“You don’t know who I am, but you’ve been affected by the things I did,” Tony Conrad told The Guardian in what may well have been his last interview. Though not a household name, the pathbreaking experimental violinist and filmmaker, who passed away over the weekend at age 76, was one of rock music’s most quietly influential figures.
He casually provided the Velvet Underground with their name, and gave them a few ideas about drone too, thanks to his early collaborations with original VU member John Cale. In fact all drone-influenced rock owes something to Conrad’s pioneering investigation of sustained tones. Free improvisers have drawn inspiration from the variety of strategies this string-instrument player used to accompany other artists (while still sounding like himself). And the world of experimental classical composition was likewise forever changed by Conrad’s experiments with alternate tunings and harmonic relationships, dating back to Conrad’s participation in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music.
When news of his death broke over the weekend, you could gauge the impact of this avant-garde icon merely by glancing at the range of artists moved to post on social media. He was mourned and celebrated by onetime colleagues such as Cale, as well as by a diverse range of cutting-edge sound explorers, like saxophonist-composer Matana Roberts, drone metal boundary-pusher Stephen O’Malley and contemporary-folk experimentalist Sam Amidon. Conrad never stopped checking out new music, either. He was a familiar presence in Brooklyn’s most adventurous DIY venues, checking out feedback-drenched younger artists and interpreters of contemporary classical music.
Conrad’s discography is deep, but also scattered. In some cases, key titles are out of print or tangled up in legal disputes. But investigating its variety is still a must for any fan of experimental sound. The following 10 albums, sorted (mostly) in chronological order, form the core of his reputation.