Early Minimalism Volume One
(Table of the Elements)
We live in a sonic war zone–in the midst of a barrage of sounds we have no choice but to hear. Music both concrete and plastic assaults us from stores, restaurants, and passing cars, in taxis and bars, in our homes and from the street. Phones ring, beepers beep, coworkers chatter, sirens wail, motorcycles fart, jackhammers pummel the skull. Silence does not exist in the city, and almost equally rare is the opportunity to concentrate on and deeply experience a few specific sounds. Shopping at Tower Records or flipping through the Reader music listings, it would seem that the best way to appreciate music in our world is to stuff our ears with quick and dirty handfuls of as many kinds as we can. And whether it’s frantic free jazz, speed metal, hardcore, or drum ‘n’ bass, sometimes it seems the music itself has been as jam-packed with new sensations as possible.
All the more precious, then, is the perfect sound, and you know it when you hear it–time stops, the outside world removes its idiot gibbering self, and you’re paralyzed with the hope that it will never end. Musicians have devoted entire careers to re-creating Link Wray’s guitar sound, John Coltrane’s sax sound, the sound of Patsy Cline’s voice sliding around on “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” People collect recordings of the pedal steel, the bagpipe, the harpsichord, not for any particular artist or tune but for a sound.
The sound that entranced me from adolescence onward–the insistent drone of John Cale’s amplified viola on the first Velvet Underground album–has led me on a maddening quest for its source, the “dream music” of the group known variously as the Dream Syndicate and the Theatre of Eternal Music. In the early and mid-1960s, this Fluxus-related collective of musicians took an interest in the sustained drones of Indian ragas, and took the possibilities of these tones to ridiculously logical conclusions. They worked in communal isolation; they created new standards of precision and then worked rigorously to attain them; they strove to immerse themselves completely in rather simple sounds so as to experience them “from the inside.” And they made untold hours’ worth of recordings, none of which are currently available to the public (at least not officially).
The Theatre of Eternal Music continues to exist (and with a name like that, it better) as an ongoing project of composer La Monte Young. Collaborators have come and gone over the decades; current and former associates like Jon Hassell, Terry Riley, and Arnold Dreyblatt continue to spread the project’s organizational principles in the more general realm known–questionably–as “minimalism.” Beyond that, the story of the group varies with the storyteller. Composer, filmmaker, and violinist Tony Conrad started to tell his version in the late 80s when he premiered a piece called Early Minimalism: January 1965, in which he began re-creating the lost dream music as he remembered it. In 1993, the independent label Table of the Elements reissued Conrad’s obscure but influential 1973 collaboration with the German group Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate. Then followed a new piece, Slapping Pythagoras, in collaboration with Jim O’Rourke; and the first commercial release of Four Violins, Conrad’s only recording from the early 60s besides a few underground film sound tracks.
The four-CD box set Early Minimalism Volume One, released by Table of the Elements in November, contains a reissue of Four Violins plus three CDs of Conrad’s ongoing reconstruction of the music performed by the original Theatre of Eternal Music roughly between 1962 and 1966. It also contains a 93-page booklet of Conrad’s writings; using the dream music as a jumping-off point, he chases the ghost of the place he might have held in music history had the history of the Theatre of Eternal Music taken some very different turns.
The Dream Syndicate was a collaborative entity that worked to undermine the role of the solitary, imperious composer. Conrad had always considered himself, Young, Cale, Marian Zazeela (a lighting artist, calligrapher, and vocalist who married Young), and poet and percussionist Angus MacLise to be equal partners in a delicious crime against Western tradition. So imagine his horror when Young refused to release copies of the 60s tapes even to the musicians themselves unless they signed waivers crediting Young as sole composer. MacLise died in 1979; unsurprisingly, neither Cale nor Conrad has signed anything of the sort. As a result, when Conrad wanted to make a return to public performance, partly as a result of swelling interest in the Theatre of Eternal Music, he was forced to try to re-create his past, alone and without much in the way of reference material.
His sense of abandonment puts an ironic twist on Early Minimalism Volume One: Conrad winds up in the very role he intended to reject. Though he has the steady collaboration of Jim O’Rourke and cellist Alexandria Gelencser, they’re merely backup for the auteur attempting to relive his collectivist youth. Conrad acknowledges this in his extensive liner notes, and twists it further: “What [the works on Early Minimalism Volume One] announce most straightforwardly is their appropriation of my own early performance work….In my case, though, the appropriated artifact is absent: the recordings of early minimalism by the Dream Music group have been suppressed. However, the traces of these recordings are abundantly evident within the plane of culture in their impact and influences, which have cut a deep channel through the center of American music.” Conrad is asking us to listen to this music both as a collection of new works, complete in themselves, and as a chapter of history.
Though the dream music lurks in the shadows like King Pellinore’s Questing Beast for hundreds of obsessive music fans, its terminology and sensibility have entered the vocabulary of 20th-century music through a variety of channels: not only Dreyblatt and the Velvets but also former Young collaborator and Fluxus contemporary Yoko Ono, fellow New York drone rockers like Suicide, former Young protege Rhys Chatham, Conrad fan Glenn Branca, Branca’s proteges Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and the British heavy psychedelic band Spacemen 3, who titled their “evening of contemporary sitar music” Dreamweapon after a MacLise multimedia project.
