Features | Interviews

Lee Ranaldo

By Joel Elliott | 10 March 2012

As mentioned in his most recent Jericho column, Noise, Trauma, and Resistance (Pt. 2), below is the full transcript of Joel’s interview with guitarist/songwriter/visual artist/co-founder of Sonic Youth Lee Ranaldo.

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CMG’s Joel Elliott (CMG): I saw your performance of Contre Jour with Leah Singer in Toronto last October, and thought it was particularly resonant with current political unrest around the world. The presence of the drumming and urgent (but mostly unintelligible) voices seemed to alternately recall a massive rally but also something perhaps more sinister, perhaps the crackdown on protesters that’s happening in tandem with the protests? Was that intentional? What’s the relationship between that project and the Occupy movement?

Lee Ranaldo (LR): The drummers in the TO piece were directly inspired by the Occupy movement and what I’ve been able to experience of it. In particular, here in NYC, in addition to all the deep and heartfelt political thinking that was going on, there was an amazing exuberance to the daily jam sessions, which became both wild emotional release and also a time for putting some of the slogans into the context of “new” protest songs, which seemed to spring up at every session and regenerate anew at the next. It was inspiring! Spontaneous music compositions! As we were preparing for the TO performance, I had been more and more involved down at Zuccotti Park (see my website, leeranaldo.com, under “Images” for many of my photos and writings on Occupy…) and I wanted to somehow incorporate that energy into the piece, even though most of the piece was already set. We’ve long used voices and other sounds on tape as part of our performances, and I had made many recordings of the Occupy marches and chants (those are the voices you heard on the soundtrack—although there were also at points other voices, particularly poet/artist Brion Gysin—which had nothing to do with Occupy…). With about 24 hours to go before the performance, Leah and I put the word out to some friends in TO that we were looking for drummers to play along. We’ve often used additional musicians for these performances, but never so hastily arranged! In the end it worked out and I was very happy. It was a “spontaneous” part of the performance, and I was very happy that it came to be. In my mind it harnessed a little bit of the Occupy energy in the room that night.

CMG: You also mentioned incorporating some recordings from the Occupy movement for a composition you were doing at Performa ’11. Could you talk about that?

LR: Well, in the end we didn’t perform at Performa’11 (their loss!) but I was asked by Performa to create a new piece for Art Basel/Miami in December, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the fair in Miami. I incorporated some of the Occupy chants (“Whose streets? Our streets!” for one…) into the piece, and had the sixteen musicians chanting the responses to my calls during the performance. It worked out really well, and, I hope, served to keep the agenda of the movement in the air during that festive evening for rich art patrons!

CMG: At Occupy Toronto I saw a great deal of noise-filled protests but also meditation sessions and one entirely silent march. What kind of sounds have you heard at the Wall Street protests and what role do you think they have?

LR: Mostly exuberant joy in making loud crazy music with many other strangers. I didn’t see much in the way of meditation sessions in NYC, although I’m sure they happened here also. I did have a chance to walk around Occupy TO after our show and take some pictures (again, on my site) and was very inspired to see the ways in which it was both similar and different to what was taking place here in NYC.

CMG: In David Toop’s book Haunted Weather you described the experience of hearing the planes crashing into the towers on 9/11 as almost beyond description. Do you think New York as a city has been particularly traumatized by noise? How does the city affect your music these days?

LR: Well, we always said, in the early days of Sonic Youth, that the music we were making couldn’t have been made anywhere else, that we were inspired by the volume and chaos and NOISE of the city when creating our music. And that’s true. I think it’s a stretch to say New York has been traumatized by noise, but it sure is a noisy place\—sometimes I find it inspiring and these days I sometimes find it a bit overwhelming at times too, the volume level is always on high, people screaming in the streets at all hours, sirens wailing in the night, crazy people on the corner, etc. The noise on 9/11 was wholly different, not a natural part of the sounds of the city, something ferocious and alien, sounds I’d never heard before and have never heard since…

CMG: You’ve said before that you prefer to see “noise” not as a genre of music but as one element among many in a composition? Could you elaborate on that?

LR: Noise is a derogatory term. How one differentiates “noise” from “music” reflects more on that person’s world-view than it does on those ideas and how they differ. Music is sound, on the most basic level. If one judges ‘music’ to mean only harmonic, consonant sounds, well, so be it. But it’s a limited view. Music is open to ALL sound—-organized sound of any sort, be it oboes or car horns, flutes or construction machines. It can all be music if your mind and ears are open to it.

CMG: Do you think extreme noise music has run its course? What can noise artists do now to be subversive? Or is that even a worthwhile goal anymore?

LR: It does sometimes seem, as with punk before it, that the shock of extreme noise has run its course. It’s become an accepted “genre,” when it was once an extreme action. So in some ways it’s become as codified as all the musical genres before it. When many bands started wearing bondage trousers and playing rude 3-chord rock, years after the Ramones and the Pistols, you knew punk had become a “style” and not a movement. [It’s the] same with noise music as many have adopted oscillators or harsh FX pedals etc. This is not to say that there cannot be value in individual performances, or in some artists’ work, but the initial amazement of an emerging movement may, yes, be gone…

I’ve never really been interested in the question of what one could do to be subversive. The question has always been more along the lines of what can one do to make interesting, moving, heartfelt work. That’s the true goal.

CMG: How did your current solo project come about? Do you go through periods where you feel more attuned to pop music as opposed to experimental/avant-garde work or are you always working in both streams?

LR: Yes, I go back and forth, and consider myself lucky enough to be able to swing back and forth between these areas. I feel I’ve done so much incredible work these last few years—large scale performance pieces with Leah featuring my “suspended guitar phenomena,” Text of Light shows and shows with another trio called Glacial, lots of art shows, etc… But one thing I missed, in Sonic Youth’s downtime, was playing songs, with a band. That energy and experience. And out of that, somehow, the songs began to pop out. Right now they are foremost in my mind. I’m kind of amazed that I’ve made a record like this, very pleased, yet amazed that it came out as well as it did. Since the record was made the songwriting hasn’t stopped, I’ve many new songs in progress. So this is certainly my focus at the moment. It’s funny, I’d been thinking about the fact of not wanting to repeat myself, and especially in the area of improvised performances, not wanting to go out and do the same kinds of shows over and over again, and I guess in some ways I was looking for something else to come along, something to define a new period. But this sort of songwriting kind of snuck up on me from behind, and provided me with that answer, from a direction I certainly wasn’t expecting it to come from…

CMG: You’ve improvised over experimental films with the Text of Light group, as well as with Leah Singer’s work. How do you approach improvising over a pre-arranged sequence of images? Especially with filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, whose work was always initially silent?

LR: I’m in love with the idea of images and music happening at the same time. I love to perform in that environment, and I love to witness such performances. I find it highly stimulating to juxtapose various art forms in one space, to allow the viewer(s) to make the connections that they find, to ask them to complete the image and connect the dots as they see fit. It leads to a kind of poetry, if you will, an environment where happenstance can sometimes lead to beautiful things that could not be pre-planned.