Tony Conrad, who plays the violin, is one of the pioneers of both minimal and drone music.
In 1962, he went to New York where he met people with similar preoccupations with whom he practiced minimally varied tones and individual intervals for hours. In the 1960s, he became a member of the Theater of Eternal Music (aka The Dream Syndicate, 1963–1965) and met John Cale, Angus MacLise, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Billy Name, Jon Hassell, and Alex Dea, among others. They experimented with accompanying tones and developed a special form of minimal music, called drone music. In this music, mostly low frequency tones are sustained for a very long time while the accompanying tones are increasingly made to sound.
Conrad insisted on »just intonation« (pure tuning) in his music. This is in opposition to the European tradition of »well-tempered tuning« in which multiple tonalities can be played on one instrument. However, it means that the distances between the individual notes on the scale cannot be exactly the same, but rather must be lightly offset up or down. In »just intonation,« by contrast, the distances between the notes related to a basic note are precise but no longer transferable to other basic notes. Thus, one particular basic note must be defined for one instrument or performance and can only be changed by retuning. This insistence on an equivalence of all tones, as well as the rejection of traditional compositional principles that operate with leading and subordinate elements, is also an expression of Conrad’s deeply political attitude to life, which fundamentally rejects hierarchies: »I wanted to get rid of composition. To free myself from it.«
Conrad played for a short time with Lou Reed and John Cale in the studio band The Primitives, with Walter De Maria on drums and all bass guitars tuned to the same note. Conrad introduced them to the book The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh. The title became the name of their next band, which was soon picked up on and promoted by Andy Warhol: it would also be used to further his artistic goals. After the founding of the band in 1964, Conrad switched over to film and produced The Flicker (premiered in 1966).
While in The Flicker, the eye can hardly process the flickering effects, and the over-stimulation produces illusions, Conrad cultivates the exact opposite in his drone music: the radical extension of time during which the sound volume of an extremely long sustained note swells to a spatial power and develops a piercing intensity of acoustic overlays.
In 1973, Conrad worked with the German kraut-rock band Faust. For its album, Outside the Dream Syndicate, it created a mix of minimalistic cutting drone music with the monotonous beat of Faust.
Conrad’s studio album Slapping Pythagoras was released in 1995. He had six guitarists tune the strings on their horizontally placed instruments to the same basic note and then strike them in drone style accompanied by a 60 Hz basic tone at deafening volume using six amplifiers.