What Happens after the Primal Burn? Dissonance in Sonic Youth's Middle Period

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David James Heetderks


Sonic Youth had their origin in the late 1970s and early 1980s No Wave movement, which reduced rock to minimal gestures and explored extremes of noise. In the mid-1980s, their style changed as they began to incorporate guitar parts that were reminiscent of 1970s hard rock. But their experimental tendencies persisted through this change, since they overlaid the parts in ways that created subtle incongruity and tweaked hard-rock stylistic features in order to create jarring dissonance or tonal conflict. Sonic Youth's strategies for twisting hard-rock norms into clashing harmonies often follow one of two recurring types. The first, tonic divergence, occurs when separate lines have phase-mismatched tonic harmonies. The second, intervallic dissonance, occurs when instrumental lines are arranged in order to highlight harshly dissonant intervals or chromatic clusters. In many songs, their dissonant counterpoint works in tandem with their characteristic noisy guitar timbres, often by occurring in alternation and forcing listeners to continually re-evaluate how they perceive a song as a standard rock track. The analyses show how the band continued to experiment within popular style, and they define types of dissonance that influenced 1980-1990s guitar-based indie rock.

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