OHM- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music
Thurston Moore interview
by Jason Gross
Q: Do you think that a larger audience appreciated electronic music more since Sonic Youth has been championing it?
I don't think that people accepted it more. I think a generation that got more involved with music that was machine orientated found out that there was this really cool history of it that sort of predated digital. There's all these guys working with analogue music, having all kinds of the same concerns about creating music that was somewhat abstract and in a fringe area from the mainstream world. A lot had to do with radical music at one time, especially in the late '70's and '80's, being associated with punk rock. As soon as they became mainstream, it became more interesting to get involved in music that was not gonna be co-opted into the mainstream. (laughs)
A lot of people looked toward some of the more avant garde music, which to us was fantastic. We had come out of New York and we were always this sort of unorthodox avant garde band amidst punk rock, which had a very purist quality to it. We were always denigrated by a lot of people in that genre as an ARTSY band. You can't be artsy, you had to be purist, right on the spot. We were allowed to exist as were the Butthole Surfers and Einsturzende Neubauten- 'the weird, kind of fringe stuff.' This is interesting in the early '90's to now just seeing how things changes and how the underground embraced experimentation to such a degree.
I don't think it had too much to do with us. I think a lot of people in the generation getting involved in electronic music can refer to a band like us or Neubauten but at the same time, it doesn't really mean that much to them. They're interested in their own contemporary thing. When hardcore bands started, they weren't interested in what happened before- they were interested in what was happening then. To them, the first record they ever heard was the Dead Kennedys and then they all started bands. I think a lot of these people started hearing techno culture stuff really early on in the nineties and a lot of them were inspired to find out more about electronic music through that and it became this very hip thing.
It's just wide open. There's other associations with other older, completely underground music like free improvisation throughout the sixties and seventies. This was not something you were hearing too much about in the eighties. These heroic figures, like Milford Graves. You didn't hear people talking about him in hushed tones in the eighties. Now, you have the No Neck Blues Band and all these guys and that's their icons. It's completely fascinating to me. I'm completely glad that things turned out this way.
When I look at the music journalism like NME and Melody Maker... I remember in the seventies, those were very heavy newspapers to us. We would get them and they would be talking about the really radical music of the time. They were very into talking about Roxy Music and Sparks and really inventive rock music and experimental stuff. The weirder the better. Now, when I see these magazines, they just wanna talk about this really homogenized pop music. If there IS anything radical going on, they make fun of it. 'Don't get so artsy-fartsy on us.' Like there's a whole different change there where it's definitely a reaction to that in a way. 'Cause mostly the people I know who deal with electronic music are young people who have absolutely no connection to that (pop) world.
Q: Do you think electronic music has had some impact on other styles?
It's influenced the musicians. Most of them are aware of that stuff. I don't think the general populace is. The general populace isn't historically musically adventurous. A classic example is David Bowie who will always employ things like that into his music and then he sells billions of records. The Beatles did the same thing.
Q: A lot of popular culture misunderstands it though, like "Revolution Number 9" or "Baba O'Reily" or how everyone is 'influenced by Stockhausen.'
It's never been a mainstream music and I think that's sort of its attraction. It's a very hip thing to musicians. Right now, all the proliferation of CD releases of classic electronic stuff is just fantastic. A lot of these old timers must be into it! (laughs)
We did Goodbye 20th Century, that comes from a Lou Harrison quote. 'Everything must come to an end, even the 20th century.' When we did that recording, we had Christian Wolff and Takehesu Kosugi recording with us. Both those guys don't think 'Oh, we've finally come into vogue.' I don't know what they think. There's a whole generation keeping this music alive, keeping these ideas alive. Re-evaluating them, rediscovering them and redefining them in their own terms. If I was them, I would feel completely wonderful about it.
Q: They do appreciate it, from talking to them. CRI and BV Haast has been reissuing a lot of things lately.
And the listenership is not academic. It's actually broken down that wall in a way. Not that it ever necessitated being anything more than academic but it's reaching beyond those academy walls. It's fantastic.
Q: What led Sonic Youth to do a project like Goodbye 20th Century?
