Essential New Music: Tony Conrad/Arnold Dreyblatt/Jim O’Rourke’s “Tonic 19-01-2001”

This recording represents a nodal point in musical history. The three participants were already connected by a web of acquaintance and collaboration. Violinist Tony Conrad and bassist Arnold Dreyblatt had known each other through common concerns in film and music since the 1970s. Jim O’Rourke (who played hurdy-gurdy on this night) had performed with and facilitated the release of music by both of them. The three men finally converged on the third week of January 2001, when they shared the bill for two nights at New York City club Tonic. This LP, which is dedicated to Conrad (he died in 2016), captures that moment of convergence.  

Given their shared history—and their deep collective knowledge of American minimalist music’s origins, practices and mathematical foundations—it should come as no surprise that this improvised concert comprises a continuous, 40-minute drone. But to properly tuned ears, drone is no more homogenous than any other musical element, and while you can tell within seconds where this one is coming from, its specific qualities make it more than a historical document.

The piece opens with a mass of bowed strings, which proceeds to differentiate into a dense swirl of clashing and beating tones. If you’ve heard Conrad’s music (or outgrowths of it, such as John Cale’s viola playing in the Velvet Underground), you know that sound. But while Conrad typically played with musicians committed to understanding and realizing his ideas, which used mathematically precise tunings to generate those complexity-from-simplicity effects, he didn’t always perform with people who developed personal advances upon them.

While its evident from the first second that Dreyblatt and O’Rourke had decided to stay in Conrad’s musical house, they soon set about moving around the furniture. There’s a mobility within the sound, as hurdy-gurdy and bowed bass arc around or hover near the violin’s serrated scrape, setting off continuous ripples in the sonic surface. Conrad responds to this input by shortening his bow strokes, which has the effect of creating a more open space. Then he switches to a monochord (a home-made, single-string instrument) to play slow, curvaceous bass figures that usher in a gradual sonic descent, as though the music is sinking through deep ocean layers until all light disappears.

That long fade stands out within Conrad, Dreyblatt and O’Rourke’s collective history. This is not a record to play just once, then file away. This is a singular aural experience, and one that bears repeating.

—Bill Meyer