When I arrived at Issue Project Room on Thursday, Tony Conrad was already onstage, playing an amplified ukelele like a lap steel guitar. He was soon joined by M.V. Carbon, who played a cello strapped to her back, also amplified. The resulting aural assualt sounded something like a ship breaking apart while crashing into a school of humpback whales.
Tony Conrad is one of the founding fathers of minimalism, having been associated with LaMonte Young, John Cale, Terry Riley and other members of the "Dream Syndicate" back in the early 60's. Conrad's major contribution was creating the naming scheme for the intervals in just intonation: a tuning system based on how sounds appear in nature, rather than the arbitrary division of the octave.
These days, Conrad seems content to play the role of musical elder statesman/unreformed eccentric. After stopping the performance to answer his phone on stage, Conrad and Karbon took an amplified wire and ran it through various types of produce: melon, potato, pineapple, celery, plantain. Each one made it's own weird sound, eliciting ever louder chuckles from the audience. In the next piece, he played the violin - his usual instrument - with his knuckles while Karbon played a low drone. Eventually, Conrad ripped one of the strings off the violin and played it outstretched in his hand.
The second set was one sustained piece for amplified strings: violin, cello, and a couple of handmade instruments. Everything was played live, with only effects pedals and an old reel-to-reel supplying any backing. It went on for the better part of an hour, slowly building in intensity like an Indian raga. In an extraordinary moment, Conrad hit a pedal that turned off his amplification, but continued to play inaudibly for about 30 seconds. He repeated this twice more, implicitly telling us that silence is its own sound.
When it ended, the full house of mostly-young people gave a long, well-deserved ovation. Not a bad way to start out 2008.