SY2K

Sonic Youth's Goodbye 20th Century remembers the auld lang syne of the avant-garde

What do recalcitrant rocker types have in common with budding electro-weenies? It seems the guitar lickers won't listen to anything without the reassuring presence of electric guitars while the circuit shtuppers are uninterested in anything with them. The answer: Both equate guitars with rock, and both have their heads up their amplifiers. Forget the ineluctable fact that the almighty ax is an electronic instrument--vibrating steel cables read by electromagnets and translated into electronic signals, etc. Much forward-looking nonrock made today employs, yes, this most retro of tools.

What's more, the first band anyone ever bothered calling "postrock," the now mature Sonic Youth, has spent nearly two decades diligently extracting every conceivable bit of aural information from this supposedly dead instrument. Perhaps SY is an exceptional example. Yet they remain the best band to straddle the fence between rock music and the avant-garde, cross-pollinating the purposefully pop with the nonpop.

Spawned in the fertile aftermath of New York's late-Seventies No Wave movement, Sonic Youth released its eponymous 1982 debut on a label run by maximalist guitar composer Glenn Branca. From the start, they fused confrontational performance art (their vocals presaged "spoken word") with punk's musical viscera. Upping the ante, guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore studied extended song structures and spat out an expanding guitar vocabulary--a new language of noise abstraction informed by free jazz and modern classical music.

The music of chance: Composer and Sonic Youth collaborator Takehisa Kosugi annotates a piece solely with plus and minus signs
The music of chance: Composer and Sonic Youth collaborator Takehisa Kosugi annotates a piece solely with plus and minus signs

Now, after some moderate commercial success, Sonic Youth has returned to these influences in earnest. While their releases on DGC (which issued most of SY's work in the Nineties) have mostly been more accessible than their Eighties classics, the group lets its appetite for experimentation go unchecked on its own label, SYR. A division of drummer Steve Shelly's Smells Like Records imprint, the indie has been Sonic Youth's primary vehicle for adventures in nonrock nonsongs since 1997.

The newest SYR release, Sonic Youth's Goodbye 20th Century, feels less like a departure than an exceedingly assertive homecoming, finding the erstwhile 120 Minutes icons collaborating with friends to cover works by 20th-century avant-garde and modern classical composers. This might sound hopelessly haughty, but the concept turns out to be a playful one. The 13 pieces on Goodbye were selected by Ranaldo and percussion virtuoso William Winant (an old buddy of bassist Kim Gordon, whose résumé of collaboration includes several of the featured composers). All but one of the songs share two traits: 1) an element of indeterminacy in either the composing or rendering of the piece, and 2) a score that's graphic or verbal rather than transcribed in the time signatures and clefs of standard musical notation.

For John Cage, represented here by his "Four" and two very different takes of "Six," the original compositional weapons of chance were a copy of the I Ching and some dice (don't ask). For Christian Wolff, a composer who contributes both pieces and piano playing to Goodbye, chance is left to the musicians. On his "Edges," the players are allowed to make any sounds they choose; only the order in which they play and how they interact is determined by the instructions of the score. Elsewhere, the piece "+ -," by composer and New York violinist Takehisa Kosugi, consists entirely of plus and minus signs. Lesser musicians might have been baffled without more explicit directions, but the expanded Sonic Youth, supplemented on this track by co-producer and guitarist Jim O'Rourke, runs with the idea to create a euphonious round robin of violins and guitars.

Unfortunately, even the band's skills as improvisers can't help "Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's Piece)," by Fluxus agent provocateur George Macunias. The tune calls for hammering down every key of a piano, something that must have been a hell of a lot of fun to record. It may even be fun to witness on video, but the concept languishes a bit on disc. Which brings up an interesting point: The album's more nebulous stuff works perfectly well, but it succeeds primarily because the ensemble, unlike many of its conservatory-trained counterparts, refuses to bore its audience--or, more important, itself. That's not always the case with this type of music--even from the composer's end. Cage, for example, saw boredom as a perfectly acceptable response to his work, a fact amply demonstrated on numerous recordings. Here Sonic Youth does Cage's work the rare service of making it enjoyable to listen to.

Ultimately, the most successful tracks on Goodbye are those that involve a little more volition on the composer's part--or, in the case of vocal prodigy (and Moore-Gordon offspring) Coco Haley, more aggression on the part of the performer. (The kindergarten-aged chanteuse tears though Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" with inspiring glee.)

In recent months novelist J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has generated quite a stir in the book world by galvanizing kids not much older than five-year-old Coco. Not only are both boys and girls from ages 8 to 14 devouring the fantasy books by the millions, they're going into libraries and bookstores and asking, "Got anything else?" It's not hard to imagine Sonic Youth doing something similar for the musical avant-garde, albeit on a smaller scale and for an older crowd. But then kids, too, have been buying this album, as this record-retailing critic can attest.

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