Goodbye 20th Century by Sonic Youth (1999, Sonic Youth Record SYR 4)
“Countless sound thinkers have interpreted the music; the point, as Sonic Youth have always maintened, is to change it.”1
1. Edges 16:03
2. Six (3rd take) 3:03
3. Six For New Time 8:06
4. +- 7:01
5. Voice Piece For Soprano 0:17
6. Pendulum Music 5:55
7. Having Never Written A Note For Percussion 9:09
8. Six (4th take) 2:10
9. Burdocks 13:12
10. Four6 30:01
11. Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter’s Piece) 3:58
12. Piece Enfantine 1:28
13. Treatise (page 183) 3:25
While I’m writing the first notes on this double cd I’m watching the video where the four sonic youths “play” Piano Piece # 13 (Carpenter’s Piece), composed by George Maciunas for Nam June Paik of 1962. It makes quite an impression.2
You can see the four sonics that, one at a time, plant a nail in the keyboard of an old upright piano. A few minutes later the four move away from the piano, whose keyboard looks like a battlefield: splinters of wood everywhere, keys destroyed and nails planted everywhere. A perfect performance in the Fluxus style, an artistic movement that Maciunas belonged to. I smile reading the comment of a youtuber: “still better than Nicki Minaj”, other comments follow, some people approve, others show a caustic condemnation.The video was uploaded in May 2006 and since then has received more than 51.000 views, a little more of 200 likes and about fifty thumbs down.
Sonic Youth, what a fantastic name. It’s so perfect and they are exactly the group you would have thought of such a name; they make exactly the music that would make a group with that name, which makes albums that are in fact true electric sound meditations. Listening to the record the performance is even more disturbing, with the piano groaning under the blows, the noises of wood and ivory that jump under the hammers, the nails that stick and destroy the poor piano. I believe that, more or less, Goodbye 20th Century received the same kind of response from the public when it came out in 1999. It was a real gamble. It was a really brave project but it could wreck everywhere, alienating the group from its alternative and indie rock fans and exposing it to amateurism criticism by the exponents of “serious” music. Of course there have been negative criticisms3, but this record has strengthened the image of Sonic Youth and obtained the respect of those involved in contemporary art, with numerous offers of concerts by prestigious art galleries4.
Accredited to the four Gordon, Moore, Ranaldo and Shelley along with numerous guests (William Winant / Jim O’Rourke / Takehisa Kosugi / Christian Wolff / Christian Marclay / Coco Hayley Gordon Moore / Wharton Tiers), this double monumental Lp / cd is a record of covers that retraces the twentieth century by paying homage to it, through free interpretations of contemporary music. Some of the greatest authors of the last century are interested in it, such as John Cage, George Maciunas, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff. Extraordinary, in Goodbye 20th Century, is in particular the presence of some of the original authors with even Oliveros composing a piece for the occasion, called “Six For New Time – For Sonic Youth”.
The choice of pieces was made by William Winant5, a highly regarded percussionist in the field of contemporary music, who had worked extensively with John Cage and with a list of collaborations ranging from Frank Zappa to Boulez, from Kronos Quartet to John Zorn and Kim Gordon’s old childhood friend6. He decided to choose pieces that could be performed by a small ensemble and on which all the musicians involved could play.
“I knew I’d have to find things that would work with these specific people and their instruments, either as a solo, quartet, quintet or sextet. I chose graphic scores with open instrumentation and varying degrees of indeterminacy written into them. 7“
“Goodbye” on the one hand was the natural opening of the path started in the records made for Sonic Youth Records, recorded in their Echo Canyon studio, which created a context suitable for such a work. On the other hand, working alongside the so-called avant-garde musicians has always been part of the normal Sonic Youth’s activity and the choice of composers, as explained by Thurstone Moore in an interview with Daniela Cascella “to deal with the liberation of the musician: this is an idea that the punks believed they had invented. The fact that avant-garde music has always been a big step forward, an expansion, as taught in academies around the world since the 1950s, is something we need to share with punks everywhere. Really that kind of music manages to mix the hippie, punk and academic identity.8“
Despite the particular nature of the music recorded on this double cd Goodbye 20th Century remains a “typically” Sonic Youth record. It’s not an indispensable work for fans of Daydream Nation or Goo while it’s certainly interesting for those who work with Neu Musik. Once you have overcomed the first moments of perplexity (a rock band that plays Cage?) Goodbye 20th Century proves to be a free artistic digression whose strong sequence and hight musical energy enjoy an intrinsic aesthetic value, but above all a vital proof of the fact that underground rock and academic avant-garde have moved on parallel lines of development, although few, by both sides, have dared to admit it. The band of Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelby not only admits it but also has the courage and the will to declare that the twentieth century is over and that, as for rock, it’s time for a change. Perhaps it’s time to greet the utopian experimentations and accept a new life-giving paradigm: the border areas must return to talk and cross each other, finding a balance and a place in this global society that nobody seems to be able to steal from.
1David Keenan on The Wire Issue 217 March 2002 Pag. 46
3“I remember a caption in a review that just said “Good by 20th Century, Goodbye Talent.” We pinned it up on the wall of the studio”. Jim O’Rourke The Wire Issue 213, November 2001, pag. 140
4Psychic Confusion La storia dei Sonic Youth di Steve Chick, pag. 313
6Kim Gordon, Girl in a band, pag 241-242
7William Winant, Bananafish #13
8Intervista con Daniela Cascella su BlowUp Giugno 2000 “Sonic Youth La Tradizione ddel Nuovo” Pag. 70-72