In a video tour of his 2012 exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne, Germany, Tony Conrad bounces excitedly from one three-dimensional element to the next.1 Invented Acoustical Tools included dozens of Conrad’s “inventions,” ranging in date from the late 1960s through the present. The first object discussed and demonstrated on the video tour is also one of the earliest: a 1968 invention called the Limp String. Conrad holds the wooden board—a long, rectangular shape with an angled section removed from a single top corner—in his lap. Electrified, the Limp String begins to sing as Conrad pulls on a length of wire. A metal pipe borrowed from a vacuum cleaner extends from the bottom edge, serving as a stand for the object, while guitar-tuning keys jut from the angled corner.2 Conrad’s invention is a musical instrument, meant to replicate the sounds of an Indian veena, with its wavering tonalities and taffy-pulled sounds.
As Conrad plucks and pulls at the Limp String, he narrates the instrument’s functionality as well as its purpose, stating off-handedly, “So this is the first musical instrument that I devised to try to create a new musical culture. Yeah, that was the idea. Make a new …”3 From there, Conrad moves into a discussion of the next invention, “one of [his] favorites”—Long String Drone, attributed here to the year 1972.4 Long String Drone or, as Conrad coyly abbreviates it, LSD, sits perched on a pair of keyboard stands (not, it seems, original to the era). LSD resembles guitarist and songwriter Les Paul’s first electric guitar, “the log”—referred to as such because of its simple, rectilinear shape—which was made around 1940. Like Paul’s innovation, LSD is a long strip of wood, outfitted with an electrical element (the one musician benefiting from the precedence of the other, using a commercially available guitar pickup), tuning keys, and strings. Three long wire strings stretch from end to end, pulled tightly across hand-notched grooves, numeric and alphabetical markings, and a smattering of green paint and duct tape.
Conrad’s Long String Drone and the other inventions included in the 2012 exhibition all occupy an idiosyncratic relationship to visual composition and the space of their display. This array of odd, semi-sculptural objects are made from repurposed Frisbees, L-brackets, a garden bench, fragments of metal and PVC pipe, an empty apple juice jug, drills, children’s toys, various composites of wire and electronic detritus, and shards of wood, plastic, and metal, along with the occasional appearance of a traditional musical instrument, all transformed through Conrad’s hand. Together, these works point not to his engagement with sculptural forms, but rather stand in as material evidence of his long involvement with experimental music and sound. By now widely understood as a polymath, Conrad has been described as a filmmaker, visual artist, writer, actor, and educator, but through the exhibition Invented Acoustical Tools, the terms “musician” and “inventor” are added to the list and highlighted. The exhibition serves as just a part of Conrad’s long-fought reclamation of his artistic legacy in connection with musical minimalism and the avant-garde.5
An active participant in New York’s avant-garde milieu of the 1960s, Conrad’s quest for a “new musical culture” would lead him into collaborations and conversations with a host of artists and musicians. Among them were La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, Angus MacLise, Henry Flynt, Jack Smith, Lou Reed, and Walter de Maria—though the circle was continuously expanding and contracting. Working together, usually outside of any formalized arrangement, this group circulated in a creatively charged New York, experimenting with electronically produced sounds; working through Cagean ideals of chance and indeterminancy; adjusting their instruments to alternative tuning systems; composing scores using words alone or eschewing composition altogether; incorporating psychedelics into their visual and musical practices; and experimenting with various methodologies, traditions, and media.