It was definitely a universe or world that we were aware of. Definitely charged by. A lot had to do with William Winant, the percussionist. He was Cage's percussion in his final years and he's somebody that's really involved in that world. People like Xenakis have written percussion pieces for him. He's a friend of ours and we had done things with him. I have done some improvised music with him. He mentioned it to us at one point 'it would be great if you guys, the kind of band you are, with your love of this music, would play this music and the compositions of these composers that utilize the musician for what he plays and not for any sort of any traditional instrumentalization.' The pieces are based on time notation and sounds as created by the musician's own personal quality. He thought that we would be perfect arbiters of this.
So we sat around, looking around at a lot of this music. There's Pauline Oliveros pieces, Cage pieces, Steve Reich's microphone piece, Kosugi's piece. A lot of them had to deal with graphics. We decided to do it. He said 'you can do it. Look at these notations and try it.' I had already gotten involved in playing some of it from meeting up with Jim O'Rourke. He was playing with Kosugi, doing music for Merce Cummingham. They had asked me to perform some of their music, a Cage piece and a Kosugi piece for Merce Cummingham. I did some of those concerts for Cummingham and realized 'this is fantastic. I can actually play this music and I'm not a trained, traditional musician.' I just thought that was real enlightenment for me. This music was more punk rock than any punk rock music ever was. Somebody who knew David Tudor said that the perfect people to play Cage were heavy metal musicians.
That was it. We just decided it was going to be a great project so we decided to just do it. It was true William Winant guidance on that. We got together with him and O'Rourke and Pauline Oliveros wrote a piece for us and Christian (Wolff) can in with some pieces for us. We got really interested in Fluxus composition. That music was even more so... based on the person making it more than any kind of traditionally trained practitioner. Fluxus music is really aligned with visual art and literature art so that was something we wanted to put on the record. We did a Yoko Ono composition that was just instructional. Scream at a wall. OK, great composition. What a fantastic composition. Scream at a wall, scream at the sky.
Q: A lot of possibilities there.
It was just like 'well, let's do that one.'
Q: What do you hope or think will be the effect of this CD when it comes out?
I think there's a large demographic of Sonic Youth's audience that has no real knowledge of that world of music. I think, like anything we do, it will lead people if they enjoy what they're listening to do their own research. We've always been into that. We go on tour and have more radical kind of music play on the same stage as us that wouldn't normally play on these stages and expose the audience to this music. Generally, be it electronic music or free jazz or dadaist noise.
Q: It'd be interesting to have Christian or the Deep Listening Band up there.
The audiences who will come see Sonic Youth, like an audience coming to see Pearl Jam or whatever, that kind of person who'll come see that kind of band, they'll generally hear this kind of music and it's great. It's not like a bunch of jerks onstage making noise, there's some sort of purposeful compositional quality to it. It strikes them as... something else. (laughs)
Q: What do you think might be the future of electronic music?
I really couldn't tell you. I had no idea it would have this kind of future. It's made itself completely relevant through techno music and body music. It's really in there. I think a lot of the people who were involved in the classic electronic music, be it Cage or whatever... there's so many profound ideas in their writing that's associated with their music. Certainly Cage and Stockhausen. Anybody who researches their music is going to find a lot of really open and profound ideas being discussed. I think that's the plus right there. It's not like 'oh, some guy there's made some weird electronic music' and that is that. There's much more at stake. In a way, it's not just about more people should make electronic music, it'll create a really interesting, sophisticated standard. I think it's a really healthy thing. We'll find out about it. They can play those things into anything else besides music.
Q: Do you see that electronic music has some sort of bearing outside the world of art?
Yeah, only because a lot of people who pioneered it expressed a lot of ideas that go beyond the actual music. Cage never wanted to talk about recordings of his music. He thought of those as objects or sound boards. It wasn't about the traditional aspect of... the record as the music. He was never into that. I always thought that was intriguing in a way.
Q: What do you think are some misconceptions about electronic music?
That it's all been done. A lot of people say 'it's all been done.' That's not what it's about. The success of that music is that it's really geared to the personal. Certain people can do really interesting music with electronics whereas with other people, it's really not the right expression for them. It's not like anybody can do it. Even though anybody CAN do it, not everyone can do it where it's effective and genuine. I think it is a real personal thing. That's what will always keep it interesting. One personality is there creating it and a lot of it has to do with it.
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