As the long-awaited missing link, Early Minimalism Volume One doesn’t exactly satisfy. The liner notes do more to scratch that itch than does the music itself, which sounds more 90s than 60s–more like Slapping Pythagoras than the bootlegged scrap of original dream music, broadcast on the radio by Young in 1987, that is most frequently heard. Of course, Conrad has claimed that in that broadcast Young mixed his own contribution–the sopranino sax that skitters over the harmonic drone of violin, viola, and voice–disproportionately high, and it does indeed dominate.
In his box set notes, Conrad beautifully describes the sensual tension that fueled the original dream music for him and his collaborators: “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.” If that’s the case, the bootleg can hardly be taken as representative. Though it conveys a certain expansiveness, and despite the extreme volume at which it was originally played and its endurance-testing persistence, I don’t really hear much violence or passion swelling out of control. The music sounds optimistic and secure in its ability to push the walls back exactly as far as it needs to.
There are other, rarer, bootlegs, too, and in what I’ve heard of those, the sustained drones in just intonation (a tuning system in which the notes are equally spaced to produce harmonics with one another, in contrast to the tempered scale that dominates both popular and orchestral music) take on a metallic, power-cable tension that is much closer to what Conrad describes.
But of all the dream music I’ve heard it’s Early Minimalism Volume One that most sounds like passionate Luciferian defiance. Even the jarring intervals of Four Violins have a devotion to the underlying drone and more high-pitched ascendant figures that signal “optimism, freedom, a successful transcendence of limits” in the very language of musical suggestion that Conrad critiques. The new works, on the other hand, are full of jagged slashes and abrupt switches in tone color and pacing that directly oppose the contemplative, slow-deepening environment of that lonely fragment of original dream music.
What the old and the new have in common–and what brings us, roundabout, back to the perfect sound–is a way of engaging a listener. All four CDs in Early Minimalism Volume One are very, very uneasy listening. I have seen them drive extreme-noise fans from a room, agitated. On the surface, they are static, grating, an affront. They have little in the way of “logical” rhythm or “progression”; like the works of more popular minimalists like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, they can be said to “go nowhere,” at least in the sense of an expected musical narrative. But unlike many of those composers’ pieces, they could never be called wallpaper. They assert themselves. At first listening they seem to have chips on their shoulders: “You don’t like me? Why? What were you expecting?” And then: “What do you expect from music?” In a world where the music consumer often expects music to function as a mood-altering drug, a status enhancer, a cheap form of therapy, or a disposable distraction, it’s marvelous to hear something command attention so unapologetically, without explicitly offering anything in return. The question morphs again: “What does music ask of a listener?” Attention is not such a frivolous thing to ask. But we’re still startled when it is demanded.
After a while, this “difficult” music ceases to seem quite so difficult and starts to feel universal. The liner notes to the reissue of Outside the Dream Syndicate say that “Conrad traces the ‘dream music’ sound to the tense harmony and social alacrity bluegrass can deliver–as in the ‘high lonesome sound’ of Bill Monroe.” And as North Carolina fiddler Bruce Greene has documented, before radio and commercial recordings standardized Appalachian music, each region had its own distinctive tuning system, usually established by the most popular local fiddler, who set up his instrument in a way that sounded good to him. “Good” often meant an eerie double-stopped drone heavy on harmonics and octaves, the better to convey ghost stories, murder ballads, and protest songs.
In the five- and six-hour square-dance meets of the same era, a fiddler had to steel himself against the same shoulder cramps and darting thumb pains that Conrad and Gelencser and O’Rourke do now, compensating with minute changes in bow pressure and finger placement for the inevitable slide out of tune, and relying on the music itself and the attention of the audience to sustain him. O’Rourke describes the process of making Early Minimalism Volume One as “really painful. It really hurts, holding a position for a very long time, but what keeps you going is knowing that everyone else is in pain too, but they’re still going. There’s a sense of responsibility, and you feel you’re with these people, building this thing. And the audience is adding to it.” Conversely, O’Rourke says one European performance with Conrad actually healed him of a concussion–not too supernatural, taking into account the effects of mental discipline upon the body and endorphins on the brain.
Dream music also sounds in some moments like an urban, electrified version of Tuvan music–as Ted Levin, the musicologist who travels with the throat-singing group Huun-Huur-Tu, likes to explain, the music of that remote Siberian region is based on sounds of nature, particularly that of the wind whistling through tall grasses and the manes of horses in high, isolated mountain meadows. Insomuch as Conrad’s dream music embraces the primal moment of music making in a very old-fashioned way, even while maintaining its claim to avant-gardeness, it hangs beautifully in the balance between what culture once was and what it might become–that moment that each generation has always felt itself on the apex of.
And so what might originally have seemed like an ascetic, intellectualized denial of the visceral pleasure of conventional music turns around and delivers a greater pleasure: the opportunity to suspend expectation and listen, really listen, to what is really there. Conrad’s works “go nowhere” because they are already where they need to be. They offer none of the tension resolution that is so central to the Western narrative. The tension comes from the perceived difficulty of the highlighted harmonics, and the responsibility for resolution falls on the listener: drop your preconceptions of what should be and relax into what is, without any promise of true, false, or future. In that ultimate concentration, a single interval is revealed to contain a virtual symphony of overtones and vibrations. Careful listening creates a space in which to question all expectations, a realm in which our cultural givens ain’t necessarily so.
A world in which people listened, really listened, would be a violent one indeed–the cloying attack of a single television commercial would be unbearable, the transparent manipulations of much pop music would be felt as an insult.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Betina Herzner.