Acquired by the Walker Art Center shortly after the exhibition at Galerie Buchholz, Conrad’s Long String Drone serves as a key to the elusive history of New York experimental music—most of which was made with the contingency of improvisation and ephemerality. Happening at a moment when audio recording was much more expensive and cumbersome than it is today, much of the music went unrecorded, and for some of its acolytes (Conrad included), the idea of a written score seemed anathematic to the goals of their experimentation.6 While many Fluxus and other performance-based practices of the era were self-consciously documented, there remains comparatively little evidence of the efforts of these members of the musical avant-garde. So, while Long String Drone is a fairly rudimentary object as a musical instrument, it exists on several levels of signification, each of its identities nested within the next. LSD is a semi-sculptural object, occupying three-dimensional space within a gallery setting; a relic of some past action, performance, or musical creation; a musician’s tool used, practically, to achieve a particular sonic effect; and a cipher-object, pointing indexically outside of itself to a history of performances, a set of recordings, and a web of ideas. Taking up the function of Conrad’s own retrospective dig through his “concretion of art material,” this essay proposes to mirror his “archeological pleasure” by extrapolating from this object a set of inferences relating to minimal music, the culture of experimentation that defined the New York avant-garde musical scene during the era, and the centrality of the drone as both a musical device and conceptual principle.7
In Pursuit of the Drone
While much of Conrad’s development as a musician and artist has been laid out in Branden W. Joseph’s invaluable text, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage, anchoring an approach to Conrad’s career in the Long String Drone can inspire a slightly different path. Looking for traces of LSD leads through a dense thicket of art publications, tomes such as Joseph’s, and exhibition catalogues, but also to less familiar sources, including liner notes, underground music websites, bootleg recordings, dust jackets, and interviews circulating online. Looking specifically at Long String Drone as an instrument, as well as examining its corollary form (the drone), we can begin to sketch out a particular vision of Conrad’s production that is both cohesive and expansive.
Like the violin—the instrument that served as Conrad’s musical foundation and remains his most-often used—Long String Drone is played with a bow. Dragging slowly back and forth across the instrument’s three strings, the bow coaxes out a slightly dissonant chord, evoking a low, rumbling drone. The origins of the drone are ancient, appearing throughout traditional and spiritual musical forms around the world for centuries. In the early 1960s, the drone was taken up anew, and came to provide the underpinning of much of the experimental music made by Conrad and his cohorts. And while the drone served as the foundation for the ensuing strand of what came to be classified as minimal music, it also seeped out of the avant-garde and onto the airwaves, becoming increasingly present in popular rock music by the end of the decade. Conrad’s interest in drone music has its beginnings in his early musical training. As Brian Duguid, creator of the underground music zine EST, wrote by way of an introduction to a 1996 interview with Conrad:
It was only the influence of the young violinist [and Conrad’s violin teacher] Ronald Knudsen that changed things, urging Conrad to play slowly, and concentrate on the tuning, something he has been doing ever since. Knudsen wasn’t the only influence that set Conrad on the path that pioneered the minimalist drone. After hearing Heinrich Biber’s seventeenth-century Mystery Sonatas, Conrad noted: “Biber’s music transformed me; for the first time, my violin sounded truly wonderful.” Close behind Biber’s polyphonic timbral invention came Indian classical music, which Conrad quickly came to value for the function of the drone and lack of conventional harmonic progression.8
Conrad’s affinity for playing slowly and in double stops (striking two notes at once) on the violin is easily transposed onto the Long String Drone‘s form, which enables the player to coax out a single, sustainable chord without the complication of violin fingerings.9 LSD wasn’t the only analogue for Conrad’s violin: he also reportedly took bow to string using mandolins, guitars, mandolas, and violas in his work with the Theatre of Eternal Music.10 He and his collaborators would also use electronic machines to create both droning sounds and other sonic inventions throughout the 1960s and the following decades.11 In the 1990s, Conrad would invent Two Violin Players, a sort of hurdy gurdy–inspired machine that could create two simultaneous drones and still allow for the playing of additional instruments. LSD, then, exists among a pantheon of stringed instruments that Conrad has used to manifest a drone.
