Sunday, March 29, 2009

A "Minor History" Of Early Minimalism

At my Prairie Lights, I tend to pick at the remainders table for something interesting and cheap, and then check for new music books (and new-music books), but rarely if ever venture over to the small art history shelf. Luckily, Friday I did, and picked up a great recent book: Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (A "Minor" History), from MIT Press's Zone Books, by Branden W. Joseph, a Columbia University professor of Art History.

Who is Tony Conrad? Well, he's a musician and filmmaker took part in LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, which I mentioned briefly in an earlier post, and has been invested in retelling the history of early minimalism. Conrad and John Cale (violist for the Theater of Eternal Music and a founding member of the Velvet Underground)--and particularly Conrad--have been engaged in an authorship dispute with LaMonte Young off and on, arguing that the sound of the Theater of Eternal Music rather than his individual compositions constitute a musical birthplace of sorts for minimalism (Peter's thumbnail sketch). Young held on to the recordings.

(For that matter, Young's recordings are so darned expensive even after all these years.)

What's so valuable to me is that I'm trying to find a way to "frame" the career of an admittedly minor figure, Albert Fine, who was in an analogous position--except that he straddled the musical "mainstream/establishment," which makes his eventual career choice--as a conceptual artist and filmmaker (like Conrad), rather than a composer--all the more striking. But Joseph has given me a good strategy for how to highlight a minor figure without making silly claims that lose all perspective, that relate the major figures of the day to them rather than keeping the minor figures in the footnotes of the major figures' biographies--which is good, but "the next step," historically, is underway.

The other interesting aspect of a "minor" history is just thinking about the career of Conrad--filmmaker, conceptual rock musician, purveyor of happenings, composer, violinist, etc... I think of so many of my friends in New York, doing "conceptual" things and working menial jobs, and wonder if some day... I don't know, will they be history? That's a loaded question, and I do appreciate that Joseph explicitly argues against of man-on-the-street-is-an-example-of-large-scale-trope cultural studies leveling of the historical playing field. He focuses on telling a compelling story.

Here are a few pertinent videos. If you want to be a true conceptualist, consider playing all at once:

That's all for now... The book is surprisingly sharp in its discussion of the music, given that it comes from a "non-musician," and the little bit I've read (the first two chapters) are quite promising. Exciting! More later.

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