Sonic Youth
SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century


3.5
great

Review

by Nick Butler EMERITUS
January 17th, 2007 | 26 replies | 6,934 views


Release Date: 1999 | Tracklist

Review Summary: SYR see out the year 1999 with a collection of avant-garde pieces drawn from their own favourite 20th century composers. Not for the faint of heart, though there are treats here for the dedicated.

In SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century, Sonic Youth literally bid goodbye to the 20th century by reviewing the work of famous contemporary composers. And we're not talking the expected likes of Glenn Branca here - this is the land of Gyorgy Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Morton Subotnik, to name but some of the more famous composers in the feild. Steve Reich, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff, and James Tenney are all featured, among others.

For anyone without a grounding in avant-garde music, this will be a disorientating listen. Those who think of Opeth, Kayo Dot, The Mars Volta, and Radiohead as being 'experimental' might not want to explore this (and that's no insult to either of those bands or their fans; but if that's the kind of artist who represents your limits of weirdness, you probably won't enjoy going any further). Even those who enjoyed Scott Walker's last two albums might see this as a leap. Sonic Youth do attempt to bring their own style to the pieces, it's true, but this is not a Sonic Youth album. It's an avant-garde classical album, and as such, you can look forward to unidentified noises, dissonance, a general array of sounds you never thought you'd hear on an album, and a complete lack of harmony or rhythm in any traditional sense.

Disappointingly, the "+/-" here isn't the the fantastic Ryoji Ikeda composition, which is a shame. Instead, it's a Takehisha Kosugi piece, which is good, but not to the standard of Ikeda. And while Steve Reich's "Pendulum Music" - an interesting conceptual piece that is usually utterly unlistenable - is much better in Sonic Youth's hands, it's still not exactly what you'd call good music. Rather than perform it as written (essentially, the piece involves suspending two microphones above speaking and 'swinging' them like a pendulum, creating waves of feedback), the guys (and gal) in the Youth seem to have created a similar sound (slightly more nasal and squeaky) via other means, and enhanced it with more feedback from other sources. Better, but as the saying goes, you can't polish a turd.

Yet, this aside, most of what's here IS very good. The two takes on John Cage's "Six" and his "Four6" dominate the album, and all are very impressive (despite "Four6" lasting a hefty 30 minutes, which can be a slog even for ears used to this kind of material). "Six For New Time" and "Having Never Written A Note For Percussion" see a slight return to recognisable instruments, but that's about all the resemblance to more traditional classical music you'll find here. "Edges" also ranks as a highlight, and I personally quite like "Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's Piece)" - even though it's just piano keys being nailed down, it's a good listen. You might even say there's a sense of humor to it. The album comes complete with an enhanced section containing a video of Sonic Youth performing this.

Your own rating of this will probably depend entirely on how much patience and tolerance you have for this genre. It'll also depend on your previous experience. An album such as this occupies a very curious place - for lack of a batter term, it's a 'greatest hits' set of sorts. Somebody coming to this after years of loving the composers already mentioned will likely complain that the pieces have been debased in some way; removed from their intended context, and as such, rendered a little meaningless. Desultory? Ignorant of the original composers? Maybe SYR4 is guilty of that. Perhaps Sonic Youth are also occasionally guilty of re-tooling the pieces a little to make them playable, or slightly more in line with their established sound. Hey, you could even accuse this album of forcing people to listen to avant-garde music as if it's pop, though that's slightly elitist and arguably isn't a problem at all. (The fact that I'm reviewing it as a pop album rather than analysing it might be a bigger problem.) But, it's also a great way of introducing people to this kind of music, and at the end of the day, it's an album that gathers together a great variety of 20th century composers and pieces in one easy place.

Personally, I love this stuff, and while this album isn't a masterpiece, it's packed with solidly good readings of mostly great pieces.