With several picturesque detours through Massachusetts, California, Denmark, and Germany, Conrad accrued influences and acquaintances (and, eventually, a degree in mathematics from Harvard).12 It was during this time that he met the young Henry Flynt, a fellow violinist and math student who would later become the originator of the term “Concept Art,” and La Monte Young, who was studying musical composition in the Bay Area. He was also exposed to a world of music—ranging from Bartók and Varèse to Cage and Stockhausen; from Indian classical music to rock and roll. All paths led, eventually, to New York City, where Conrad moved in 1962, following in the footsteps of his friends Flynt and Young. He took up residence in an apartment previously shared by Young’s girlfriend, Marian Zazeela, and filmmaker Jack Smith.13 In New York, Conrad’s isolated experiments in composition and his interest in alternative harmonic systems would take on an active social dimension, throwing him into collaboration and active participation with the emerging avant-garde. Chief among these collaborations was his involvement with the Theatre of Eternal Music, a project begun by Young that would also include, at various times, Zazeela, drummer Angus MacLise, choreographer Simone Forti, Billy Name, Terry Jennings, John Cale, and Terry Riley, among others.14
The use of sustained tones—or drones—as a foundation was already in place when Conrad heard Young’s group perform in the summer of 1962. In this early moment, the Theatre of Eternal Music featured vocal drone singing and drumming, all of which functioned as a support for Young’s rapidly changing permutations on the sopranino saxophone.15 Conrad encountered Young and his yet-unnamed group at an early public performance at a New York art space, Gallery 10-4.16 Recalling these early performances, Conrad remembers, “The music was formless, expostulatory, meandering; vaguely modal, arrhythmic, and very unusual; I found it exquisite.”17 In this early iteration of the group, Young’s rapid-fire saxophone improvisations spanned two octaves, but were played so quickly that the notes melted together in a “quasi-static cloud that floated above an accompaniment of vocal drones and other sustained sounds.”18 Inspired by John Coltrane’s vertical “sheet of sound” improvisations, Young’s playing created a dense aural texture that would carry over into the more minimally approached music that the Theatre of Eternal Music would carry forward from 1963 through 1966 (with some later resurrections in 1969 and throughout the early 1970s).19
Conrad began practicing with the ensemble in early 1963, joining Young, Zazeela, who sang vocal drone, and Cale, who also played strings. As Conrad remembers it, the group’s focus and sound were subject to ongoing experimentation and slow evolution. In Joseph’s text, Conrad recounts:
We just started off playing, you see, and then we had discussions and interactions about which kind of things we might do. Somebody would want to play the gong, or bow guitar, or play another note, or try something. Then maybe it would happen and maybe it wouldn’t, and there would be discussion about that. Everything would be hashed over endlessly. And so my sense of what was valuable, in the whole complex of an evolving, dynamic, active engagement with the sound, was that we were composers who positioned ourselves in the midst of the work, which after all was largely sort of, like, one note or sound …20
As they continued to play together, exploring the intricacies of sustained tones, the group became increasingly focused on the use of just intonation and the numeric relationships between notes. Young, in time, abandoned the saxophone altogether, joining Zazeela on vocal drone. With all members now emitting sustained, amplified tones, the group focused on creating a single, droning chord that they manifested for hours or even days on end.21 This focus on numeric intervals and precise tuning reflects Conrad’s long-standing interests, which carried through his early training and academic studies and came to provide a musical logic to the collective endeavors of the Theatre of Eternal Music.22
On Day of Niagara, one of the two available (where available does not necessarily mean sanctioned) releases of the Theatre of Eternal Music’s recordings, we can hear the sound that the group is now remembered for.23 Long, sustained notes wail out; breaks for breath or the reversal of a bow are short and dyssynchronous. One is struck by the incredible stamina that must have been required by the musicians to make even this thirty-minute recording—though typical sessions could last much longer. The notes and the relationships between them slide around almost imperceptibly across the brief minutes of sound, moving so slowly that it is difficult to mark moments of change. Young and Zazeela’s voices can be heard droning on at the top of the fray, while Conrad and Cale’s strings build a rich stratum of sound below, “smelted into one soundmass,” as Conrad would later reflect.24 Registered as infrequent pops on the bootlegged recording, MacLise’s drum sounds off anachronistically—he had already stopped performing regularly with the group by the time of the recording in 1965, and his drumming did not figure into the “mature” sound of what Conrad would come to call “Dream Music.”25
Though the 2000 release Day of Niagara provides some sense of the Theatre of Eternal Music, hearing the music played live would certainly have offered a vastly different experience—not only because the recording is not of very high quality (as both Conrad and Young confirm separately), but also because the relationships between volume, duration, and space figured in as important parts of the overall project.26 The sound created during these performances was intentionally loud—loud enough to create a quasi-architectural space that could envelop both players and listeners. Meredith Monk recalls visiting the building where the Theatre of Eternal Music was playing. “I’ll never, never forget,” she says. “I remember going into a three-story building and hearing one note, which you could hear all the way down in the street…. I remember going in there having a very bad headache, staying about three or four hours, and leaving feeling wonderful.”27 Young remembers, “Oh, yes. In those days we were playing loud…. I like to be able to go inside the world of the sound and leave the other physical reality that we normally exist in.”28
