51: Lee Ranaldo

Lee Ranaldo photograph (c) A F Cortes

Recorded: November 2 2018
Place: Midtown, New York – Walking Performance
Interview: January 29 2020, Lucky Strike, New York City

Everybody calls 4’33” the ‘silent piece’, but obviously that’s not what it’s about. Cage famously said that music to him was like opening the window and just listening to the sounds coming in. 4’33” was radical when it happened. Nobody understood it. But he was trying to say that whatever sounds you hear can be music. And in a way his music went further and further toward that aspect. You’d go to these concerts where somebody would be scratching a feather on a rock or something like that.

In 1999, Sonic Youth made a record called Goodbye 20th Century and we recorded two Cage pieces for that – Six from 1991 and Four6 from 1992. We got deeper and deeper into Cage’s music at that point, but even by then I knew that 4’33” piece was about environmental listening, so I wanted to use the environment of New York City in my performance. I went back and did so much research on the composition and the score before I went out and did it. I wanted to make sure that I was faithful to the score, with its three specific movements lasting certain amounts of time, because the score is all there is in a piece like that. If you’re not following the score, you’re making it up, in a way.

Sonic Youth – Goodbye 20th Century (SYR, 1999)

I recorded my performance in the rain, in Midtown Manhattan on a good little handheld tape recorder. I knew I wanted to use Midtown Manhattan traffic sounds. It just so happened that we were in Midtown one evening, and there was a lot of interesting sound around me.

I met Cage a couple of times. It was a big thrill. He was always around in New York in the early period of Sonic Youth. We’d see him at concerts all the time – dance concerts, or Merce Cunningham events or things like that. He lived in the East Village with Merce, and so he was readily accessible at that time, even though he was this towering figure. I remember when I first moved to New York, I’d occasionally be at a concert, and Cage would be in the audience, and that would be so amazing that this guy with this big grey beard was sat right behind me. To me that was unbelievable.

He was a very jovial, playful person. I love people like that where life is a big laugh to them, and yet they’re super significant and doing all this heavy work. That’s kind of amazing to me.

In my early days in New York, I played with Glenn Branca. There was a famous incident at this festival called New Music America. In ’82, it was in Chicago, and Cage was the festival’s emeritus that year – he performed and presented his work, and he was like a figurehead for the whole thing. Glenn’s ensemble played, which at this point was an orchestra, and Thurston Moore and I were part of it.

Chicago 82 – A Dip In The Lake (Les Disques Du Crepuscule, 1983). The cassette features an extract from Branca’s ‘Symphony No. 2’ with Ranaldo, and ‘So That Each Person Is In Charge Of Himself’, the interview with John Cage where he refers to Branca’s style as akin to fascism.

Cage hated Glenn’s performance. He called it narcissistic, because Glenn was at the front of an ensemble directing. This was everything Cage did not want out of music – the idea of the composer as Godhead. The next day, Cage gave this interview where he called Glenn’s music fascistic and it created this whole crazy contretemps about the festival, with Glenn having to answer all these questions and getting into this fight with Cage which lasted years. It was really crazy. At the time, and at that point in his life, John could not countenance music that was that specifically composed, where the composer was asking players to play under their will. Glenn was a wilful composer, like Toscanini or someone like that. So that was a really interesting moment.

LEE RANALDO by alex rademakers 001
Lee Ranaldo photograph (c) Alex Rademakers

Where do you go when you want silence?

I think we all need silence once in a while. For someone like me who plays a lot of very loud, raucous music, the idea of silence is very important.

The times when I experience silence the most are right before falling asleep and right after waking up. My most silent experiences happen in my bed, at the end of the day and at the beginning of the day.

I’ve had a couple of experiences in anechoic chambers. I was at the one at IRCAM in France a couple of different times, and you realise that even in the most silent environment possible, it’s not really silent. You’re either hearing your blood rushing through your ears, or your stomach gurgling. Maybe when you’re a young person, up to the age of 20 perhaps, you can really experience absolute silence, but I don’t think with older ears that it’s really possible.

In an anechoic chamber, you can literally hear the blood rushing through your ears. You hear all these different pitches. I remember hearing quite a low rumble and some quite high-pitched sounds, but I distinctly remember feeling like I could hear the blood rushing through the little capillaries in my ears for some reason. That’s how it appeared to me. It was almost like the whooshing sound when you put a seashell up to your ears.

I went into the anechoic chamber at IRCAM in Paris with a French artist. He wanted to record me in there while I was thinking about playing the guitar. It was a high concept. I remember we were recording and I could hear my stomach gurgling. It sounded so crazy loud. I was the only one in the room, but there were microphones everywhere and I guess it wasn’t just me hearing it. It was really loud! It was completely silent and then, every once in a while, we’d hear something going on in my stomach.

So the most silent moments for me, like I said, are when I’m in bed at night. We live in New York. It’s a noisy city so there’s always fucking noise outside the windows coming in, but every once in a while it is silent, and at the end of the day when your neighbour upstairs isn’t dancing on your ceiling or whatever the fuck it is, there are moments of silence. They’re rare and they’re very important.

I have meditated. If you’re doing zen meditation like John did, you’re not supposed to follow your thoughts. You’re just supposed to go, “Oh that girl looks pretty and I wonder what she’s doing tonight?” and then you’re supposed to bring it back to your breath. It’s super hard to do.

When I was in college, I studied with a guy that was a Buddhist and a philosopher. He was a philosophy teacher at the school but he’d give these extra classes at his house in the woods, and he taught us how to meditate. You’d start with a minute or two and then you’d build up to half an hour or forty-five minutes, and I learned how to do it, but it’s really hard to clear your mind. My mind is always racing from one thing to another. I return to it every once in a while, and I think it’s an amazing thing to try and do, but it’s very, very hard.

I’m a cyclist, so I’m out on my bike a lot. I cycle along the Hudson River where there’s a path completely clear of cars. You can go ten miles in each direction and it’s relatively calm. I always talk about my cycling as meditation because if I’m not riding with someone else, it’s just me. I mean, sometimes I’m thinking about stuff – song lyrics I’m working on or whatever – but sometimes your mind shuts off and you’re just making sure you stay on the road. In way that’s my meditation these days.

Interview: Mat Smith


Clash interview: Lee Ranaldo & Raül Refree – Names Of North End Women (2020)
Sonic Youth – Hits Are For Squares (review)

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

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