A full list of composers -

"Edges", "Burdocks" - Christian Wolff
"Six (3rd Take)", "Six (4th Take)", "Four6" - John Cage
"Six For New Time" - Pauline Oliveros
"+/-" - Takehisa Kosugi
"Voice Piece For Soprano" - Yoko Ono
"Pendulum Music" - Steve Reich
"Having Never Written A Note For Percussion" - James Tenney
"Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's Piece)" - George Macuinas
"Piece enfantine" - Nicolas Slonimsky
"Treatise (Page 183)" - Cornelius Cardew



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user ratings (33)
Chart.
3.2
good

Comments:Add a Comment 
Iai
Emeritus
January 17th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Grr. I tried to write this as a soundoff and it ended up being too long, so I padded it a bit.

Now I want to review all the albums on that recommended list.

The Jungler
January 17th 2007



4827 Comments


Cool

Neoteric
January 17th 2007



3243 Comments


Awesome review, I've only heard one SYR though and I didn't really enjoy it.

Iai
Emeritus
January 17th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

This is the only one I've heard. To be honest I have no interest in the others.

AlienEater
January 17th 2007



716 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I want SYR 5 and 6. Anyone know if they're good?

I like this.

Eliminator
January 17th 2007



2067 Comments


5 sucks, but 6 is great



AlienEater
January 17th 2007



716 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

good good

I shall obtain a copy of 6 then

pixiesfanyo
January 17th 2007



1222 Comments


"Opeth, Kayo Dot, The Mars Volta, and Radiohead "

Have you ever heard Kayo Dot?



Iai
Emeritus
January 17th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Yes. And you're an idiot if you think I was making any comparison between those bands aside from noting that their fans tend to call them 'experimental'.

Boilermaker
January 17th 2007



8 Comments


It was an interesting concept for an album, but I didn't like it all that much.

Two-Headed Boy
January 17th 2007



4527 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I can't decide whether this is really fascinating or annoying, but it's excellent neverhtheless
Great review.

Kaleid
January 17th 2007



710 Comments


This sounds very interesting. Do you like 'Trout Mask Replica'?
Solid review :thumb:

Iai
Emeritus
January 17th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I do. How come?

Kaleid
January 17th 2007



710 Comments


Well, I just haven't heard an album that's more off-the-wall than that, and with your description of this...
I take it the instrumentation's more traditional in this. I like an album you really have to 'work at' to enjoy

Iai
Emeritus
January 17th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

This is more out-there than Trout Mask Replica, definitely, though in a different kind of way, if that makes sense. TMR stays within the rock form but twists it and changes it to create something new, while this dispenses with the form entirely.

pixiesfanyo
January 17th 2007



1222 Comments


Yes. And you're an idiot if you think I was making any comparison between those bands aside from noting that their fans tend to call them 'experimental'.


I was just surprised you could get more arrogant than your Converge review.



Iai
Emeritus
January 18th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I fail to see any arrogance in that statement. It's a simple fact - there's no point in pushing your musical experiences into areas you're not going to enjoy. 99% of the population does not enjoy avant-garde music. That's indisputable.

What's more, I can't see how it's arrogant to put Kayo Dot in that sentence, but it's not arrogant to put the others there.

In any case, I'm being called arrogant by the second most arrogant person on the site, so thanks, I guess.

Sepstrup
January 18th 2007



1563 Comments


I was just surprised you could get more arrogant than your Converge review.


How the hell is that arrogant? If anything you're arrogant by questioning whether he's heard a band he namedrops in his review.

Iai
Emeritus
January 18th 2007



3553 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

It's like getting called a racist by Hitler, isn't it?

pixiesfanyo
January 18th 2007



1222 Comments


You're demeaning the listeners of all of those bands by saying calling them "experimental" provides they are wrong or something.

Sure, you apologize after it. But it's clear you're just trying to say that people who consider Kayo Dot, Radiohead, TMV etc. are in some way not as cultured as those who have listened to Penderecki, etc.

What's arrogant is the fact that Kayo Dot composer Toby Driver clearly wears his modernist influence on his sleeve. If you have heard some of Kayo Dot's later material it shares much in common with it. Also, Toby's solo work is almost completely based in that realm of music.

That is what led me to believe you hadn't heard the band. I still contest you couldn't have at least give the band a very in depth listen, because some of the issues I have with Kayo Dot are how similar some of their work is with the composers that were covered on this album.



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