Goodbye 20th century and goodbye career, sadly, one suspects. Nowadays, [a]Sonic Youth[/a] are more alluded to than listened to and it’s unlikely that this collection of interpretations of works by composers ranging from John Cage to Cornelius Cardew will reinflame their popularity. Which is a shame because [a]Sonic Youth[/a] haven’t diminished in quality and this album is an artistically, if not commercially, logical move for a band who have always understood the link between noise-rock and the classical avant-garde.
Clocking in at over 100 minutes, these pieces range in length from 12 seconds to 30 minutes, largely eschewing vocals. They don’t adhere strictly to the original compositions, rather interpreting them or following “spatial instructions” or “ensemble direction”. The opening ‘Edges’ by Christian Wolff typifies the approach – fragments of guitar melody, distant drones and cymbals like wind chimes emerge from the silence. The John Cage pieces, ‘Six’ and ‘Four6’, are especially successful. His mischievous and minimal approach leaves the band a lot of scope for improvisation. Their take on James Tenney‘s 1971 piece ‘Having Never Written A Note For Percussion’ is pretty wonderful too, a single chord rising like a dawn before burgeoning into a blinding, sunburst of sound.
‘SYR4…’ isn’t an unqualified success. Yoko Ono‘s mercifully brief ‘Voice Piece For Soprano’ only confirms what a bad name that no-talent charlatan gave to the avant-garde, while their take on Steve Reich‘s ‘Pendulum Music’ is a queasy experience, with its repetitive, squeaky feedback. Reich’s music requires a less amorphous, more rigid approach.
Meanwhile, you’d be forgiven for mistaking George Maciunas‘ ‘Piano Piece #13’ for the distant sounds of a neighbour bashing away in his garden shed. But there’s more than enough here that’s profoundly compelling, from the wispy, haunting [I]musique concrete[/I] of Cardew‘s ‘Treatise’ to Pauline Oliveros‘ specially composed ‘Six For New Time’. [a]Sonic Youth[/a] remember enough about addictive tunings from their ‘Daydream Nation’ days to know how to make sounds that stick to your mind like bubblegum. A brave gesture this and a treat for the adventurous few. Are you among them?