“Electric currents ripple thru the atmosphere. A chill shimmering, a delicate light passes thru me. I am frail, about to break, ready to suffer the winds of change. I see turrets and spires rising up, protecting the farmlands. Carpets of logic blanket the fields. Twosmall and beautiful blonde children stand at the far end of a row. They don’t know about the sky, ready to splinter blue in every direction, ready to serve this orbit, ready to seize their love. Preparing to ignite.”1
If I had to think about a rock star with perfect anti-star representation, I would have no hesitation: Lee Ranaldo. Not that the other Sonic three have that attitude, but Ranaldo looks more like an architect, he doesn’t ooze coolness like Kim Gordon and he even hasn’t the Thurstone Moore’s arrogant teenage attitude. Ranaldo is a decidedly discreet person. If you watch Sonic Youth’s live videos on youtube, you will usually see him playing on the left, next to drummer Steve Shelby, a more secluded position, the same as John Paul Jones in Led Zeppelin, leaving the stage and the audience’s attention more on the giant Thurstone Moore and on the sinuous Kim Gordon. Ranaldo looks like an old “beat”, a wise “deadhead”, even if he doesn’t show any hesitation in scrambling his instruments by inserting wooden sticks and screwdrivers between the bridge, the pickups and the strings. Or when he grabs his guitar and twirls it in the air. Or when he pushes it against the amplifiers, throwing a tornado of frequencies and crazed feedback chips that generate circles and ellipses that refer to the psychedelic mandalas of the Grateful Dead. Ranaldo is a serial experimenter, even outside the Sonic Youth, standing halfway between pure improvisation, between the perfect freedom from formal constraints and the song form. The concept of narration developed through solid and monolithic alien harmonic figures from traditional riffs and new cadences that revolutionized rock music.
Lee Ranaldo was born on February 3, 1956 in Glen Cove, a small town on the coast of Nassau, a populous and wealthy suburb of Long Island, east of New York, in a family of Italian origins.2
What could you do in the American province? Go to the cinema, try to avoid the colossal meetings of the family of Italian origins, read, listen to music. Looking for an escape route. And Ranaldo listens to the Grateful Dead3, falling in love with their long improvisations. It seems a contradiction: the Dead were for the punk revisionism the perfect representation of what could be more detestable in being hippies, with their long entangled and self-indulgent jams, their cheap Leary mysticism and the abuse of drugs, their blissful and relaxed optimism, the nomadic legions of fans who followed them throughout the United States. Ranaldo listens to them without blinders and ear flaps and while he is studying painting and printing techniques he is also passionate about the beat movement. The observations and scenes described by Kerouacs4 and companions fit perfectly with a mind already predisposed to that journey, to the journey to New York. New York. The center of the modern cultural and counter-cultural world. There were artists active in the most disparate fields, painters who formed bands, guitarists who became sculptors, it was a period of euphoria in which new art and a new aesthetic were created5. Where Ranaldo was able to nourish his taste for the experimental arts .
And then the experiences with Glenn Branca6. No wave. The Sonic Youth. The Grunge vertigo. The success. As experimentation does not stop, but feeds on the moods of New York and the cultural substratum surrounding the group
“Emotion is expression, you use it as it comes. it doesn;t always come in expected ways, at expected times or in managable form. You grab on and ride it out. so expression in music, or ‘sound’ can use similar flights of expression to play off each other and create a subtle little model of the emotional life of its creators.”7
In 1986 Ranaldo published his first solo album “From here → Infinity” composed of 13 tracks, each of them resolved in a loop caused by the screwing of the last groove on itself. In practice (in the vinyl version) you must act on the turntable’s arm to continue listening to the record (problem that does not arise with the CD edition)8. Ranaldo reduces his executive apparatus to a minimum, intervening, more than on the instrument, on controlling the values of his amplifiers and letting the sound of the primitive drawings free geometries that will then be forcibly conveyed into the spiral created by the last rotations of the disc.
This disc, despite being a monolith focused on the monotheistic cult of guitar feedback and the circular reiteration of noise, offers a wide range of chromatic modulations. We pass from the low frequency rumble of Slo Drone, to the same noise rewound in the studio and developed on the center of Ouroboron where Ranaldo lingers on the mechanisms of the “cavata” of the sound, to reach that obtained by the reproduction on vinyl and normally slowed down by a previously executed drone, as in the case of Lathe Speaks.
