“Iridium? Ytterbium? Yttrium!”

Gastr del Sol and Tony Conrad live at the Empty Bottle, Chicago — November 7, 1996

Seth Tisue reports
(originally appeared on sonicnet.com; the format of the piece, with the times, is due to them)

In its two years of existence, Table of the Elements has quickly become one of the leading outlets in the U.S. for experimental music. In 1994, the organization was instrumental in bringing reunited Krautrock legends Faust to the U.S. for a notoriously chaotic and theatrical series of concerts. The label’s first festival took place in Atlanta in 1994 and included Faust, free improvisation kings AMM, and other artists; this weekend, Chicago is being treated to the sequel. The label tags each release or event with a chemical element. This festival is Yttrium, atomic number 39. It’s at the Empty Bottle, a club which in the past year has broadened a focus on garage and indie rock into jazz and experimental music.

Tonight, the first night, it’s Gastr del Sol (David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke), Bernhard Günter, and an unspecified “special guest.”

The special guest is revealed to be Tony Conrad, the half-legendary, half-forgotten violinist and composer.

Conrad began his career in the early 1960’s as a member of the original Theater of Eternal Music (also known as the Dream Syndicate) with La Monte Young and John Cale. Conrad and Cale were also members of the Primitives, a rock band which eventually mutated into the Velvet Underground. The powerfully narcotic, droning amplified string sound that Cale and Conrad pioneered later became known to rock listeners through VU songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin.” Conrad eventually became better known for his work with experimental film and video. His musical reputation was hampered by Young’s autocratic suppression of the early Theater of Eternal Music recordings. Table of the Elements has been attempting to rescue Conrad from musical obscurity by reissuing his only LP (a 1974 collaboration with Faust) and putting out new recordings like 1995’s Slapping Pythagoras. Upcoming is a four CD set of Conrad’s “Early Minimalism” series, pieces which recreate and reexamine the sound of his lost music of the sixties.

Conrad is joined onstage by David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke of Gastr del Sol, as well as frequent collaborator Alex Gelencser. She’s holding an instrument that looks like a cello, but all neck, with no body and only two strings. Grubbs sits at a long, horizontal, one-stringed instrument. O’Rourke is on electric bass, and Conrad has his violin. In the back of the club, a battery of film projectors is lined up on a pool table and pointed at the white screens behind the performers.
The performance begins with a violin drone from Conrad, punctuated by a slight glitch whenever his bow reverses direction. O’Rourke starts to add resounding bass notes, first irregularly, later settling into a steady pulse. The piece is “Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain,” composed in the early seventies.
Two projectors are running now, projecting vertical black and white stripes on the screens behind the performers. The flashing stripes invert motionlessly, but the eye sees them moving now to the left, now to the right.
Four projectors are running now, all projecting the same loop of marching stripes. Grubbs strikes the lone string on his instrument with a metal rod, making a grainy twang with a distorted attack. He slides the rod along the string, making downward glissandos. The fifth projector starts. The five projected images span the width of the stage and spill out onto the adjacent walls. The stripes play across the performers’ faces and instruments.
Conrad is playing more freely now, adding and subtracting pitches from the drone by altering the angle of his bow. The booming bass notes and downward glissandos pull the music down while Conrad’s violin leaps upward. Gelenscer’s metronomic bowing on the cello-like instrument occupies the center, unmoving.
Suddenly I notice the edges of the five films have started to overlap. They must have been gradually moving closer together for some time now.
The overlap between the films is substantial now. Illusory interference patterns appear, tinged with faint phantom colors: green, orange, yellow. Conrad sways back and forth as he plays, sometimes grimacing with concern, sometimes positively beaming, his mouth open as if frozen in mid-laugh. O’Rourke lies on his back, bass resting on his crossed leg. The glissandos reverse direction.
The films finally merge into a single vibrating, flickering mass. Then, one by one, they shut off.
When the last film shuts off the music abruptly stops and the echoes of the last bass note fade to silence.

I turn to a friend and ask him how long that was — 45 minutes? I find out it was over 90. (I forgot my watch; the times so far have been estimates.) We calculate that O’Rourke must have played the same note on his bass approximately five thousand times in a row.