This immersive quality was vital in Conrad’s conceptualization of the Theatre of Eternal Music’s collaboration. Reflecting on the project in liner notes for his own later release of drone music, Conrad writes, “We lived inside the sound, for years,” its room-filling capabilities forming not only sound but also habitable psychological space.29 Elsewhere, he states:
Our “Dream Music” was an effort to freeze the sound in action, to listen around inside the innermost architecture of the sound itself. It had something to do with composition, since it became a commentary on the temporal site of the composer, in relation to the sound itself. We were announcing that the composer could sit within the sound, so to speak, and work with it as a plastic continuum extended in time along the same course, and at the same pace, as the listener. That is quite different from improvising on a tune, or using improvisational variation to elaborate sound patterns. The message here was not about indeterminacy, nor about immediacy, but about the control of sounds right there in your environment, and the process of composition as long-term growth of interests within that sound complex.30
Conrad’s relationship to the sounds created by the Theatre of Eternal Music is based on both an understanding of mathematics and musical mechanics as well as on an interest in attaining certain physical, spatial, and spiritual experiences. The plasticity that Conrad attributes to the sounds created by the Theatre of Eternal Music’s unyielding drone signals a shift in his understanding of his role as the maker of a sound, moving from the position of a composer to that of a technician, or, as he would say, “from progenitor of the sound to the groundskeeper at its gravesite.”31
While the Theatre of Eternal Music never penned a “manifesto” per se, Conrad’s essay “Inside the Dream Syndicate,” published in 1966 in Film Culture magazine offers some eloquent glimpses into some of the conceptual underpinnings of the project—at least as Conrad conceived them. While bits of this text become mired in a rather obtuse discussion of harmonic intervals, there are also moments of poetic reflection to be found:
The oozing rhythms of the slower bodily processes give the frogs pulse-form. We use the rhythms of ancient words communicated automatically, for the same reason that we don’t touch the 5th harmonic. The world will dance outside. The man plays and the sun moves, and the communication can only be judged by the feeling within, which is serene. Like the lonely transformer and the psychiatrist’s bauble and the roaring valley of the tree toads. The moment of enlightenment is a sound…. Our music is, like Indian music, droningly monotonal, not even being built on a scale at all, but out of a single chord or cluster of more or less tonically related partials. This does not only commute dissonance, but introduces a synchronous pulse-beat that is the first coherent usage of rhythm-pitches or microtonal intervals outside of isolated electronic pieces … dream music absorbs its own beginning and ending, does not need to be startled, and lasts as long as its middle.32
Since the time of their collaborations in the 1960s, Young has claimed the work of the Theatre of Eternal Music as part of his ongoing composition, The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys (1964–present); for Conrad, however, these experiments with sound, harmonics, and sustained tones held a different meaning and energy.33 While the music produced by the Theatre of Eternal Music may now be remembered mostly for the strand of minimalism that it would usher into existence, Conrad’s engagement with it in the 1960s (and his ardent attempts to reclaim a connection to it since) has less to do with an interest in being recognized as one of the founding fathers of American minimalism—as Young undeniably is—and more to do with a set of ideological and conceptual positions. Taking the practices of the Theatre of Eternal Music as just one form of musical experimentation among others in which Conrad engaged during this productive decade, we can begin to unravel the ideas that drove Conrad toward a relentless pursuit of the drone.
A New Musical Culture
In Conrad’s opening essay that serves as liner notes to his 1996 box set Tony Conrad: Early Minimalism, Volume One, he recounts his invigorating introduction to drone music. He writes, “Feeling the leveraging capability of drone playing in Indian music made me imagine what other new musics might spring from a drone, set within a less authoritarian and tradition-ridden performance idiom.”34 His invocation here of the plural term, musics, seems significant to highlight: it implies that Conrad’s approach to experimentation was open-ended, not single-minded. In his pursuit of a “new musical culture,” he engaged in manifold musical expressions, many located within the expansive space of the drone. In a few short lines that serve as the only text printed within the booklet accompanying Day of Niagara, Conrad re-asserts his enthusiasm for various forms of new musics—even casting his eyes beyond the limitations of the category:
What I had learned first about John Cale was that he had written a piece which pushed a piano down a mine shaft. We hungered for music almost seething beyond control—or even something just beyond music, a violent feeling of soaring unstoppably, powered by immense angular machinery across abrupt and torrential seas of pounding blood.35
While the term “experimental music” has by now been codified to describe a set of mid-twentieth-century compositional practices stemming from the influence of John Cage, Conrad’s approach to music-making during the 1960s and 1970s reflects a more straightforward invocation of the word “experimental.” Acted out as a series of untested propositions, his experiments included independent musical and multimedia pieces; word-based compositions; a short stint in the Velvet Underground’s precursor band, the Primitives; the creation of film soundtracks using found materials and his own created machines; and live, at times informal, recordings made in collaboration with other musical innovators. Moving chronologically through a selection of recordings, works, and anecdotes that span 1961 through 1972, we can trace Conrad’s artistic path through these overlapping bursts of experimentation. Though the few examples provided here do not likely begin to account for the totality of his musical efforts during this time, together they provide a sketch of what must have been an intense period of artistic and musical exploration and expansion for Conrad.
