Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present
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