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Sonic Youth are out of time

By Jon Garelick

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  There's a point I wait for in every Sonic Youth concert -- a point where all those odd chords, all that volume, all those vibrating overtones begin to take on a sculptural presence, as if the music were no longer emanating from the stage but instead were this thing extending from just above the audience's heads to high up into the rafters.

On recent tours, that moment has tended to occur during performances of "The Diamond Sea," the 20-minute piece that closes out their 1995 album Washing Machine. "The Diamond Sea" is a lyrical little folk-pop song, and also a grand electronic epic. Ever since their days as kids in New York's "no wave" noise-rock scene, as fellow travelers with guitar-symphony writer Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth have been honoring both halves of their musical personality in equal measure, as pop songwriters and sonic experimenters. In 1997 (between the release of Washing Machine and that of A Thousand Leaves, both on Geffen), using money they made headlining Lollapalooza, they set up their own studio "lab" in New York and began producing instrumental side projects given over entirely to the noise and putting them out on their own SYR label.

The first three of the SYR CDs favored titles in, respectively, French, Dutch, and Esperanto, plus all manner of tape and electronic manipulation -- various forms of droning ambient guitar jams, musique concrète, warped gamelan, electronic Doppler effects and chirping electronic birdies, bells, gongs, whale calls, feedback, buzzes, piano rumbles, and plucked strings. None of the three is without its pleasures, and in fact, SYR 2 contains the instrumental roots of a couple of songs from A Thousand Leaves. At times, these discs (SYR 3 is a collaboration with Chicago post-rock instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke) offer the avant-rock version of a jam band, everyone noodling away over a single chord, a steady, slow beat, with occasional flitting scales. It's Sonic Youth stripped of their lyrics and pop-song structures -- and despite their optimistic press release ("special artifacts . . . for completists and novices alike"), the most challenging stuff here requires a major shift in perspective, from the world of punk rock ("Kill Yr Idols," "Teenage Riot," and "Kool Thing") to that of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In other words, it's not The Year Grunge Broke. And despite all the high-art trappings, the discs are budget-priced and unpretentious.

The most interesting SYR release is the fourth and latest: Goodbye 20th Century, a double CD given over to the work of other composers: John Cage, Christian Wolff, Pauline Oliveros, Takehisa Kosugi, Steve Reich, Yoko Ono, James Tenney, George Maciunas, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Cornelius Cardew. There's plenty of spacy Cagean "indeterminacy" here, isolated blips and plinks and buzzes. But whereas the first three albums tend to blend together in a kind of guitar-jam monotony that sounds as if it would be more fun to play than it is to listen to, Goodbye 20th Century's selections are quite heterogeneous. The earlier CDs, all from 1997, were relatively short (22, 28, and 56 minutes, respectively); Goodbye 20th Century is over 100 minutes long on two discs, and divided into 13 pieces of varying length, from Ono's 12-second "Scream" to Cage's 30-minute "Four6." And each piece provides a very different listening experience. Steve Reich's "Pendulum Music" (1968), created with feedback loops, is the electronic equivalent of a playground swing on a rusty chain, slowly pivoting back and forth over two squeaky pitches while other pitches oscillate above, below, and around it at frequencies that at times becomes nearly unendurable -- the six-minute piece is an irresistible test for the listener. Christian Wolff's "Edges" has a dreamlike spaciness, a variety of sounds punctuated by fragments of spoken and sung commentary from Kim Gordon -- she sings a line or two from a couple of jazz standards ("I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You," "You Go to My Head") and tells a little story about feeling sleepy and going to bed ("It was just . . . right," she murmurs with sexy satisfaction.

Probably the most accessible piece for Sonic Youth fans will be James Tenney's "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion" (1971), whose score is a simple dynamic marking, from pppp to ffff at its midpoint and back down to pppp again. At least for me, the Tenney provides that signature Sonic Youth moment: sounds gradually accreting to a mass that seems to grow somewhere in front of and above the soundstage. And its nine minutes are deployed perfectly in this performance -- having listened, you can't tell exactly when it got so phenomenally loud or when the "beginning" of the diminuendo was.

Like so many of the pieces on 20th Century, Tenney's benefits from volume and space -- a good-size room rather than headphones. Kim Gordon murmurs off-mike in the distance, and then a piece of paper crinkles right near your ear. Few of these pieces provide the material that would place them in time -- no regularly sounded beat, no clear chord progression. Those who've closely studied 12-tone procedures and serialism point out that such pieces -- with their lack of metric or harmonic progression and resolution -- aspire to timelessness. Which is what we get here with Sonic Youth -- something that makes perfect sense for an end-of-the-century project.