Beginning even before his move to New York, we can look to his 1961 score This Piece Is its Name as the beginning of a thread that would weave through much of his work across the era. Conrad describes the work at length in an interview:
I made a piece that I called This Piece Is its Name in response to a lot of the people around the Fluxus scene who were writing scores that often took the form of instructions, like “boil the telephone.” Often very cool things to do; but I was not sure that I was happy giving people instructions of what to do because I didn’t want to be instructed to do things. And I wondered what the function of these scores was anyway? I thought maybe there’s a way to get away altogether from the principle of instructing someone to “do something,” which is what I disliked about music lessons and playing checkers…. I felt that it might be interesting to make some “pieces” that did not require fulfillment by a performer. This Piece Is its Name went into a kind of black hole of tautological space where the piece became self-sufficient and didn’t bother to have the qualities of institutional support or neediness.36
Conrad’s score exists as something of an anti-score; his self-referential, cyclical tautology manifests its completion instantaneously, requiring no outside effort, thought, or participation. This Piece Is its Name reflects his interest in horizontal power structures, as well, with the goal here being the elimination of the separate functions of composer and performer, which Conrad achieves by fusing the instruction’s creation and completion into one simple phrase. This interest in a “less authoritarian … performance idiom” can be seen throughout the examples that follow, many of which also eschewed the vertically oriented composer-to-composition dynamic through collective decision-making, improvisation, and the abandonment of traditional musical structures in favor of the simplified, rationally determined drone.
In 1964, while Conrad was still playing regularly with the Theatre of Eternal Music, he also produced the solo violin work Four Violins and briefly joined forces with Cale, Reed, and De Maria to form a touring rock-dance band. Four Violins was made in December of 1964, recorded by Conrad as a series of separate violin tracks, then overdubbed together to form one mass of sound.37 In the opening moments of the thirty-two-minute recording, we can hear the pops of the playback machine—Conrad’s stereo reel-to-reel recorder—switching on. Shortly after that, what sounds like a single violin screeches into the sonic frame, soon to be joined by others. The volume builds as the violin strings eek out sustained notes in chorus, the somewhat brackish layers bearing an aural resemblance to electric guitar feedback, with a low rumbling bass underlying the sound’s sharper edges. The connection between Four Violins and the Theatre of Eternal Music is apparent through a single listen, with four simultaneous instruments creating a persistent, heavy drone. Released as the first disc of Conrad’s retrospectively skewed Early Minimalism, Four Violins exists as his only solo recording made during this era, and is explicitly built on the same principles that he explored with the Theatre of Eternal Music. As Conrad writes in the liner notes, Four Violins remains linked to the Theatre of Eternal Music through concept and feeling, even though it was made independently of his collaborators. “I always saw this music as inhabiting a communal ground,” he writes. “Even Four Violins seemed like a gesture that should remain personal.”38
Conrad’s other musical foray during the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965 would trade in violin strings for guitar chords. Approached at a party by some record company representatives from the fledgling Pickwick Records, Conrad and Cale (who were playing with the Theatre of Eternal Music and sharing an apartment together at the time) became touring members of the band the Primitives. The two men were recruited to join the Primitives at a party, chosen apparently for their long hair and cool style. Conrad recalls that they had “[very] limited information, but we thought yeah, that we were secretly rocknroll types anyway, and that we would like to do it.”39 Fronted by Reed, who was on staff at Pickwick as a songwriter, Cale, Conrad, and De Maria joined in for several live gigs along the East Coast, promoting the songs that Reed had written for the label—“The Ostrich” and “Sneaky Pete.” Though the music was played on rock instruments with all of the strings tuned to the same note—which, as Conrad recalls, “blew our minds because that was what we were doing with La Monte in The Dream Syndicate”—the music that the Primitives performed is still a far cry from the minimal drone that Conrad otherwise fixated on.40
