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