American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music

If rock has produced any avatars in the last two decades, then it must be this foursome. It isn’t that much of a hyperbole to say like another foursome from England, this group changed not just the way that popular culture saw rock but opened the floodgates for many other bands not just by their example but with their encouragement, collaborations and label releases.

Sonic Youth has maintained an unparalleled relationship between downtown experimental music and rock from their very beginnings as a band. The band’s three founding members, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon, were all involved with New York’s downtown experimental scene before founding Sonic Youth. (Moore and Ranaldo were members of the ensemble that premiered Glenn Branca‘s earliest microtonal guitar symphonies.) Yet, at the same time, they have always been part of the rock world. Kim Gordon spawned the whole riot grrl movement in part, and drummer Steve Shelley, who has been with the band since 1986, runs his own indie rock label, Smells Like Records. Moore was even responsible for Nirvana getting signed to Geffen Records.

Both as a band, and in their numerous side projects, the members of Sonic Youth have continued to nurture the ‘alternative’ movement into the next decade and to support numerous free jazz, electronica and modern classical projects and performers. The fact that they’ve not only persevered for almost twenty years now but also still continue to break ground and raise the bar with each release is a testament to their commitment and the quality of their work.

Of special interest is a recent release on their own independent SYR label, Goodbye 20th Century, which features performances of John Cage‘s late Number Pieces (Four6 and Six), Steve Reich‘s Pendulum Music and George Maciunas‘ infamous Piano Piece in which the keys of a piano are nailed in one by one. There’s even a work written especially for them by Pauline Oliveros and several works by Christian Wolff in which Wolff himself joins in the performance. Guitarist Thurston Moore explains how this came about: “It was definitely a universe or world that we were aware of and were definitely charged by. A lot had to do with William Winant, the percussionist. He thought that we would be perfect arbiters of this. There’s a whole generation keeping this music alive, keeping these ideas alive by re-evaluating them, rediscovering them and redefining them in their own terms.”

If that wasn’t enough, the group’s most recent major label release, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen), is a very impressive demonstration of their balancing act between instrumental flights of fancy and song-form that have defined and refined for so many years. Perhaps the only major problem that faces the group today is that it has accomplished so much that they now must be judged by the high standards that they’ve set for themselves.

From American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music
By Jason Gross and Steve Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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