“In the few hours right before the storm hit I was in my apartment and there was all this crazy sound going on outside,” says Lee Ranaldo. “As the winds got stronger, before the real height of the storm, I kept listening and it sounded like music outside. It sounded like all these weird strings or voices, just all these different tones going on outside the window. They were sometimes very dissonant and sometimes very melodic.”
Such are the origins of Hurricane Transcriptions – the fascinating orchestral piece which former Sonic Youth guitarist Ranaldo will perform at Sydney Festival. Utilising the talents of Sydney’s 15-piece Ensemble Offspring, the show will re-enact the symphony perceived by Ranaldo when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in late 2012. It’s not exactly an abstract reimagining of these sounds, as Ranaldo explains: “I got all my rain gear on and went out with my handheld recorder. I was over by the western edge of Manhattan and the river was starting to spill onto the highway. It was just starting to get to the real serious point where flooding was going to start. I recorded a bunch of sound and came home and transcribed the notes onto a piano.”
It shouldn’t come as a major surprise that Sonic Youth’s innovative axeman is bringing an avant-garde orchestral piece to town. Dating right back to his 1987 solo debut From Here To Infinity, Ranaldo’s extracurricular activities during Sonic Youth’s 30-year career were generally freeform instrumental experiments. He says Hurricane Transcriptions won’t be purely an imitation of nature. “As this piece developed I was also developing all these songs. I wanted to incorporate some of these songs and get the ensemble to try to deal with both sides of the coin, the kind of abstract music they’re more used to playing and then some songs as well.”
Ranaldo certainly hasn’t faced any songwriting difficulties in recent years. In October he dropped Last Night On Earth, his second solo LP since Sonic Youth’s abrupt split in 2011 (the first being last year’s Between The Times And The Tides). These two records differ from all of Ranaldo’s previous solo outings by employing conventional song structures and vocal melodies. Ranaldo explains how his solo renaissance developed.
“There was a point there, before we got started on that [Between The Times] record, where Sonic Youth wasn’t working a lot. We were still very much a band at that point – before all the stuff between Thurston [Moore] and Kim [Gordon] even was revealed to Steve [Shelley] and I – we were just in a downtime period.
“I started writing these songs and it just grew from one thing to the next. As it turned out, with what was going on with those guys, it was a great time for me to get a record done because it allowed me to have this project to plug right into when Sonic Youth shut down.”
Last Night On Earth largely takes its cues from the sprawling guitar escapades of the Grateful Dead, while Between The Times And The Tides is the most intimate collection of songs Ranaldo has ever released. It’s not exactly an earnest confessional, but Ranaldo did leave out the clamour of electricity that dominated the majority of his previous output. “I wanted to make a very personal record in line with the kind of records that I hear from singer-songwriters that I like, whether it’s older ones like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young or Leonard Cohen to more recent people like Cat Power, Bill Callahan or Will Oldham.”
Ranaldo’s turn inward on that record reflected the lone manner of construction, which was a major shift from Sonic Youth’s collaborative method. “Sonic Youth was in many ways the most democratic of bands, in terms of everyone’s input being recognised and everyone contributing to the songwriting and the shape of the songs. [On] a solo record, I’m much more in the director’s seat with this stuff, calling the shots or [saying] ‘I like this,’ or ‘I don’t like that.’”
Ranaldo was the sole conductor of Between The Times, but his highly capable backing band The Dust joined him for Last Night On Earth. The Dust comprises Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums, along with guitarist Alan Licht and bass player Tim Lüntzel, and Ranaldo acknowledges it as a unified band project.
“When the time came to record [Last Night On Earth], I definitely felt like I was bringing the songs to a working band. We spent a lot of time arranging them for the band, just by playing them a lot in the studio. The first record I sketched out and I did the basic tracks and then brought all these different players in to play on top of it. This record we started from the ground up.”
For the best part of three decades Sonic Youth defied genre labels and existed in their own ever-evolving category. However, rather than feeling pressure to stamp into new territory, Ranaldo’s current solo work gathers inspiration from the past. Even Hurricane Transcriptions, his latest venture, has fairly humble origins – and Ranaldo admits he’s taking a Zen approach to songwriting these days.
“I’ve been letting it flow wherever it wants to go and not worrying about what genre it is, or if it’s a slow song or a simple song or a really complicated song. I’ve been just letting them develop as they would.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY
Lee Ranaldo will perform Hurricane Transcriptions alongside Mike Patton’s Laborintus II at City Recital Hall Angel Place for Sydney Festival on Thursday January 16. Last Night On Earth is out now through Matador/Remote Control.