Sonic Youth had help making Goodbye 20th Century: composers Wolff and Kosugi; O'Rourke; composer, Branca associate, and SYR recording engineer Wharton Tiers; turntablist Christian Marclay; and percussionist/new-music improviser William Winant. It was Winant who suggested the concept, picked the pieces, and assembled the players. The band had given a copy of the O'Rourke collaboration SYR 3 to Winant, who, according to Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, said, "You really have to take this one step further, because I hear things that you're doing in here that are really related to 20th-century composers."

If you can't imagine Sonic Youth poring over complex post-serialist scores, you're right. "We're not score readers," concedes Shelley on the phone from his office in Hoboken. "So most of this music is pretty conceptual. For almost all of the music there were pieces of paper in front of us that were scores, but they were not for the most part traditional scores. They were more like directions or parameters. A lot of these [pieces] were basically improvisations with limitations."

The scores available at the www.smellslikerecords.com Web site are often visually elegant in their own right. Takehisa Kosugi's 1987 "+ -" is a rectangular image of pencil-drawn plus and minus signs that wouldn't be out of place in a gallery exhibition. Oliveros's "Six for New Time" (the one new piece written explicitly for this project) is a lopsided, subdivided hexagon with various instructions written at its points and along its axis ("Free gesture/ Lyrics"; "Listen," "Ebo bends"). Cage's "Four6" (1992) is a diagram with time indications. And Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" (1961) merely provides these instructions: "Scream 1) against the wind 2) against the wall 3) against the sky." That's just what you hear: Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore's daughter Coco producing the piece in 12 seconds.

Sometimes the procedure was more complicated. "We did the Cage pieces [there are three of them] with either quartets or double quartet," says Shelley. "And basically, each player, or musician, gets a different score. On your score there are 12 numbers. For each of those numbers you have to assign a sound, or a tone, or a rhythm part. Once you assign a sound to each one of those numbers, you all use stopwatches. And it [the score] actually tells you when you can begin and end that sound. There is a minute variable each time. You can choose your entrance point and your exit point. But that's the whole score -- him telling you when to make these sounds. And they're amazing pieces."

One of the most evocative pieces on 20th Century is also the most purely conceptual -- George Maciunas's "Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's Piece)," which requires the musicians to nail down the keys of a piano. Hammering alternates with isolated piano notes; the hammering and sounded notes become more dense, then gradually trail off to a few stray bangs. The first CD is enhanced with a short film of the piece that can be played on a CD-ROM. In the film, each of the band's four members takes a turn banging in a nail; then, gradually, all four go at it at once. You can look at this as a mildly transgressive act (it can be more painful to watch than Pete Townshend destroying one of his guitars), but it's also somehow quintessentially American -- the artist as experimenter, investigator, builder. It's literally a "handmade" piece, the essence of DYI, with a kind of American frontier boldness that goes back in music as least as far as Charles Ives. And it's fun to listen to.


I ask Shelley about the band's current plans. He runs Smells Like Records (covering both the SYR imprint and artists like Two Dollar Guitar and Lee Hazlewood) from Hoboken; Gordon and Moore are living in western Massachusetts with Coco; guitarist Lee Ranaldo is still in New York. A new album, New York City Ghosts and Flowers, should be completed by January and, Shelley hopes, ready for release by Geffen in the spring. I ask him about one of the most painful incidents in the band's history, when last July 4, at a club stop in Orange County, California, their entire truck of equipment was stolen. At the time, Lee Ranaldo sent out a desperate e-mail, hoping the instruments would be found, and pointing out that the songs would be lost without the specially doctored guitars that created them.

"I don't think we'll see that for a long time," says Shelley, sounding resigned. "I try not to get too overwhelmed by it. I had some nice vintage stuff in there, like a '60s vintage Gretsch drum set that meant a lot more to me than what it was worth money-wise. And we've been traveling a lot the last 10 years, so there were a lot of percussion things from all over the world. They were never very expensive but . . . well, I won't be in Indonesia any time soon. . . . Some bands, it probably would have ended them, because it was pretty heartbreaking. And yeah, there are certain things that are gone, but we're the ones who make the music."


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