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Moving Meter Like a Flickering Flame: Changing, Symmetrical & Asymmetrical Simple Meter in Sonic Youth's "Candle"

Some 10/4 and 9/4 measures in a song from an iconic album.

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Sonic Youth is one of my favorite bands, but I'd be lying if I said I had listened to them a great deal over the last few years. Even so, they are present in everything else I listen to, it seems. That's what influence does. In essence, they invented alternative rock and have influenced guitarists who yet to be born.

A band that is loved by a lot of academics as well, this song is even more interesting to examine from a cross-disciplinary lens. The painting on the front of the band's seminal album, Daydream Nation, is a photorealistic one of a single candle. It is the work of Gerhard Richter, a German painter known best for his photorealism. Although the title of the album is only an utterance on the track "Trilogy B) Hyperstation", the song "Candle" almost serves as more of a title track because of the album art. Influenced in part by founding member Kim Gordon being an art school grad (and still an active visual artist), Sonic Youth partnered with many notable visual artists for their album art, including American artist Raymond Pettibon, who created the artwork for the band's follow-up to Daydream Nation, 1990's Goo

Intro: Massively influential, Sonic Youth may very well be the first genuine alternative rock band, fusing influences of punk rock, avant-garde, high art, exploring the possibilities of the guitar through alternative tunings and various other techniques, and playing decidedly non-blues based rock music. The band put out 15 albums during a span of 1980-2009 before taking an indefinite hiatus in 2011. "Candle" appears on and matches the image on the front of the band's most significant release, 1988's Daydream Nation. The album is listed on the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.

Analysis: The interesting meter happenings in this song all occur within the first minute, which is all guitar intro. The main riff begins in 4/4, and shifts into what could be interpreted as 10/4 for a measure (found at :20 in the linked video recording). After returning to basic 4/4, the riff shifts into 9/4 (with groupings of 1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8-9) time for four measures as the drums enter (starting at :46 in the recording, ending at 1:01 with a signifying cymbal crash). The remainder of the song is heard in 4/4 time. In addition to the changing meter in the intro, the guitar tuning heard here is extremely non-standard. According to the band's official website, the two guitars played on this song by Thurston Moore & Lee Ranaldo are tuned to A C C G G# C and A A E E A A respectively. 

Considerations for Teaching: It is possible to interpret that this song is about drugs, especially on an album infamous for its portrayal of urban dread. The lyric about "crystal-crackin" supports this assumption, as does the line about a girl who will "be okay by Sunday". However, most of the other lyrics of the song are incredibly open to interpretation and if the song is indeed about drugs, it's extremely vague description of drug use presents such in a negative fashion, referencing the temporary nature and the burning out of a candle. If you would rather not open up such interpretation to students, it's okay to just play the guitar intro, which will get across the concept of changing & asymmetrical meter. 

You can also find a veritable treasure trove of alternative tunings used through the band's entire discography here. (And I know for a fact this did NOT exist in 2006 when I was working on my undergrad thesis!)

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