemporary work is simply a reworking of ideas conceived in the 1960/70s – that the work today is simply more polished, with higher production qualities (for him this is a negative thing). What's your opinion?

Some work today is, of course, really polished versions of previous stuff. The most famous example of this trend in Western music is JS Bach, whose sons were shaping the new idiom while the old man fussed over the older principles of baroque style.

However, today something very interesting is happening at the other end of the spectrum entirely, because of the relative perfection of recording technologies. People are finding it more and more possible to take "bad" production values seriously, or even to more or less ignore production value as a critical factor altogether. Maybe this "aesthetic" of acceptance began at the bottom end of the economic spectrum – when people listened carefully to "bad" early recordings of bebop or country blues. Maybe it began with John Cage's cutups and music made with toys. Maybe it began with punk. In any case, I am hearing a lot of liberated usages of "bad" sounds today – "bad" versions of earlier work, ideas, and techniques. And some of this stuff is certainly opening our access to fresh and unexplored ways of listening.

How have you been able to sustain your own practice over the decades? Can you list some strategies and methodologies that keep you going as an artist?

What else should anybody say?

How similar or dissimilar is your current practice to your early years of working as an artist? In what ways is it different? What are some reasons for any changes?

In 1974 I became a college teacher. At some point I decided to try to change, rather than destroy, music or film, by creating work that could intervene disruptively into the field's critical machinery. I also have had the experience of changing the basis I had for inventing images – from a problem-solving approach to an understanding involved with ideas of social power. Overall, my sense of time has changed, as my own experience has begun to encompass a greater historical scope. As people have died around me, I have (ironically) seen more reason to save and sustain my own output, whether or not it is valued by others. 

I have spent a lot of time seeing value in working as an "animator" – one who abets the productive activity of others, rather than exercising their own ego – and giving up my public role as an "artist" per se. This change brought me more or less into line with some ideas that have recently surfaced under the rubric "relational aesthetics." I have decided, too, that a good idea might be to reveal the relationships that culture has had with state or other systems of power in the West, and to revisit historical junctures in music with a purposeful attitude that might point out how music has been complicitous with various power structures. But of course, this is only skimming over the surface of a deep sea of changes, full of cross-currents and eddies.