The music on this disc is an edit of the first live performance of the titular piece, which premiered at The Kitchen in New York City on March 11, 1972. It features Tony Conrad on violin with fellow composers Rhys Chatham playing a “long one-string instrument that [Conrad] had built which was based on a Pythagorean monochord” and Laurie Spiegel playing “an electric bass guitar-like instrument.”
What the music sounds like is easy to explain: As with Four Violins or Outside the Dream Syndicate, Conrad drones. In this case he plays single- and double-stops on the violin, shifting from one note to another in a way that eludes logic, sounding like a man forced to stand for a long period of time, shifting his weight from one foot to another as his body needs. Spiegel chimes in rhythmically with deep, rubbery thuds. Some land more heavily than others, but in pitch and purpose each thud is the same. Chatham’s sounds meanwhile are similar to Spiegel’s, but they move from one pitch to another, sweeping slowly upwards to rest briefly on either the root or fifth. In this musical universe, Conrad is the soloist, however static his playing might seem and Chatham and Spiegel are his accompanists.
But that’s a very superficial description and superficial listening probably won’t get you through the 90 minutes of extremely unvarying music on this disc. Where another artist might make adjustments to appeal more directly to a particular audience, Conrad made no such concessions. Nothing about this piece has been reshaped to conform to your preferences or expectations. If you want to get anything from it, you’ll have to do so on the work’s own terms.
To put it another way, this music is not going to change to suit you, so you’ll have to change to suit it. And you do. As you listen, you begin to adjust to the music on a level that suggests biology. You come to accept the sound as a feature of your environment and you adapt yourself to the conditions that it creates.
This is ironic in that the music itself conforms more closely to the physics – in a sense, the biology – of sound. Rhys Chatham explains: “Tony played his violin in a precise just intonation tuning. Some of the intervals sounded familiar, such as the major 2nd (a C to D relationship), except it was a major 2nd that was perfectly in tune, unlike the equal tempered system of tuning that we currently use in all Western music, both classical and popular.” Unlike the intervals in equal temperament – in which the octave is divided into twelve equal parts – the intervals here represent what naturally occurs in a harmonic series, in which the frequencies are related by ratios of small whole numbers. Because the tempered system is what our ears are accustomed to hear, to some the sounds might feel strange, even wrong.
The unconventional tuning is not the only potentially unsettling thing. In general, Conrad’s aesthetic is austere, and this recording is no exception. The the unchanging texture and unusual intervals are joined by timbres that are themselves not conventionally pretty or even pleasant. Similarly, Conrad’s playing is typically aggressive, even harsh. It’s likely that you won’t “enjoy” this music in the way you might expect. This is not music for enjoyment, however, but that you experience, in the most literal sense, that you endure.
Still, endurance can be a type of austerity. And austerity has been known to evoke transcendence. Chatham recalls: “…During the performance I was so much within the music that I often felt as though I was completely outside of my body! I had similar experiences each time I played this music, where it felt as though I had been playing perhaps 15 minutes, only to find out that an hour and a half had gone by.” That sounds nice. Of course, your mileage may vary.
There is, after all, a difference between performing in and bearing witness to a piece of music. Moreover, there is a distance – in some cases an unbridgeable gap – between a live performance and a recording of the same. We’re lucky to have this document of yet another one of Conrad’s early idiosyncratic contributions to musical minimalism. Yet we’d be luckier still to have been there in person, both to more fully immerse ourselves in the music and to experience the other dimensions of the piece.
The 1972 performance on this disc was part of a multi-media presentation that featured loops of 16mm film Tony Conrad had prepared. In his liner notes, Andrew Lampert paints a fuller picture of the event: “Four projectors illuminated the venue with identical footage of vertical black and white lines moving horizontally across a black background… Ten Years began with image before sound, a row of quadruple projections arranged side-by-side, all the shuffling stripes cascading into each other. Over the next two hours the music throbbed and the projectors incrementally shifted inwards, their beams gradually uniting to form one pulsating, overlapping picture.”
All together, it’s an experience that Lampert calls “monumental.” There is certainly something monolithic, even staggering, about the sounds on this recording, as there is about so much of Conrad’s drone music. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that something’s been lost in translation, that the infinite, transcendent plane of that monumental performance is only partially represented by the sounds on this disc.