Lee Ranaldo: Still Sonic
   2014-03-20 14:15:51    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Luo Chun

Lee Ranaldo demonstrates alternative guitar-playing techniques at a discussion held at Beijing's Ullens Center for the Contemporary Arts. Photo taken March 16, 2014. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/William Wang]

By William Wang

The Jue Music and Arts Festival has consistently pulled in impressive musical acts, popularizing the super fresh while also acknowledging the past. And then of course, there are artists who fit both bills.

Lee Ranaldo is famed for his work with the critically acclaimed noise rock band Sonic Youth. Pitchfork Media hailed their album Daydream Nation as the #1 album of the 80s and Spin magazine staff identified Ranaldo as the #1 guitarist of all time, alongside bandmate Thurston Moore. However, he also maintains a strong presence as an artist in the broadest sense of the word.

"Mostly, people just know that I'm on stage with Sonic Youth and a rock band, or with my band The Dust," Ranaldo confirmed, "but in the background, all of these other things have been going on for quite a long time. Talking about art, making visual art, writing poems, and things like that. A lot of these things have been a part of my life even though they're not so outward."

"The Artistic World of Lee Ranaldo", title of a presentation he gave at Beijing's Ullens Center for the Contemporary Arts last Saturday, gave him the latitude to ramble over topics ranging from his own art projects, to commentary on how a guitar can resonate when hung from a rope, to anecdotes from his years with Sonic Youth.

From the earliest days of the band, all the members had a strong interest in pushing sonic boundaries, exploring noise and feedback. "When Sonic Youth started, from the outside [of New York], what we were doing seemed so weird." Ranaldo recalled. "But in New York people didn't think it was that weird. It was just a young group of artists trying something to see what would happen. Our intention wasn't like, 'Let's do the weirdest thing we can,' as much as it was, 'Let's do something that sounds interesting to us. What would be interesting given what we know, given the art and music around us.'

Ranaldo reflected on how the line between musician and artist were particularly blurred in 1970s New York. "At that time if you moved to New York and you were just an aspiring kid, it was very hard to get your movie made or to get your paintings shown in a gallery, but it was pretty easy to get a gig in a club. And so various people just started taking the ideas they'd learned in school and applying them to music."

Ranaldo never would have thought that this concept could bring his band the levels of acclaim they have achieved. "How Sonic Youth managed to have a 30-year career like that, it's impossible to predict or to have planned it. It just happened. In part, it's because we kept our focus on making interesting music. We didn't get overwhelmed by ideas of fame or success or money."

Since Sonic Youth went on hiatus in 2011, Ranaldo has kept himself occupied with recording solo, his new band The Dust, performing experimental guitar shows, in addition to continuing his visual art work. But his drawings or sculptures are also susceptible to influence by his music or touring experiences.

The highlight of his presentation was his guitar demonstration. A row of digital and analogue pedals amassed at his feet, before he picked up a battered Fender guitar and started tapping its neck with the heel of his hand, coaxing out a quavering hum. He'd jam a stick under the strings, twisting the tuners into unrecognizable chords. He attacked the strings with a violin bow before eventually raising the guitar over his head, using it to sweep huge arcs against the plaster wall. The Marshall Amp bawled out corresponding whoops of sound. He scraped his guitar against the brick wall, and dragged it around the floor for good measure.

One member of the audience couldn't help but ask how he could abuse his instrument so. "Most people are very precious with their instruments," Ranaldo grinned, "but the way that I use instruments, I consider the guitar a tool. If you're a carpenter, your hammer is your tool. You don't cry if you drop your hammer; you pick it up and keep working with it."

A case in point would be Sonic Youth's performance of George Manciunis' Piano Piece #13. A member of the Fluxus art movement, Manciunis had basically written out the instructions to nail down all the keys of a piano until the piano stopped making noise. Sonic Youth was fascinated by the idea, and so they performed and filmed it in their New York studio, later performing the piece a number of times on a European tour.

If anyone was unclear of this fact, Ranaldo and Sonic Youth had long been informed of the cultural reference points of art. "We were trained in the principles of modern art, in 20th century cultural practices of all different sorts. We weren't kids coming out of a garage like bands from the 50s and 60s. We were trying to transform these modern ideas of cultural theory and visual art theory into music." When he talks, he can't help but mention the who's who of artists and friends that have influenced him over the years: Beat authors Ginsberg and Burroughs, painter Gerhard Richter, musicians Sun Ra, Coltrane and Steve Reich.

Ranaldo realized that a few reference points would be lost on Chinese audiences, but for him, that was part of the excitement of being here. "Because China is still a little bit more isolated from things happening in the west, it's still possible to have a fresh element of surprise in some of what we're doing. It's surprising wherever we do it, but this is a kind of performance art that's even more surprising here. It's great, to come to people who are completely unexpecting of what you're going to do."

The night before, Ranaldo did an improvised performance with artist Leah Singer (his wife) and four local musicians (including former Carsick Cars drummer Li Qing). "It gives it a different flavor to interact with local musicians," he observed. "It's really an event. It's not like you presenting your songs."

Ranaldo's tour of Beijing and Shanghai touched on several themes central to the guitarist. He created never-before-heard songs with local artists, showcased his art to new audiences, and even played songs at a school for the children of migrant workers. On this second trip to China, he was already thinking of returning for a longer stay with his children in tow. "It's one of the great privileges of life to be able to meet people from different cultures unlike your own," he remarked, "and to be able to exchange ideas: to have ideas in your own head altered by another perspective on it".


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