We're So Bored With Rock 'N' Roll

There's a lot of noise ... silence ... noise here.

What does it mean to say — as Sonic Youth do in the subtitle of their

latest independent release — goodbye to the 20th century?

The phrase is arguably a kiss-off to rock 'n' roll itself, the music that has

dominated the global soundscape of the past 50 years. Sonic Youth have been

waving farewell for the past 19 years, destroying punk's limited palette of

four chords with an infinite library of sounds created from their own

custom-made scales. In the past three years, they've been AWOL from rock more

often than not, releasing three discs of their experimental SYR series and

even stuffing the seams of the more "accessible" major-label release A

Thousand Leaves (1998) with artsy excursions.

With SYR 4, the Sonics bid adieu to rock in no uncertain terms,

interpreting the works of 10 of the past century's avant-garde composers.

"One day I said to myself that it would be better to get rid of all that

— melody, rhythm, harmony, etc. This was not a negative thought and did

not mean that it was necessary to avoid them, but rather that, while doing

something else, they would appear spontaneously."

That's SYR 4 composer Christian Wolff describing the theory behind his

work in the liner notes to For Ruth Crawford (1994). The same principle

applies to much of the music on the Sonics' new set. SYR 4 frequently

plays like a soundtrack for the most private reaches of the soul, those

internal noises one might hear in solitary confinement as the mind reflects in

its seemingly random way on a lifetime of moments.

No rock naturally means no rhythm. For years, drummer Steve Shelley has been

the soul of Sonic Youth, wrapping flesh around the band's most ethereal

sounds. Here, he and avant-garde percussionist (and project director) William

Winant assume more abstract roles, resulting in pieces such as Steve Reich's

"Pendulum Music," a combination of wavering whistle and steady hum that begins

like a Jacques Cousteau ocean recording and

dissolves into the maddening sounds of Edgar Allan Poe stories.

On Wolff's "Burdocks," Sonic Youth with Wolff and others create a pastiche of

violins climbing up and down stairs, swatches of turntable noise, electronic

static and percussion that falls in like occasional drops from a leaky faucet.

The band evokes a sense of waiting with the silent spaces on its two takes of

"Six" by John Cage — the century's master of indeterminacy, a movement

that left much of a work's composition up to the musicians in a given

performance.

It helps in understanding the unorthodox origins of the music here to look at

scores for some of the pieces, which are included on the label's website

(www.smellslikerecords.com). Instructions for Takehisa Kosugi's "+ -"

(RealAudio

excerpt), for instance, are made up not of musical notes, but

mainly of those two mathematical symbols, indicating vaguely when players

should build up sounds or come down. The score for Pauline Oliveros' "Six

for New Time for Sonic Youth" (RealAudio

excerpt), the album's only original composition, looks like a

chemical diagram.

There are holes in the two-disc set where the familiar Sonic Youth poke

through. "Six for New Time" includes recognizable guitar strumming that melts

into a distorted screech. The tinkling and tapping that close "+ -" and the

atmospheric soundscape in the middle of James Tenney's "Having Never Written a

Note for Percussion" both have antecedents in the band's rock catalog.

Still, SYR 4 reveals Sonic Youth delving deeper into their experimental

instincts than ever before. In past diversions from rock, they've usually

wandered into abrasive territory that is nonetheless defined by dense guitar

noise. Here the band works in a random space punctuated by cracks of silence.

For ears accustomed to rhythm and melody — even Sonic Youth's odd

melodies — the new sounds can be just as abrasive.

In Cage's 30-minute "Four6," bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon

repeatedly shouts "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!," as if she can't wait for

whatever lies around the corner ahead. In Wolff's "Edges" (RealAudio excerpt), she tells the story

of Goldilocks as if she were a teen version of the intruder who splits when

the three bears return: "I just bolted," she says. "It just wasn't cool to

stay around."

As the 1900s draw to a close and Sonic Youth approach 20 years together, it

appears that the band is growing bored with rock and is ready to bolt in

search of new musical adventures. Whether fans will accompany them on said

adventures remains to be seen.