UB professor Tony Conrad dies at 76

Conrad considered pioneer of experimental film, drone music


Tony Conrad, experimental filmmaker, sound artist and professor in the Department of Media Study, died at the age of 76 on Saturday.

The Buffalo News reported that Conrad had prostate cancer and that his immediate cause of death was pneumonia.

The artist’s legacy has reached around the world. From helping name iconic rock band The Velvet Underground to inspiring local filmmakers in Buffalo, Conrad was a true pioneer in the arts.

“One thing I think students will remember about Tony was that whenever you had a conversation with him, he always made you think about someone in a new way,” said Vinny DiVirgilio, a masters of fine arts student in the Department of Media Study. “Even if you disagreed with him you still left the conversation with a new outlook on a topic. I think that’s rare to find in professors and one of the many reasons why he will be missed.”

Conrad graduated from Harvard in 1962 with a degree in mathematics. In the early 1960s, he moved to New York City and joined the underground music scene. He joined the “Theatre of Eternal Music” where he collaborated with John Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in creating drone music.

Conrad worked with the German group “Faust,” releasing “Outside the Dream Syndicate,” in 1973. It is still considered a classic of minimalist and drone music.

He also released “Four Violins” which is a part of “Early Minimalist, Volume 1” This piece inspired some to look into the complex thinking of music.

His music also involved an appearance in a band called “The Primitives,” where he and John Cale played guitar and bass. The band disbanded after a few shows but Conrad is still indirectly considered the reason why the band calls itself the “The Velvet Underground.”

Conrad was also involved in experimental filmmaking releasing his first film “The Flicker” in 1966.

The film had a run time of approximately 30 minutes and consisted of only 5 frames – one warning frame telling the audience the film could cause seizures, a frame of black, a frame of white and two title frames. The film was said to be an influence to experimental and structural filmmaking.

Conrad worked on films a throughout his career and are still on display in museums today.

One of Conrad’s pieces, “Yellow Movie,” which consisted of 20 canvases, is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Conrad began his teaching at UB in the Department of Media Study in 1976. Sarah Mann, an MFA student in the media study department, said Conrad was “one of the wildest teachers” she’d ever had.

“He introduced my classmates and I to work we would have never encountered in the mainstream,” she said. “I like to think he’s somewhere out in deep space making noise.”

Conrad continued to look for new people to work with and teach through his career at UB. He was always happy to see what students were working on and give advice to progress their work.

Conrad was included in multiple student videos, even reading aloud his “Rate My Professor” reviews on camera for The Spectrum last semester.

He has influenced many in his work throughout the university and the City of Buffalo. He helped form and transform Buffalo’s cable networks, exhibits and instillations across the area.

“Tony is basically the reason we have experimental media in the department, he really led the charge from the very beginning of the program with his experimental sound and video work,” DiVirgilio said. “His artwork prompted so many people to come to the department over the years because of the experimental nature of it. He really broke down conventional media art ‘walls’ and it opened up the door for creativity at all levels and elements of media art.”

Conrad was profiled in The Guardian last month, just a few weeks before his death.

“You don’t know who I am,” Conrad told The Guardian, “but somehow, indirectly, you’ve been affected by the things I did.”

Below is a video Conrad participated in for The Spectrum last semester in which he read aloud his "Rate My Professor" reviews.

Editor's note: This story has been updated. 

Evan Grisley is an arts staff writer and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.