Late musician Tony Conrad in the documentary 'Completely in the Present': 'I wanted to end composing — get rid of it'
The music and visual art generated by the late creator Tony Conrad seldom earned headlines. Yet his work starting in the early 1950s and extending to his death in 2016 provided a strong undercurrent guiding more noted artists.
A founding member of the Velvet Underground who left before the band’s 1967 debut, “Velvet Underground & Nico,” to pursue his own drone-based art, Conrad’s life and work are explored in filmmaker Tyler Hubby’s new documentary, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.”
The film, which features notable footage of the late L.A. artist Mike Kelley, will make its West Coast premiere at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Thursday as part of a Broad museum-produced program.
The evening will feature a new collaboration by musician, writer and actress Kim Gordon and the respected multimedia artist Tony Oursler. Ex-Black Flag singer and radio host Henry Rollins will moderate a post-screening Q&A with Hubby and Oursler focusing on Conrad’s resonant, meditative work.
During a recent interview, Hubby said that “Completely in the Present” began as a series of short films dedicated to Conrad’s music and experimental film work (most famously “Flicker), all of which examined the transformations that occur during extended exposure to sight and sound.
As he gathered footage and got to know Conrad, though, Hubby’s angle shifted.
Spontaneity was a Conrad trademark, said Hubby. “The title of the film — ‘Completely in the Present’ -- really was what it was like to be around Tony. He was constantly making stuff and doing stuff — and not really keeping good records and not really keeping good archives.”
The director’s history with Conrad’s music goes back a few decades, when Hubby’s then-roommate, Jeff Hunt, launched an experimental record label called Table of the Elements. Then a budding filmmaker, Hubby went on the road as part of a label tour with Conrad and experimental music experts including Faust, Keiji Haino, members of Sonic Youth and others.
Struck by Conrad’s work and approach to life, Hubby started gathering footage while paying his dues in the film world. The director has worked on music-related documentaries including “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” about the outsider artist, and “Los Punks,” about the backyard punk scene in East Los Angeles.
Conrad’s work was, in its own way, as harsh and rebellious as punk rock. Rather than in-your-face riffs and screams, though, Conrad focused his music on a scant few notes that he bowed on stringed instruments and various devices.
One early film project involved throwing then unknown artists Kelley and Oursler, both of whom are represented in the Broad’s collection, in jail cells and filming their interactions.
Conrad’s most famous film, “Flicker,” harnessed the strobe-light effect of horizontal bars on a movie screen to mess with viewers’ perceptions.
As a founding member of the influential New York drone-music collective the Theatre of Eternal Music (with artist and percussionist Angus MacLise, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, electronic music innovator Jon Hassell and others), Conrad’s disagreement with the composer La Monte Young over long dormant recordings of the group’s music adds tension to the film.
Equally intractable was Conrad’s philosophy on musical composition. He says during the film that he has long “resisted all ideas of professionalization,” then contrasts that ethos with composers such as Philip Glass and Young, who were focused on “propagating the culture of musical composition as a professional undertaking.”
Unlike Young, says Conrad in the film with notable disdain, “I wanted to end composing. Get rid of it. I wanted it to die out.”
Conrad passed away before he was able to eliminate music composition. But, as “Completely in the Present” repeatedly confirms, at least he tried.
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