Monday, 16 June 2008

TONY CONRAD AT THE TATE

Unprojectable: Projection and Perspective, Turbine Hall, Sat 14th June



Tony Conrad’s place in official history may be down to his inadvertently naming the Velvet Underground. (It was his copy of the book they took their name from.) But for some of us Conrad is a legend, a pioneer of drone music through his involvement (with John Cale and La Monte Young) in the Theatre of Eternal Music – whose ritualised minimalist improvisations would run on for hours. Soon becoming interested in film and other media, Conrad has produced or even performed little in recent years – with the result I leapt at the chance to see him appearing at the Tate!

That the Tate’s Turbine Hall is not designed as a gig space just added to the sense of a special event. Oversized and full of extraneous lighting, it would be a terrible venue for just about any other type of music. For this it was like it was built for it! Its cavernous size made it the ideal acoustic home for the resonating sustained tones, while the industrial heritage of its architecture (as the former Bankside Power Station) could not have been more fitting.

While we sat around the extensive lower floor like a festival audience, the musicians occupied the upper mezzanine. Huge sheets were hung before and behind them, then single lights used to project vast silhouettes before us. This simple device perhaps started life as a ‘get around’; minimalist musicians don’t do a lot of rocking out, after all. But it was brilliantly effective. By blowing up the smallest of their gestures into vast size it provided the perfect visual corollary for the music, focusing in on micro changes like a magnifying glass. Moreover, the silhouettes were fittingly depersonalising. The focus wasn’t on the man, for drone music isn’t about someone selling their personality like in pop music. We weren’t invited to scour his expressions or biography for tidbits of information to try and decode the music. Similarly, neither Conrad nor anyone else spoke for the duration – the nearest to direct communication we got was a wave when he left the stage. (By which point I found even that gesture a bit rockist!) Notably though, many in the audience chose to just lie flat out and ignore the visual element entirely. Which is perhaps fitting too…

In the brochure Conrad had this to say about audiences: “I had observed how, when we started to play for an audience, people became restless, and I had the idea that this was a favourable pattern of response; namely that one third of the audience would be antipathetic, one third would be enthusiastic, and one third would not really have any idea what was going on… That was, and remains, what I consider to be the optimum cultural outcome for work.”

This left me wondering if the introductory segment was deliberately pitched to drive the lightweights out. Indeed, if not the desired third, perhaps a quarter of the audience didn’t make it through the sound of two drills drilling. At this point the silhouette of the permanently hatted Conrad did take on some of the aspect of Freddie Kreuger. However the ‘noise’ was much closer to music/noise than noise/noise! Formally it worked in the way many dance tracks divide into high-register lead synth and pounding bass/drum synth – it’s just that this was achieved by a whirring hand drill and a heavier power drill. Berlin noise scene stalwarts might have even walked out over the lack of noise!

From what you could ascertain from the silhouettes Conrad next attacked cymbals with phonograph arms. Both these segments were effective enough, but it was when the musicians switched to Conrad’s patented bowed strings that the evening truly hit the stratospheric. The music became timeless and mesmerizing and quite impossible to describe in words. There’s a recurrent theme in folk tales of a place which exists outside of time, where the hubbub of the world is held outside, a feeling almost exactly conjured up by this immersive music. It would be wrong to say the evening moved from the abrasive to the sublime, for even the sound of power drills has its beauty. But the juxtaposition of the two elements was surely quite deliberate, first finding beauty in the noise of the world then concentrating on the thing itself.

The one frustration of the evening was a problem of programming. Some of Conrad’s videos were shown earlier in the evening. However these were videos he made during the Eighties while working at New York State Uni’s Department of Media Study. Though not without humour these were mostly academic and pat exercises – once told the evening was titled ‘Who’s Watching Who’ you could probably picture everything about them. (Authorship, Identity, the Masochism of the Spectator – blah blah blah.) Conrad’s Sixties films, thematically if not chronologically linked to the performance, were shown the previous night when us out-of-towners couldn’t make it. Putting the two together would have been a dream ticket! Alas, all we have to go on is a few juicy stills from the brochure.

What will quite possibly be the live performance of the year – and all for free!



Post script! Perhaps not worth a special visit, but if you’re in London between now and August 25th the Tate’s Street Art exhibition is worth sampling. This includes not only huge figures painted upon the building itself (and visible from right across the river), but a street art trail to follow. The quality of the work is varied (though Nano 4814 alone is excellent), but it’s almost worth following just as a device to make yourself meander the streets rather than march purposefully through them. Perhaps the coolest thing is that I kept coming across examples of street art that weren’t even part of the trail!

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