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
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 "+ -"
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
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
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.