BIG EARS 2016: Tony Conrad and Faust

In Music Stories by Eric Dawsonleave a COMMENT

Read the Mercury‘s complete Big Ears 2016 coverage here. Visit the Big Ears website for the full lineup and schedule and ticket information.

Tony Conrad and Faust had each already carved a place for themselves in music history when they came together in 1972 to record Outside the Dream Syndicate, an album that has had an incalculable influence on drone and noise music. Conrad was a member of the Theater of Eternal Music, aka the original Dream Syndicate, the seminal mid-1960s minimalist drone group that included La Monte Young and John Cale. Faust had released two albums of radical music the likes of which no one had heard before. Still, they traveled in widely different circles, and the fact that they met at all was as unlikely and remarkable as the music they would create.

Conrad was working in Germany when he met Faust producer Uwe Nettlbeck, who introduced him to the band in their farmhouse cum commune in the village of Wümme, outside of Hamburg. A musical collaboration was arranged; Conrad instructed Werner “Zappi” Diermaier to keep a repetitive, unchanging drum beat and Jean-Hervé Péron to repeat one bass note. (To Conrad’s chagrin, Peron upped it to two.) Over this steady rhythm Conrad unleashed his droning electric violin, playing slightly changing harmonic intervals, with an organ entering on side two to add another layer of sound. It’s a listening experience that many have found to be mesmerizing and trance-inducing.

In truth, the album reached few ears for two decades, selling “near absolute zero,” according to journalist David Fricke. When it was reissued in 1993 by Table of the Elements, an Atlanta-based label that was a crucial supplier of avant-garde music in the 1990s, a new generation was turned on to a minimalist masterpiece. A trio of live performances was arranged, culminating in a show at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London that ended in a near riot.

There was even an echo of the day that Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival when Table of the Elements’ Jeff Hunt had to physically restrain the soundman from turning the volume down. The concert ended with a typically Faustian gesture: Peron smashed a sledgehammer into the stage’s cobblestone. A recording of the concert released on CD gives the indication that those who might have trouble with the studio album would be even more vexed by the live rendering. It is a maelstrom, a whirring, pummeling roar. The crowd sounds equally agitated and aroused; boos and catcalls battle with cheers and whistles until they’re both silenced by an even louder 10-minute encore.

Conrad and Faust reunited last year in Berlin to perform Outside the Dream Syndicate again, and the Big Ears appearance will not only be their only North American performance, but could possibly be the final performance of the piece. Even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, the rarity of the musicians’ appearance together and the opportunity to hear this inexhaustible music on a proper sound system make it one of Big Ears’ must-see shows.

Tony Conrad and Faust team up for a rare performance of Outside the Dream Syndicate at the Standard (416 W. Jackson Ave.) on Friday, April 1, at 11 p.m. Conrad performs with Sally Morgan, Liz Payne, and Frank Meadow at the Square Room (4 Market Square) on Saturday, April 2, at 2:30 p.m. Faust plays its own set at the Bijou Theatre (803 S. Gay St.) on Saturday, April 2, at midnight. A program of Conrad’s experimental short films will be screened at the Bijou on Friday, April 1, at 11:30 a.m. 

Eric Dawson
Contributing Writer |

Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.

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