Tony Con­rad: Com­pletely in the Present

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TONY CON­RAD: COM­PLETELY IN THE PRESENT, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

The ca­reer of Tony Con­rad proves you don’t need a big ego to get ahead in life. Of course, that might de­pend on how you are will­ing to mea­sure suc­cess. In the 1960s, Tony Con­rad, known pri­mar­ily as a film­maker and com­poser, lived in apart­ments in poor in­ner-city neigh­bor­hoods where rent was less than a dol­lar. He hung out with other strug­gling artists and mu­si­cians — a fair num­ber of whom, like John Cale and Lou Reed, would rise above their hum­ble be­gin­nings and go on to in­ter­na­tional stardom. But Con­rad didn’t. He didn’t fall into ob­scu­rity, ei­ther, be­cause in a way, he never left it.

Made be­fore Con­rad’s death in 2016, di­rec­tor Tyler Hubby’s doc­u­men­tary on the friendly Con­rad, a man of in­ter­minable en­ergy, is a tour of New York’s Lower East Side that cov­ers the early years where, as a com­poser, Con­rad ex­plored the sus­tained, re­ver­ber­at­ing tones that in­flu­enced his friend Cale. Cale later brought that sound to the Vel­vet Un­der­ground, the band he co-founded with Reed. The film makes no men­tion of it, but Con­rad, a mem­ber of Reed’s early band The Prim­i­tives, is cited by those who knew him as the per­son who came up with the Vel­vets’ name.

It’s ap­par­ent through­out the film that Con­rad, who was an icon­o­clas­tic fig­ure, sought to trans­form mu­sic in­side out — al­though he states at one point that what he re­ally wanted was to end com­pos­ing com­pletely and make mu­sic with no score and no com­poser. He was vo­cal in his crit­i­cism of the work of com­posers he felt didn’t reach far enough, or try hard enough to break through aca­demic con­ven­tions. It’s ironic, then, that academia was the one place Con­rad would make his mark. He taught film­mak­ing for many years at State Univer­sity of New York at Buf­falo, en­gag­ing with stu­dents on provoca­tive, con­tro­ver­sial projects.

As a mu­si­cian, Con­rad made mu­sic that many found in­ac­ces­si­ble be­cause he was al­ways ex­per­i­ment­ing with sound. As a film­maker, he made films that were a chal­lenge to en­dure, such as (1966), which con­sisted only of al­ter­nat­ing black-and-white frames. Hubby’s film also cov­ers Con­rad’s late-ca­reer resur­gence, which be­gan in the 1990s. Pop­u­lar mu­si­cians like Moby and Jim O’Rourke, who are in­ter­viewed for the film, credit Con­rad as a ma­jor in­flu­ence, not to men­tion as­pir­ing com­posers and film­mak­ers who im­merse them­selves in his pi­o­neer­ing work. Tony Con­rad: Com­pletely in the Present shows us a fig­ure whose con­tem­po­raries still ad­mire the great mu­si­cal un­do­ing he in­tended to achieve. With­out Con­rad, we might never even have heard their names. — Michael Abatemarco

The The­atre of Eter­nal Mu­sic per­form­ing, 1965; from left, Tony Con­rad, La Monte Young, Mar­ian Zazeela, and John Cale

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