Tony Conrad, Avant-Garde Musician and Filmmaker, Dies at 76

Ebet Roberts/Getty Images
Tony Conrad performing at the Knitting Factory in New York City on April 28, 1994.

Tony Conrad, who battled prostate cancer and was hospitalized with pneumonia in March, died on Saturday (April 9). He was 76.

The Buffalo News reports that Conrad’s cause of death was pneumonia. His career and retirement from teaching at the University at Buffalo, where he served in the media department for several decades, was to be celebrated at a school event on May 2.

Conrad was an experimental artist who wore many hats: musician, composer, filmmaker and teacher, to name a few. He was a pioneer in minimalist and drone music.

Gone But Not Forgotten: In Memoriam 2016

In a recent interview, he reflected on the story of how the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and Lou Reed got the band’s name; it was inspired by a book they found in Conrad’s apartment in New York City's Lower East Side with the title The Velvet Underground (written by Michael Leigh).

“You don’t know who I am,” Conrad, who had played with Cale and Reed in the pre-Velvet Underground band the Primitives, said to The Guardian, “but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by things I did. I don’t mind being anonymous though. I hate celebrity. When you walk down the street and people want to know this and that, it’s horrible.”

Born in 1940, Conrad went on to attend Harvard and graduated in 1962 before moving to New York and joining its underground music scene. He became a member of the Theater of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. He soon became drawn to filmmaking and made his first film, The Flicker, in 1966.

In 1972, he collaborated with Faust on the album Outside the Dream Syndicate. Conrad’s next musical release did not come until 1995’s Slapping Pythagoras, but a string of album releases followed.

Conrad was recently on the Big Ears Festival lineup to perform Outside the Dream Syndicate with Faust in Knoxville, Tenn., but had to cancel his appearance due to health concerns. On March 31, his team released the following statement: “For several years Tony Conrad has been fighting prostate cancer, all the while continuing to perform at the top of his abilities. Tony was unexpectedly hospitalized last week with pneumonia, and this has made it impossible for him to travel to and perform at the Big Ears Festival -- doing so would be a potentially life-threatening prospect.”

A documentary about Conrad’s life and work, directed by Tyler Hubby (editor of 2005’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston), has been in the works. Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present will feature footage of Conrad and his collaborators from the past 20 years, his recordings and his films.

“Our mission with this film, from the beginning many years ago, was to erect a kind of telescope that would point the curious, yet uninitiated, in the right direction so that they may have their understanding completely blown apart and put back together just by sheer force of Tony's intellect, personality and work,” the film’s team wrote on Facebook. “Tony always took us to the edge of reason and now he has expanded beyond that. He will be dearly missed but never, ever, ever forgotten. Rest in peace, friend.”

Conrad is survived by wife Paige Sarlin, son Theodore and two grandchildren, the New York Times reports.