I explain the review format to my friend as dub reggae plays over the PA. He lends me his watch for the next set and jokes that I must have written: “10:00 still the same, 10:05 still the same, 10:10 still the same...” Sure, at one level the music is static, but as the performance continues, your ears become more and more attuned both to gradual change over time and to just how much there is to listen to at each moment. How you deploy your attention constructs your experience of the music.

Time for Gastr del Sol. David Grubbs has left the postpunk roar of his bands Squirrel Bait (mid-eighties) and Bastro (late eighties) behind and moved into quieter, more introspective, and far stranger territory, centered on his (usually) acoustic guitar, calm and plain singing, and oblique lyrics. Chicagoan O’Rourke is now his regular partner. O’Rourke provides a second guitar to intertwine with and brings interests in electronics and contemporary composition.

Grubbs and O’Rourke take the stage with their acoustic guitars. O’Rourke is seated behind an old electronic organ. Grubbs announces that German computer music composer Bernhard Günter, who was scheduled to appear tonight, will appear on Saturday instead. (I find out later there were problems getting the special speakers that Günter demands in order to present his work.)
When Grubbs throws in a plug for the “concessions stand” (merchandise table) at the back of the club, O’Rourke contributes some appropriately cheesy movie theater music on the organ.
Grubbs announces the first piece as “Onion Orange” and begins by playing characteristically spidery, deliberate figures on guitar. O’Rourke holds down one key on the organ, altering the pitch by twisting a knob on an attached effects box.
The keyboard part starts to get low and rumbling, ominous, then shifts back to the single placid note. As it shifts, the perceived emotional character of Grubbs’ guitar playing alters correspondingly, simply by being shown in a different light. Grubbs adds and subtracts notes from the figure he’s repeating and carefully alters where he places the emphasis.
“Onion Orange” ends abruptly. The next song is called “Rebecca Sylvester,” off their album Upgrade & Afterlife. “These are shark fins, I believe the tongue propels them,” sings Grubbs. When the vocals end, the song shifts gears, seeming to wander off into less structured territory, yet always remaining in the same place. It’s one of their favorite formal devices: taking a song and then spinning out a particular aspect of the song through improvisation. Improvisation does not depart from and extend the song but delves further into its interior.
Grubbs to O’Rourke: “Shall we?” They cover a Vietnamese folk song that’s been a staple of their live sets for more than a year now, passing the bright sounding melody back and forth.
I notice I’m sitting right next to an ancient looking drum machine with buttons color coded by national origin: Latin (samba, bolero, cha cha), European (march, polka), American (slow rock, fast rock).
Pause to tune up. O’Rourke and Grubbs introduce each other. Applause. O’Rourke: “Well, that gave me time to put on my finger picks...” He’s been intensively studying the solo guitar music of John Fahey (who’s on the festival bill himself, tomorrow night). O’Rourke’s solo concerts over the past year have generally been programs of Fahey songs. O’Rourke: “You remember those Kiss solo records? This is that section of the concert...” He plays what sounds like a Fahey song (or fragments of several), although I don’t specifically recognize it. Grubbs intently observes O’Rourke’s finger pick technique.
The piece speeds up until the high and low ranges of the guitar start to sound like two different instruments playing in counterpoint, like an Evan Parker sax solo. Then it segues into what sounds like a hinting-at-without-quite-playing Fahey’s “Dry Bones in the Valley.” Grubbs enters on electric guitar, adding in dissonant figures that clash with the folky Faheyesque parts. O’Rourke drops out; Grubbs’ solo section is thornier, more Derek Baileyish. As the solo continues, a theme emerges. Another favorite formal device: improvising towards an initially unheard theme rather than starting with the theme and improvising away from it.
More tuning up. O’Rourke: “Are we in tune?” Grubbs: “Are you in tune with yourself?” O’Rourke: “I’m always in tune with myself.”
A trading back and forth of emphatic guitar flourishes leads into the main body of “Dictionary of Handwriting” (from the Mirror Repair EP), a study in cross rhythms. It’s one of the most rocking things they’ve done, although sometime collaborator John McEntire isn’t there to play the drum part. The interlocking repeating guitar figures result in interference patterns and perceptual shifts, not unlike the films from the first set.
Guitars cut off. Full stop.