In 1994 he published on the Starlight Furniture Company the EP “Broken Circle / Spiral Hill” where emerges a more meditative side, more concerned with camouflaging the noise of his guitar with descriptive techniques as in Spiral Hill. The obsession with circular figures is back with the use of tape-loop in Brocken Circle, but there is a more reflective writing, it can be the result of a maturation, due to the ever wider and various incursions into other stylistic and artistic territories . It is influenced by the experiences in the world of Lo-fi recordings which at the time represented a real field of confrontation for many exponents of American independent music.
I consider these two records indispensable works. Their listening combines moments of relaxation and fun with aspects related to experimentation and a view of the sound very different from the common rock’n roll’s representation. The example of a coherent attitude and an indomitable creative spirit.
1Lee Ranaldo, Road Movies, Soft Skull Press no. 7, pag. 41
2“I grew up in a musical environment, my mother a pianist, and so there was always music and singing in my house growing up. American early 60s AM radio hits were big influences, and very early on came the Beatles which remain inspirational to this day.” http://www.sonicyouth.com/symu/lee/2011/09/09/i-view-review-corregie-2000/
3“I was way into the Dead in the 70s, and still maintain that there is a similarity in their approach to musical extrapolation, and ours (not the sound, the approach). It seemed that back then I wasn’t much interested in much of the inflated 70s arena style rock, and by the time punk hit in 77 it was with an explosive power which put all the charge back into both playing and witnessing music. It wasn’t long after that I moved to NYC to see for myself…” http://www.sonicyouth.com/symu/lee/2011/09/08/i-view-geoffrey-sparks-interview-1998/
4“I first read Kerouac at 18, directly after my first summer spent crossing the USA by car, to California and back. I immediately responded to the writing, and soon discovered Ginsburg, Corso, Diane DiPrima, WS Burroughs and other writers of that ilk. The energy of the writing, the tenderness which is often revealed, the spirituality as well as the excitement those writers expressed at living in the ‘modern age’ all spurred me on.” http://www.sonicyouth.com/symu/lee/2011/09/09/i-view-review-corregie-2000/
5“The city was a very powerful influence. When Thurston, Kim and I all came to NYC (late 70s, early 80s) the city was very hermetic, and a very powerful culture was brewing in the worlds of music and art, which interacted with each other. You had many artists working in various fields, painters forming bands, guitar players making sculptures, etc… It was a very high time when much great work was made. Many people were willing to experiment, try new things, and that was the character of the city which influenced us most. We wanted to become a part of that. In spite of the art world’s rapid notoriety, there was something very insular about that time—things happening here then did not always translate outside the heady environment of the city. Certainly no bands from that time imagined being able to make records—there were no indie’ companies back than ; Branca’s was actually among the first around in NYC, alongside 99 records.” http://www.sonicyouth.com/symu/lee/2011/09/09/i-view-review-corregie-2000/
6Glenn and I got along very well, in fact I was the only one in his early 6 piece band able to step out and almost ‘solo’—he knew that I understood where he was going with the ‘theatrical’ aspect of the music and he used me as a foil for where he wanted to push the music whilst he was conducting. I had done much playing in open tunings before meeting him, so that is not the aspect of working with him that I found ‘new’. Moreso it was the conceptual nature of the music he was doing, coupled with the dramatic effect he was trying to achieve (ie : large scale rock that had the effect of, say, Wagner symphonies or tone poems). http://www.sonicyouth.com/symu/lee/2011/09/03/i-view-sounds-of-suburbia-magazine-1995/
8The vinyl version of this work was obviously the ‘real shit’, as it embodied concepts of tape loops which were very important to me at them time (and still today). Releasing it on CD was a way to further work with the sound material, creating a more ‘playable’ version of the tracks. At the time it seemed like LP records were going to vanish from the face of the earth, and I wanted the sounds of that record to remain ! Interestingly, the process of segueing all the pieces together laid the groundwork for my subsequent solo concerts of the time (actually the early ones were duos with the assisstance of Steve Shelley also performing), which consisted of live mixing of various sound materials (on hundreds of cassettes !) to create textural beds of sound not unlike those being created now, more than a decade later, by DJs with turntables and samplers… We were there first ! http://www.sonicyouth.com/symu/lee/2011/09/03/i-view-sounds-of-suburbia-magazine-1995/