While the formation of the Primitivies, the punk-spirited lyrics to “The Ostrich,” and the eventual morphing of characters into the Velvet Underground has been chronicled thoroughly elsewhere, it seems fitting to highlight here that the experience with rock music does not seem so aberrant when looking at Conrad’s interest in “new musics”—plural.41 In fact, due in part to the influence of his friend Flynt, who himself began consuming and creating his own strand of pop music as a rejection of the hierarchical limitations of so-called “high art,” Conrad embraced rock music as one of many influences.42 “My program,” he recalls, “was to find things I didn’t like and then try to like them.”43 His embrace of popular music provided an important aesthetic counterpoint to the “austere” and “intense” experiments of the Theatre of Eternal Music, and Cale and Conrad’s Ludlow Street apartment came to be a space of “liberating musical influence” that would have a profound effect on both.44 It was during this time together, away from the drone-filled space of Young’s loft apartment, that Cale was first exposed to rock music; of course, it was Cale who would eventually leave the Theatre of Eternal Music to focus on his collaborations with Reed, becoming a legendary rock musician as a founding member of the Velvet Underground and taking the drone with him. Conrad would later parlay his interest in rock into a collaboration with the German krautrock band Faust. Their recordings together were released in 1973, becoming Conrad’s first commercially available record, Tony Conrad/Faust: Outside the Dream Syndicate.45
A recording from 1969 brings us back to where we began—with Conrad’s “invented acoustical tools” and Long String Drone. The first appearance of LSD can be found on a track made by eccentric artist and musician Charlemagne Palestine as part of a radio broadcast for iconic countercultural radio station WBAI’s weekly Free Music Store series. Palestine and Conrad first met around 1968–in the unlikely setting of a Catholic church. Palestine, at the time, was playing the carillon at the St. Thomas church on 53rd Street, across from the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to the requisite hymns that Palestine provided, he used the largess of the instrument to create abstract, experimental compositions of layered sound. These constructions caught the attention of many visitors to the museum, who could purportedly hear Palestine’s bells while walking to and from the building and in the outdoor sculpture court.46 As Palestine remembers in a characteristically rambling recitation:
I met Tony Conrad the first time while playing the carillon at St Thomas one afternoon between 5 o’clock and 5:30, as I did every weekday for almost seven years between 1963 and 1970. It was around 1968 that I heard someone shouting “WOW, WOW, WOW!” from the spiral staircase that went from the church’s lobby to the bell tower high above. It turned out to be filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad, who had fallen in love with my bell sonorities that he had heard several times before while passing near the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street, as St Thomas was just next door. We became immediate friends. He invited me to his studio that was above a 42nd Street porno shop, and where he and his wife Beverly [Grant], an underground film actress, offered a 24/24 hour salon for all the avant-garde artists bohemians and crazies to come and hang out together.47
Conrad and Palestine collaborated on several things soon after their meeting, including the soundtrack to Conrad’s feature-length film Coming Attractions (1970) and the 1969 recording Alloy (Golden 1).
Palestine’s track, Alloy, is anchored by a thick, vibrating drone, which was composed of both live and prerecorded sounds, with a version of Conrad’s Long String Drone being played in-studio, and two of Palestine’s “late night electronic sonorities,” Holy 1 and Holy 2, being broadcast through speakers inside the radio station booth.48 These other tracks (which are also included as separate compositions on the compact disc released in 2000 by the Italian record label Alga Marghen) were made by Palestine between 1967 and 1968. Working in the middle of the night, he used electronic oscillators to generate sounds, which he built up through multiple layers. “I would build up a sound,” he writes in the album’s liner notes, “oscillator by oscillator/then add ever so slightly to the oscillators [sic] input/tiny increments of white noise that would gradually make the sounds thicker and thicker/until they were immense sacred machines humming like gargantuan tibetan [sic] bees.”49 During Palestine’s live session on WBAI,50 these tracks filled the air while Conrad layered in live drone played on the LSD; Palestine improvised clanging tones made on his own invented instrument, the Alumonium, and sang vocal expressions; Robert Feldman supplied percussion on chimes and conch; and soprano Deborah Glaser lent her voice to the din. The dense drone of Conrad’s instrument and prerecorded oscillators provides a structural foundation for the twenty-two-minute track, as Palestine’s clanging instrumentation and ecstatic chants form an abstract, alinear textural field above.
