Thursday, April 12, 2012

Noise or Music | Is Sonic Youth One or the Other?

Sonic Youth Noise Band
We have all heard about the art gallery trick where someone hangs a panting created by a three year old and nobody can tell the difference between that piece and another that was made by some well established artist.  The Sonic Youth London show from their 1984 tour is something akin to a musical version of that trick.  By that time, Sonic Youth had been performing their noisy style of music for nearly three years. The band went on stage, only to find that their equipment was malfunctioning.  Thurston Moore trashed the musical gear out of frustration, and the show was over in minutes.  Still the reviews were positive.  Did these reviewers not know that they weren’t watching an actual show?  No, they thought that the noise and destruction was the event.  It’s just like seeing a splattering of paint on canvas created by a toddler, and thinking it to be some great work by a modern artist.  If you can’t tell the difference between a mistake and the sounds that the band intended to create, what separates their sound from audio garbage or noise? 

What does one also say about their second album titled Bad Moon Rising?  The band claimed that it was a collection of melodies that they used live just to take up time while other members made sure that their guitars were in tune.  American audiences ignored the album, but that same English group of fans and reviewers that thought their non-show was great, found Bad Moon Rising to be worthy of purchase.  The band's musical filler received praise!   
On the Sonic Youth album titled Death Valley, there is a song titled I Love Her All the Time.  I’m one minute into the song, and have yet to hear any discernible structure.  After what feels like ages, there is a beat to follow.  Thank goodness for the drummer.  Sadly, that beat is layered with dissonant vocals. Without the discipline of a very solid drummer, where does the art start and garbage finish?

I suppose that I would have to go back to 1985 to truly understand what the band meant when they released EVOL.  I can’t listen to this this piece of work for the first time in my life (27 years after it came out,) and say what I really think about the songs, because I don’t have a frame of reference.  If anything, the song Expressway to your Skull is worthy of praise, simply because it has enough song structure to make it worthy of spending a moment to try to figure out. But alas, 2.5 minutes into the song the wheels come off.  It’s another noise fest until the verse comes back for just 30 seconds.  After that, we’re treated to another four minutes of dull, muted noise.  I’m sure that some would say that I don’t appreciate the band for whatever they did or said, or tried to say back “in their day.”  They certainly weren’t Throbbing Gristle.  They weren’t Brian Eno.  They stuck with their style of dissonance and mystery, and up until the fall of last year, the band was plying their craft in front of thousands of fans.   
Is it Music or Noise?
What I struggle with is this:  What is the difference between dissonance and noise?  As a musician, I often ask myself how I can make a song better.  Are we communicating what we feel?  Does the audience know what we are trying to do here when we play this song?  Can you tell the difference between an honest mistake and what is intentional?  If you can’t, is this music? Is it art?  Is it junk? Finally, I must ask one more question. If you do play noise, what makes your songs the best that they can be?  Is it a matter of the song having more or less noise, more or less vibrato, louder or softer vocal ranting or harder guitar slides against the microphone stand?  That’s the problem with bands like Sonic Youth, is it a three year old slapping paint on a canvas, or a true artist bringing out their best while using only three colors.     

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