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Audio Archaeology: Sonic Youth’s SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century

on July 30, 2011, 1:00pm

Sonic Youth‘s releases on both indie and major labels have embraced the weird in various ways. Whether it’s drenching tunes in edgy guitar drone and experimental tunings, making a song out of answering machine messages left by Minutemen founder Mike Watt (Daydream Nation’s “Providence”), or covering Madonna, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley, and their intensely talented circle of friends and collaborators are proud to dive into the deep end of the weird-o pool for the listening benefit of the general public. That being said, perhaps they like to keep a little extra at the bottom of the tank for their own label, Sonic Youth Recordings (SYR).

While every one of the nine SYR releases to date have their own eccentricities (SYR8 is a live recording with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Japanese noisenik Merzbow; SYR6 was first performed as a soundtrack to silent films by Stan Brakhage; the subtitle to SYR2 is apparently Dutch for “bedrooms with whipped cream”), SYR4 may be the weirdest of the bunch. Goodbye 20th Century, released, appropriately enough, in 1999, is a double-disc collection of covers of avant-garde composers ranging from Steve Reich to Yoko Ono.

syr4 260x260 Audio Archaeology: Sonic Youths SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century

Dating near the beginning of Jim O’Rourke’s tenure as a full band member, SYR4 revels in some of the same work that O’Rourke does as a solo musician, namely taking elements of traditional composition, and bringing them to a fresh audience through new methodology. To open the collection, the group tackles Christian Wolff’s eerie, minimal “Edges”. Wolff, best known for his prepared piano work, in which he places objects atop exposed strings of the instrument and then plucks them manually, actually contributed directly to the disc, adding synth-organizer work to his own “Burdocks” later on. A version of legendary avant-garde composer John Cage’s “Six” follows, Sonic Youth’s proclivity for drone embraced to its fullest. The vocal “Six For New Time” (originally a spacy Pauline Oliveros composition) finds familiar, crackling, new life when recited by Moore.

Japanese Fluxus composer Takehisa Kosugi was also present for the recording, and his “+-” apparently required some discussion. Per the liner notes: “It’s a graphic score with different rows of plus signs, minus signs, and vertical lines, which tell the players to rise, go lower, or make an open choice, respectively. The time frame is open, as is how to go from one symbol to the next.” The result is a cacophonous glory, brimming with noisy goodness. Ono’s “Voice Piece For Soprano” (a 17 second long scream from Moore and Gordon’s daughter, Coco Hayley), and Reich’s “Pendulum Music” (in which the band members stood on chairs, held microphones from their chords, and swung them pendulum-like over upturned amps) close out the first disc beautifully.

The highlight of the second disc may be George Maciunas’ ”Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter’s Pice, For Nam June Paik)”. Also included as a video file on the original CD release of the collection, “Piano Piece #13” is, in its entirety, the members of the band hammering a single nail into each and every one of the keys of a piano. This sort of statement-piece involves so much theorizing, questioning the validity of music itself. Not only does the percussive nature of the hammering sound chaotic, the occasional piano tones produced sound pained, and the piece also defies the musical capability of the instrument itself, as the keys become inoperable at the piece’s close. The half-smile, half-grimace on drummer Steve Shelley’s face as he whacks a nail into a key shows how much fun this kind of music can be, if you embrace it to the fullest.

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