Long String Drone appears again in this final example: Conrad’s multimedia performance work Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain. First performed at the Kitchen in New York in 1972 (the Kitchen having opened just the year before), Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain fused aural and visual components. Projected on the walls was one of Conrad’s structural films, a composition made of alternating positive and negative (read as black and white) frames. The images from the 16mm film were cast around the room, projected across four adjacent screens. While the film’s black-and-white sequence provided an “ambiguous sense of movement,” Conrad and several collaborators played live, droning accompaniment.51 In this first performance, Conrad played violin, while the young Rhys Chatham played Conrad’s Long String Drone, and composer Laurie Spiegel played pulsing bass.52 As Conrad puts forth in an interview preceding his re-performance of this work in 2005:
In 1972, Ten Years, which has a kind of new age-y title, wasn’t so much new age-y as it was driven by an effort to reclaim a spiritual territory for New York that came out of America (the West) rather than from the East. It was to acknowledge that there’s a space for contemplation, for the subjectivity of long durations and perceptually driven work within a Western framework…. That kind of ambiguity [created through the aural and visual effects] interested me because it focused the process of viewing internally, and foregrounded what hypnotists call ideosensory information—that is, the qualities of sensation as experienced within the body of the individual. That kind of information is powerfully inducing to meditative and reflective states.53
Again, the relationships between spatiality and sound are important here, with Conrad reinforcing the importance of the physical environment through the use of visual components. Both the sonic and the optic elements comprising Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain reflect Conrad’s interest in linearity; slowly-changing perceptions, altered through extended durations; and the use of minimal effects to create a total, immersive, and transformative experience.
The Infinite Plain and the Horizontal Line
Several years before he would initiate the Theatre of Eternal Music, Young composed a series of word-based scores, or instruction pieces, dedicating many of them to fellow New York artists associated with the Fluxus milieu. In his Composition 1960 #10, Young’s instructions read: “Draw a straight line and follow it.”54 Young’s beguilingly simple score has become an iconic Fluxus work, closely associated in our shared visual memory with Nam June Paik’s embodiment of it as Zen for Head, performed at the Fluxus International Festival of New Music in Weisebaden, Germany, in 1962. Thinking of Young’s score in relationship to Conrad, the entreaty to “Draw a straight line and follow it” can be seen as an apt metaphor. Transposing the directive out of the visual and into other realms, this idea of continuity and linearity can be seen as a unifying thread running through Conrad’s experimental practice. The music created by Conrad and the Theatre of Eternal Music, which relied primarily on a single chord, sustained as long as they could manage, can be seen as one embodiment of Young’s instruction. It is sound with no beginning and no end; sound that proceeds as a continuous line, its various temporal iterations merely tapping back into what they conceptualized as an eternal sound. It is sound that “lasts as long as its middle.”55 And it is a sound that Conrad would reinscribe, again and again, in his own compositions made from the 1960s to the present. If overlaid on top of the linear staff of traditional musical notation, these droning sounds could imply other versions of a straight line. The metaphor can be echoed, yet again, in the physical structure of Conrad’s Long String Drone, which lies flatly atop its supports, its strings stretching tightly across the instrument’s horizon line.
In tracing the life of a singular object, Long String Drone, we are led through a particular—and almost painfully partial—trajectory through Conrad’s rich musical and artistic career. But the examination of this instrument and the musical form that it was designed to create also sheds light on Conrad’s ideological and theoretical positions, which can be seen carrying through his expansive practices in sound, film, performance, and installation. Though much of the drone music that he created throughout the 1960s and 1970s was based on a rational study of harmonics and musical techniques, his reflections on these practices invoke language relating not only to music and mathematics, but also to space, architecture, transcendence, time, power, and collectivity. For Conrad, who, along with many comrades, “lived inside the sound” that they themselves created, the pursuit of drone-based music was also a movement toward a radicalized experience of the world.56 His rigorous experimentation prioritized horizontal power relationships between artists and their work as well as audiences and the creators. In absorbing and working through all kinds of musics, cultures, and aesthetics, Conrad envisioned a flattening of artistic hierarchies. And through creating works that pushed the boundaries of volume, duration, and vision, he challenged himself and his audience to move with him, beyond the limits of music as such, into the infinite plain of the psychological horizon.